Where American Culture Happens

We are a nation that loves to eat out – more so than Europe, Asia, Africa, or Latin America. 50% of Americans eat out once a week. Half of our caloric intake comes from the away-from-home market – which includes all the carry-out, the stopping for a bagel on the way to work, and bringing a pizza home for dinner. Still, sitting down to share a meal in a restaurant is such a prevalent way for us to eat – for routine meals, and, especially, for the significant get-togethers in life.

Restaurants are where American culture happens. Restaurant workers thus end up sharing with us some of our most important moments. There are no statistics on how many marriage proposals happen in restaurants – but I think every one of us would guess: a lot. My colleague neighbor, Rev. Peggy Clarke, who serves the UU congregation in Hastings, was among the thousands (if not millions) who have made or received a marriage proposal in a restaurant. The proposal did come as a surprise, and tears started running down her face. As Rev. Clarke relates:
“Just then the waitress came over and I turned to her and said ‘We’re getting married.’ She wished us an enthusiastic congratulations. She was the first to know. We actually kept it secret from our families for a few days because I wanted to just sit with it before the big Italian and Jewish family wedding machine started running. But the waitress knew. We barely ate a thing, but she brought over cake as a gift and several other women on the wait staff came over to off their best wishes. They did a great job of making us feel like something big was happening and they seemed tickled to have been part of this moment -- even if we were total strangers.”
These facilitators of our special moments often love what they do. Some of them speak of hospitality as in their DNA. Jayaraman gives an example:
“Restaurant workers are trained to sell hospitality and show people a good time. Serving became a rehearsed lifestyle for Thomas – so he was selling even when off the clock. ‘When you’re a bartender or a waiter, you sell yourself eight hours a day,’ says Thomas, ‘and then you find yourself doing it to your mailman. You do it naturally. You enjoy it.”
They don’t all love the work – yet the nature of working for tips is that they better pretend to if they don’t.

Even when the work feels meaningful and real – it is often exploited. For many, it’s a just a drudgery, or worse.
“Too many of our meals are now brought to the table by the misery of others.”
The misery and unfairness in the restaurant industry is all the more tragic because it could be so easily fixed.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Behind the Kitchen Door"
Next: Part 3: "Restaurant Injustice"
Previous: Part 1: "Ethical Eating . . . Out"

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