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'Badass': The One Word That Has Become A Lightning Rod For Many Female Chefs

Chef Angie Mar

Chef Angie Mar, who has received rave reviews for her New York chophouse Beatrice Inn, has been called a "badass" by the press. While some women have no problem with the word and use it in an entirely complimentary context, many others dislike its bro-culture connotation. (Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)

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.

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