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The Tipping Point

Whose idea was this anyway?

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Mr. Pink: I don't tip because society says I gotta. I tip when somebody deserves a tip. When somebody really puts forth an effort, they deserve a little something extra. But this tipping automatically, that shit's for the birds. As far as I'm concerned, they're just doin' their job. . . Do you know what this is? It's the world's smallest violin, playing just for the waitresses.

Mr. Blue: You don't have any idea what you're talking about. These people bust their ass. This is a hard job.

Mr. Pink: So's working at McDonald's, but you don't feel the need to tip them. They're servin' ya food, you should tip 'em. But no, society says tip these guys over here, but not those guys over there. That's bullshit.

Mr. Orange: They work harder than the kids at McDonald's.

Mr. Pink: Oh yeah? I don't see them cleaning fryers.

The dialogue is from the movie Reservoir Dogs, which, at least in regard to the infamous "ear" scene, is decidedly not something you want to watch while eating. It does, however, illustrate a point: Why is the professional food service industry the only industry that not only expects tipping, but damn near demands it (see the "17 percent gratuity added to parties of ___ or more," on the bottom of one of your recent food receipts)? Where did this curious convention get its start? And, pray tell, why can't restaurants just pay their servers more in the first place, eliminating the need for tipping unless a server goes completely above and beyond the call of duty?

Of course, many would probably argue that today's tipping system was put into place expressly to motivate said server to go the extra mile. By placing the burden on the waitperson to actually earn part of his or her hourly wage, service quality is, in theory, increased across the board. But couldn't the quality of service also be controlled by, I dunno, firing servers who receive repeated complaints? I realize there's a shortage of quality waitstaff these days (or so I'm told), but if tips are damn near mandated as they are now (at a 20 percent clip, no less), where's that almighty motivation?

According to TheStraightDope.com, the origin of tipping (the word itself, at least) has two probable etymologies: the Latin "stips," meaning gift; and the Middle English word for "to give." Tipping spread from Mother England to the colonies (at least after a class system began to reassert itself), and lo and behold, some 230-plus years later, your $50 steak dinner just got $10 more expensive. The restaurateur's side of this? If one didn't tip, the waitstaff would expect to be paid more, the price of your food would increase, yada yada yada, and you're out your $10 anyway.

But wouldn't that model be more intrinsically honest? When I go buy a new car, I don't drop the salesperson an extra 2K on my $10,000 ride. When I have someone recommend a bottle of wine, I don't drop a dime on the sommelier. No, I grease palm when I've been satisfied, when I've been taken care of. Not because it's the hip thing to do. (Of course, mine is an easier worldview to take when you're living on a journalist's salary.)

Of course, the Internet has provided -- just as it does for people into adult diapers, model trains and beanie babies -- a forum for those poor souls that have been stiffed in their chosen (chow) line of work. The best of these is undoubtedly BitterWaitress.com, which boasts a section called the Shitty Tipper Database. Mind you, there's loads of stories about great tippers (and, er, shitty tippers), but what fun is it to read about ordinary people? How do the celebrities fare? (After all, they're just like US, right?)

It's pretty much as you might expect. Tom Brokaw, Bill Clinton, Morgan Freeman, Bill Murray and Willie Nelson? Good tippers, all -- especially Nelson, who, after satisfying his munchies, often leaves a 100 percent tip. No wonder the IRS hung him out to dry! Bad tippers include O.J. Simpson (there's a joke in here somewhere, I just know it), Pete Rose, Mark McGwire, Don Henley and Jimmy Buffett. Breaks down perfectly: Nice person, nice tip. Cheeseball person, cheeseball tip.

All this said, I must admit to dropping an even 20 percent after every meal I eat, whether it's $10 Chinese take-out or $60 Kobe beef. Bartenders, too, get the same treatment. With the former, it's because I often feel guilty, and tend to visit my favorite haunts rather frequently. With the latter, it's more a matter of self-preservation. If I had to figure out 17 percent on a $43.24 bar tab, I'd be there until the next night's last call.

Timothy C. Davis is a correspondent for Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, The Christian Science Monitor, and the food Web site egullet.com, among other publications.

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