'Badass': The One Word That Has Become A Lightning Rod For Many Female Chefs
Are there any words or phrases you really wish people would stop using to describe women chefs (or really, women, period)?
Charlotte Druckman put this question to more than 100 female chefs and food writers for her book Women on Food, a compendium that corrals a range of voices from marquee names such as Nigella Lawson and Rachael Ray, to the pioneering 92-year-old writer Betty Fussell, who still gets into the van at her retirement home in Santa Barbara, Calif., to buy raw cream and nectarines at the farmers market.
A mix of essays, Q&As and short riffs, it is packed with writing that is combative, funny, skeptical, angry, occasionally sanctimonious and altogether riveting. Creditably, it spotlights undersung icons such as the Alabama midwife Georgia Gilmore, who cooked tirelessly for civil rights marchers, and the Upstate New Yorker Cheryl Rogowski, who in 2004 became the first farmer to be chosen for a MacArthur Genius Grant.
The essays exhibit a command of themes that runs the gamut from Osayi Endolyn's withering account of how dining out solo as a black woman comes with a free side of white savior complex, to Soleil Ho's deep dive into how Pac-Man pioneered the role of food in video games, to Sadie Stein's (far too) respectful critique of the lack of sensuousness in M.F.K. Fisher's writing. Of the Q&As, the sparkler is the one with Fussell, whose answers are as unpasteurized as the cream she buys at the farmers market. When Druckman asks, "How do you think food writing can be a feminist act?" Fussell shoots back, "I don't think it should be. That's easy. Food breaks through the stupid categories we put on things. I hate the word feminism."
Despite this clarion contrapuntal note, Women and Food is a robustly feminist polemic. Druckman, a writer and sharp observer of the culinary landscape, compiled it in the wake of the #MeToo movement and parked it at the hustling turnstile where food smacks up against money, gender, race, sexuality, class and history. It asks the central question: Why, for all their unarguably brilliant achievements, are women chefs and food writers still well below the salt? Why, for instance, do we hear incessantly about the European culinary aristocracy of René Redzepi, Ferran Adrià and Massimo Bottura but almost nothing about Carme Ruscalleda, the Catalan chef who has more Michelin stars than most other chefs in the world?
The answer returns us, somewhat elliptically, to the earlier question Druckman put to her contributors: "Are there any words or phrases you really wish people would stop using to describe women chefs (or really, women, period)?"
The list of words turned out to be quite long. Many rejected gender qualifiers like "women" or "female," preferring to be regarded as chefs or writers, tout court. Unsurprisingly, chick, bitchy and babe got the thumbs down. So did perky, boss, feisty, ballbuster, strong, tough and lion. Maternal markers — nurturing, caring, matriarchal — and the whole grandmother-pastel frosting-cupcake-nostalgia boilerplate — made some gag.
Others flagged physical appraisers like tiny, trim, gorgeous, sexy, former model, attractive — an objection pursued with prosecutorial vigor by Mari Uyehara in her essay on how fashion has hijacked the food world. Uyehara takes to task the food magazine Cherry Bombe, which touts itself as feminist to the bone, but which she admonishes for its narrow coverage of "young, hip, photogenic" chefs and putting "the serum-nourished Martha Stewart and Nigella Lawson" on its cover at the cost of lesser-known and not as modelesque women.
But the word that emerged as a lightning rod of scorn is one that may surprise readers, given that it is so frequently and proudly slung around by one and all as the ne plus ultra of praise: badass.
Over the past decade or so, badass has become part of the glut of cliches that plagues the world of food, up there with the insufferable "awesome" and "amazing." It started out as proud black resistance slang, was enthusiastically annexed by everyone else, and now sits at the apex of a trend that inverts a negative word into a ravishingly positive one (wicked, mean, bad, sick, crazy, killa are its siblings).
President Barack Obama made headlines for saying with regard to the U.S. women's national soccer team that "playing like a girl means you're a badass." The Daily Kos exulted that badass Tubman would soon be on the $20 bill. Angie Mar is a badass, proclaimed both The New York Times and The New Yorker, of the chef and co-owner of Beatrice Inn in the West Village, while The Village Voice congratulated her for bringing "badass attitude" to the historic chophouse.
Overuse has leached badass of its badassery. "It's like interesting: so bland as to be almost meaningless," says Eater Features Editor Rebecca Flint Marx. "It's a token word that only conveys pandering."
But the deeper reason why so many women in the food world dislike it is the connotations it has acquired. Though its slangy, demotic roots give it a tang of modernism, to many women it embodies the stultifying conventions of maleness that dominate restaurant kitchens.
It's not as if every female chef and writer is hostile to badass. Several use it in the book (and the media — as the Angie Mar example shows) in an entirely complimentary context. But for an overwhelmingly large number, it is befouled by the heavy, telltale, locker room odor of what is disparagingly known as "bro-culture."
