Down and Out in England and Italy

Alberto Prunetti (trans. Elena Pala)


We the cooks of the United Kingdom solemnly swear before Her Majesty the Queen to fight the infamous pathogenic bacteria, given to all manner of viciousness and capable of inducing the most grievous bouts of nausea and vomiting. We will deny Clostridium perfringens access to the British soil — that ghastly, degenerate agitator that creeps into restaurants and can count on the logistical support of botulinum. The fearsome Staphylococcus aureus — devious bowel terrorist — will be pushed back across the Channel, together with the so-called European Bacillus cereus, which causes abdominal pain and spasms as well as nefarious bouts of bloating. As loyal subjects of the Crown, we swear this oath on our rolling pins and vow to eradicate E. coli and Campylobacter from every plate — migrant bacteria that infiltrate the body of unwitting British ingesters and, after a four-day incubation period, produce tragic effects, thus jeopardising the reputation of Great British kitchens. 

God Save the Queen. Having spoken these words, I’d never felt more British. 

With this oath, my training course came to an end. The five- hour seminar had earned me the ‘Food and Health Certificate’, a prestigious academic qualification that is bestowed by law upon any hospitality worker who is required to handle or serve food in the UK, from skivvies to maître d’s. 

Those were dark times. The barometer forecast imminent storms. Distrust and poverty were on the rise, as were xenophobia and general gloom. The winds of resentment blew, scattering about victim mentality, imperial nostalgia, and terror-related anxiety like empty cans on the streets. Great British Kitchens up and down the Kingdom were preparing for a fight to the death. I, too, was ready to jump into the fray, but our ranks were made up of not-so-patriotic crackpots. A wandering pleb, I had joined the SKANK (Stonebridge Kitchen Assistant Nasty Kommittee), the most disreputable gang of rogue cooks you’d ever had the pleasure of coming across. Congratulations — we’d tell our employers to their faces — you’re paying minimum wage for the finest bunch of ruffians ever to dish out slop in school canteens on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, second of her name. 

Aside from your humble narrator, others you’d find ladling out fodder included a violent hooligan and a fence, supported by a car thief who got arrested with his apron still on. All aged between twenty and thirty, all sturdy British working- class offspring with no prospects, pin-balling between social services and unemployment benefits. Then there was Gerald, my favourite, who together with me (a working-class university graduate fleeing zero-hour contracts in Italy) made up the ‘learned’ part of the gang. 

Gerald was a seventy-year-old former radio actor who worshipped Shakespeare. After a brain injury he’d started working in school kitchens, where he enjoyed frightening pupils. To do this, he used a carefully refined theatrical technique: as he served starchy, cement-like potato soup, ladle in hand, he’d reply to the inevitable ‘thank yous’ from well- behaved pupils with a ‘pleasure, my pleeeeasuuuure’ in an ogre’s voice, while drops of sweat ran off his thick brows and plopped into the trays of hot goop, producing circular waves. He stank like an old goat and wore the same T-shirt for months, adorned with crusty sweat rings and embellished with oil stains and Bolognaise blotches like a Holy Shroud. 

It’s him I find myself thinking of from time to time: greetings to you, Gerald, great artist, who knew Hamlet by heart, sang Rossini, and upset adults and children with glee. What a team we were. Experts in all culinary arts, we distinguished ourselves through our unauthorised absences, misconduct, and incompetence, and did ourselves proud in our lack of application too. Some of us favoured theft, but we all excelled at fighting and serious damage to company property. As for our brand image, we were poster boys for dishonesty and intoxication by means of drink, and in terms of public relations, clients and suppliers could always count on our violent, dangerous, and intimidating conduct. 

What a crew, what a pack of reprobates! Scoundrels of the world, unite! Ross, Ian, Gerald, Tim, and Fatty Boy. And Silver too, the smuggler cook. Ahoy! And then came Rodrigo, the hyperactive British-Ecuadorian pizza chef ’s assistant, and Brian, the toilet cleaner from Bristol — an esteemed mentor in the art of unclogging blocked crappers with his bare hands. 
Such was the cast of outsized characters amongst whom I found myself in my glorious journey through the UK. All were working-class heroes with whom I played football, leafed through borderline pornographic tabloids, and cleaned bogs between one sacking and the next, pursued by inner demons and The Sun’s Euro-bashing headlines as I tried to make an honest living as a humble servant of the Crown. 

I swore an oath. God Save the Queen. 

And those who enter the Kingdom shall keep the toilets clean. 

Down and Out in England and Italy Alberto Prunetti (tr. Elena Pala)