BRAINFOOD: Waiting for equality

I don't know a great many prominent hostesses who feel compelled to call in the caterers, but are you not intrigued to know why men are preferable?
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The Independent Culture
As you know, in the home of the brave and the land of the free, it's been some time since we had waiters and waitresses: we have waitpersons and God is of an indeterminate gender. This great linguistic achievement, which no doubt makes everyone feel exceedingly good, turns out not to be enough. At least it's not enough for the American Civil Liberties Union (of which, until it was radicalised, I was a local chairman), and Ms Jessica Weigmann. On her behalf, the ACLU is suing a Manhattan private catering company, Glorious Foods, Inc. Again, you will have to understand, here, that in Manhattan the upper crust no longer cooks; it has designer kitchens, but they are largely for the production of a hurried breakfast. This sort of New Yorker either eats out or, when it entertains, sends for the likes of Glorious Foods. Ms Weigmann is, the suit alleges, distressed because she is excluded from private waitressing jobs because party-givers prefer male waiters - what the Times calls a "butler culture".

Among the vital, pressing issues of the day, this isn't. That is, the world as we know it is going to survive whether New York's glitzy parties are handled by men or by women. But Ms Weigmann turns out to be one of those American women who, as they assault the ranks of fire-fighters and all-male military academies, thinks this is wrong, and, underlying her suit, is a clear motive: tips at such parties are substantial, so she has an economic incentive to be given equal access.

Just how the law is going to tell the high-flying hostesses of Manhattan that they must have waitresses as well as waiters, and enforce this equality, is not evident in the suit. But to Ms Weigmann, the matter rankles. It took her some time to realise she was being discriminated against, for, as she says, "it's not something they tell you", but, she now alleges, such discrimination is an intrinsic part of the pattern of Manhattan high- life.

You may have strong feelings on the subject yourself, though I don't personally know a great many prominent hostesses who feel compelled to call in the caterers, but are you not intrigued to know why men are preferable? Clark Wolf, who is described as a "leading restaurant consultant" (another unexamined part of American life is the inability of people to make up their own minds, hence the proliferation of "consultants"), is quoted as follows: "Men are considered more appropriately decorative, and I won't even focus on the racial aspect. The quintessential professional urban caterer-waiter is tall, dark-haired and good-looking." In short, he's an actor, "resting", a model, or, I suppose, a toy-boy - for I can't for the life of me see what looks have to do with a capacity for waiting on table.

And what does "appropriately decorative" mean? Certainly, in the bad old days of the Marquis de Sade, lackeys, in wigs and gold-leaf, were, like valets, chosen for their decorative talents: and their potential admission to the bed-chamber. Is this the case in New York?

But there is a casus belli involved here. When Hillary Rodham Clinton was a guest of honour at a recent small luncheon, male waiters only were assigned. Forget the fact that waiting on the First Lady need not be considered a privilege (at least not by men), who thought that an all-male staff would please this great champion of women's rights? Ms Weigmann was excluded from that one, as she was from a party given by the Crystal Cruise Lines, for which party the women were assigned duties as bathroom attendants.

Ms Weigmann herself is an "artist", which is distinct from being an "artiste"; waiting is, for her, a spare-time occupation, for when not waiting, she is an assistant at Women Make Movies, from which one may surmise that she is a professional woman rather than merely a professional woman.

My own views are various. I start with the notion that caterers are superfluous, expensive and not likely to be very good (most of them bring their food in vans); that waiting on table is a strenuous occupation; and that if a waiter (male) starts an evening out looking decorative and does his job, he will end it looking anything but. I conclude, therefore, that the suit is frivolous, for it is clear that what the hostesses (or hosts with their lady guests in mind) are ordering up from Glorious Food is not waitpersons but Hunks.

The best waiters I know, discreet, middle-aged, sorrowful-looking men, are not hunks. By and large, with the exception of a few bibulous types, they look like they go home at one in the morning dreading She Who Must be Obeyed. It is not a glamourous living. But it is an art. To serve without condescension, to brave the ill-manners of many diners, to suffer from fallen arches, and do so with equanimity, requires presence of mind, long training and a forgiving disposition. What caterers offer in the way of food and service, is the One Night Stand. Her qualifications being equal, Ms Weigmann is certainly entitled to serve. But a hostess orders the food; she may choose the service; and she may cater to what she thinks to be the appetites of her guests. A stag party might choose otherwise, but perhaps would not wish its Bunnies to be feminists first and waitpersons second