Counter Culture by Candacy A. Taylor

2009. Cornell University Press. 142 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation from: Nan of Letters from a Hill Farm

In a nutshell:

From Taylor’s introduction to her book: “This book is not a scholarly study, a memoir, or a historical account of waitressing. And even though there are photographs throughout the book, it’s more than a coffee-table book of a pop culture icon. It combines interview excerpts, cultural criticism, photography, and oral history to recognize an overlooked group of working women who have brought meaning and culture to the American roadside dining experience.” (p. 4)

Review:

I have never been a waitress, choosing retail work for my summer jobs instead. I got to know a number of waitresses though, as I spent three summers living in a women’s hostel in a New England tourist town. Although retail yielded its own tales of customers-gone-bad and cranky management, waitresses generally seemed to have it worse. I admired waitresses mostly for what they had to put up with.

Candacy A. Taylor’s book, Counter Culture, focuses more on the incredible skill and sense of service of career waitresses. Almost of all the women she quotes or profiles in the book have been working for decades as diner waitresses, some for forty to sixty years. They have plenty of anecdotes to share and an obvious pride in their work.

One chapter of the book is called “The Waitressing Stigma,” where Taylor explores the historical and current stereotypes of waitresses. Some waitresses didn’t tell their family where they worked; one waitress’ mother thought that waitresses were “trashy people and alcoholics.” People assume waitresses use their sexuality to get tips. Customers also assume waitresses are stupid as demonstrated in this anecdote:

At the Seville Diner, a customer told Sammi DeAngelis, “You’re just doing this because you are not smart enough to do anything else.” Sammi said, “Excuse me? I have a degree, I could be teaching. I’ve done public relations and business management . . . . I tell you what, if you can do my job for an hour, this money is yours.” After an hour, the customer said, “I’ve been watching you and you know that last table was really a handful. Maybe I couldn’t do your job.” Sammi said, ‘Really? What part of it didn’t you get: the public relations, the psychology, the physical?’ I wasn’t nasty, but she respected my honesty. Now she’s one of my regular customers, she likes to sit with me so she can watch me work.”

p. 81

The photographs in the book are great, because there is so much character and life apparent in the faces of the career waitresses and their ‘regulars.’

I was disappointed in the career waitresses’ nearly uniform dismissal of the younger generation of waitresses. The older waitresses complain about the younger generation’s lack of heart for the work, lack of discipline and care. They tell anecdotes about they went into work with a broken toe, a foot cut by a weed-whacker, and other ailments, and how they rarely if ever take sick days. It’s a little too much of the “when I went to school, I walked 10 miles in the snow . . .” type rhetoric for me. I am at the very beginning of the Millennial Generation, depending on how its defined, and I know there are hard-workers and entitled, lazy persons of every generation. Taylor does note that truth, but it still didn’t stop me from feeling some annoyance at the career waitresses’ categorical dismissal of the younger set.

That annoyance aside, this was a thoughtful and interesting book and made me wish I was a ‘regular’ at a place with one of these career waitresses.

Others’ reviews:

Citizen Reader – “Although I’m just glad it was published by someone (in this case, the Cornell University Press), this is the sort of book that should be published by a mainstream trade publisher, and which should become a bestseller. If there were any justice in the world, anyway, that’s the way it would be.”

Letters from a Hill Farm – “It is informative, fascinating, warm-hearted, and entertaining. I’ve never read anything like it.”

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2 Comments

Filed under Non-Fiction

2 responses to “Counter Culture by Candacy A. Taylor

  1. This looks like a wonderful book, Christy! Thanks for reviewing it! I am adding it to my ‘TBR’ list. It is sad in one way that it is published by a university press and not by a mainstream publisher (though I love university presses), because if it was published by a mainstream publisher, it would reach more readers. Have you read ‘Waiter Rant’ by Steve Dublanica? It tells the story from a waiter’s perspective, and is quite interesting.

    • Yes, I’ve heard of “Waiter Rant” as well as another book that Dublanica wrote (something about tipping). It’s somewhere on my long to-read list!

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