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 the Black Culinary History blog. "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.