Prairie Messenger Header

Around the Kitchen Table

By Donald Ward


I know a woman from Nepal who is named Durga, after the Hindu warrior goddess who battles evil and demonic forces. I know a Lithuanian woman named Juste (pronounced Yusta). I know a Québecoise named Véronique, and an Iraqi woman named Kaleeda. Chazia is from Pakistan. Claudia is from Peru. Yasmin is from Trinidad.

What do these women have in common, aside from their exotic names?

For one thing, they’re all immigrants — except for Véronique, whose family is from Quebec (and there are sovereigntists who would argue the point).

For another thing, they are all fluent in at least two languages. Véronique speaks four, and Yasmin is studying Chinese.

They are all highly accomplished in their individual ways.

Aside from being multilingual, Véronique holds three university degrees.

Chazia is a track and field athlete — the only female member of Pakistan’s Olympic team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. A Catholic, she was hampered in her training by the strictures against women appearing in public in less than traditional Muslim attire, and would run after dark with her brother keeping pace beside her on a bicycle. When she ran in qualifying races in the daytime, crowds would gather to throw stones and vegetables. Eventually, fearing for her safety, she came to Canada, where she competed in the 2011 Knights of Columbus Indoor Games in Saskatoon.

Kaleeda, a Chaldean Catholic, told me that she wept when she learned Saddam Hussein had been executed. She recognized that Saddam was a brutal dictator, but at least under his regime it was safe to walk the streets of Baghdad. When the U.S.-led coalition invaded in 2003 — in an action dubbed “Operation Iraqi Freedom” — the city became a perilous place for a woman to be alone, even in the daytime, and Kaleeda’s family fled to Canada.

These women have one more thing in common: they are all servers at local restaurants in Saskatoon and Humboldt.

It would be a mistake to assume that waiting on tables was the only job they could get. “I’m not ‘just a server,’ ” Véronique says. “I do it because I love the work.” She likes meeting people, and she gets satisfaction from serving them.

Few people appreciate how difficult and exacting a job it can be. First of all, you have to be pleasant all the time, and no one else I know can manage that. Not all servers can, either, of course — a few I have met have been breathtakingly rude — but they pay the penalty in lost tips and eventually a lost job.

They always have to be presentable; frequently they are better dressed than the people they serve.

They must also have good memories. I have seen servers take orders from a table of five without writing anything down, and then unerringly placing the right dish before the right person when their orders were ready.

They must be in good shape, for the job is intensely physical. A typical server will cumulatively walk several miles between the kitchen and their tables during a shift, often carrying heavy dishes piled high with food.

They must have an almost preternatural sense of balance. You see them walking among the tables and booths with sometimes four or five plates in their hands and on their arms.

They also seem to have a high tolerance for pain. More than once I have taken a plate from a server and nearly dropped it because it was too hot to handle.

Another thing these women have in common is that they are all paid minimum wage. If an enlightened government happens to raise it, then servers’ pay will go up — otherwise, as one woman told me the other day, “I haven’t had a raise in nine years.” She relies on tips to keep herself and her daughter above the poverty line.

Servers in our society tend to be undervalued, and the really good ones rarely get the recognition they deserve. Simple justice would dictate that they be paid a living wage.