"Badass is a detonated way to describe a kind of cultural male whiteness — an aggressive, swaggering one," Druckman told NPR. "And then it gets put onto women, as what feels like a tarnished 'badge of honor,' or backhanded compliment. Calling a woman — chef or otherwise — 'badass' is a way to signify that she's cool or relevant because she's acting like a man (specifically, an aggressive, swaggering one); that she is only of interest or worth consideration because she's going against whatever 'type' it is she'd otherwise be categorized as because she's a woman. She can't possibly be taken seriously or even close to equal unless she's aping male behavior. It exalts that bullying, bullish culture at the same time as it puts down the culture of anyone who doesn't follow that model, female, white or otherwise."
New York restaurateur Ning Kang points out that the expectation woven into words like badass is that one needs to strut masculine personality traits to succeed. "Some women certainly are all of those things by nature, and that's a part of their personalities and it's great," she says. "But some women are soft and gentle and shy, and I don't think that should be a reflection of our work style. We are able to succeed with our intelligence, attention to details, sensitivity to people's feelings, and more."
This feeling — about women not having to kowtow to a male ideal of strength — is explored by author Tamar Adler, who experienced a workaday epiphany of sorts while working at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. When she arrived, she thought of the burns on her forearms from earlier kitchen stints as the stigmata of badassery. "After a couple of months, one of the chefs, a woman, told me she had taught herself simply never to get burned and never to get cut," she writes. "Like, the badges of hard work and hot ovens were a bit tawdry to her. The real class was in being so good that they didn't touch you. She never lifted a heavy compost bin or a whole lamb or half pig alone, but calmly asked for help. She was never exhausted, never burned, never depleted, angry, dirty. She took care of herself and took care of the kitchen. I liked that."
For many female chefs, the baleful comedy surrounding the extravagant use of badass is that while it is showered on "tough" female chefs and those who storm the supposedly male bastions of kitchen craft — butchery, grilling, burgers, sushi, wood, fire, pizza — the prejudices against allowing women into these very spaces are still almost intact. Many chefs complained about how they were gender-directed to pastry, dessert, grain bowls, gluten-free, vegan, salad, brownies, farmers market food, granola, and that old staple, comfort food.
On another note, Druckman points out that badass is also a classic example of "misappropriating" a word. "It came out of black culture, and in that context, I think it's a great word," she says. "Seeing that word adopted to apply to a large, generic population that I think of (I know, it's probably reductive), collectively, as representative of 'white hard-partying, blustering frat boy culture' is as far from resistance as you can get."
Her contributors evidently shared her view because — to her surprise — badass popped up in response to another question she asked: What about words or phrases used to describe male chefs (or men, at all) that you'd like to ban? A close second was the term "bad boy."
"I wish terms like tough, badass, hardcore were meant to describe strength," says Therese Nelson, who runs theBlack Culinary Historyblog. "What they really do is assign a kind of toxic masculinity to men in ways that perpetuate it in insane ways. I think strength is a virtue that men and women need, but there is a way in which we talk about male strength that diminishes women while also marginalizing men, as though all they can be are these one-dimensional caricatures as opposed to fully formed people. The whole narrative is bad for everyone."
One of the most trenchant lines in the book comes from writer Jordana Rothman: "If you are granting wishes, mine is to never have to read another story about a bro discovering noodles." It's a brilliant aperçu of the hugely popular exotic-travel-food-show trope long cornered by men. Indeed, the two male chefs who come in for a few swipes as the pin-ups du jour of bro culture — contemptuously referred to as "the brotastic kitchen culture," "#brozone" and "all of that bro shit" — are the late Anthony Bourdain and Momofuku grandee David Chang.
"I don't think it's personal — or I hope it's not," says Druckman. I see them as bookends of a long-lasting movement, of bro culture as the zeitgeist in food. Bourdain started it, in terms of bringing it into mainstream culture and making it a point of pop-cultural fascination with Kitchen Confidential, and Chang represents its apotheosis — I think Momofuku culture came to be synonymous with bro culture, and that permeated his magazine Lucky Peach, too. As soon as Bourdain and Chang became emblematic of that culture, they became ubiquitous; they permeated all media. That's why they get the bro-bashing. They became signifiers."
She adds, "Bourdain ended up apologizing for his role in perpetuating and celebrating bro culture. I think Chang has also been receptive to the criticism lobbed at him and continues to try to adjust his brand and choices accordingly. But those labels or ideas get attached to people, and become bigger than they are. I think we'll always associate them with bro-ness on some level."
While editing Women on Food, Druckman grew to detest badass so much that she even wrote its obituary but had to leave it out of the book for want of space. "Yes, I wrote an obituary for a word, the word 'badass,' " she says. "And I'd do it again. When I wrote that obit, my goal was to bury it, with a wink. And I had way too much fun doing it."
Nina Martyris is a journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.