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Book Review: Turning the Tables, Early 20th Century Tipping Tips Included

In today's lightweight "food memoir" era, academic publications like Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920 by Andrew P. Haley (University of North Carolina Press) read like a coveted Osetra caviar moment. We mean that as a compliment, so if you're not a caviar fan, insert your favorite rare culinary treat [here].

Wait, aren't academic titles by necessity dry, boring tomes? Sure, they can be. And Haley does his share of furthering that stodgy image with an impressive 88 pages of footnotes for about 230 pages of text (the book is an extension of his Ph.D. dissertation). There is also the requisite academic "Conclusion" chapter, so you could simply fast forward to get to the thesis: We owe our modern model of casual, affordable cafés and restaurants to a shift from upper class to middle class dining dominance that began in the early twentieth century.

But actually, Turning the Tables is an engaging read. Okay fine, engaging enough for an academic title. Not to mention there's a fascinating chapter on tipping ("The Tipping Evil"), and the chance to meet August J. Block, an early 20th century waiter in New York City who titled his memoir "Knight of the Napkin." Yeah, we wanted to know more about that knighted napkin, too.

Haley, an associate professor of American cultural history at the University of Southern Mississippi, begins the tipping chapter with the amicable Block, who served the likes of the Tafts, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts prior to the Depression. It was during this time, says Haley, that "dining in America was undergoing dramatic changes." Most notably, that the urban middle class was not-so-quietly taking over the stodgy aristocratic restaurant scene. A classic supply-meets-demand business model.

The mighty middle class' first order of business? To eliminate the "legacy of the upper-class European tradition of rewarding household servants when guests were entertained." In other words, the practice of tipping.

Haley reminds readers that tipping prior to the Civil War was rarely the norm, even in occasions of outstanding service. "Patrons expected quality service, and restaurants and hotels ensured that their waiters were attentive through intensive training and constant supervision." Before you reference history to justify your poor tipping habits, keep in mind that back in the day, waiters and hotel staffers were were full-time, professional service employees, not the part time, minimum wage restaurant and coffee shop waitstaff gigs that predominate today -- a shift that we would argue supports the practice of tipping today.

But back then, Haley says the middle class disagreed. "The fight to eliminate the tip demonstrates the middle-class vanguard's deep-rooted commitment to reconciling consumerism and democracy, but it also reveals the limits of middle-class influence," argues Haley. The result? "Tipping persisted."

History aside, we're awfully curious where Haley stands on these 10 Handy Rules for Tipping. Is he an all-around 20% sort of guy?