Are there any words or phrases you really wish people would stop using to describe WOMEN CHEFS (or really, women, period)?
"Best female chef" as a participation trophy.
Women chefs. I appreciate the power of female energy, but it's used far too often as an aside and not a qualifier. In 2018 I heard a well-known chef suggest that there aren't more women in this work because it's too hard and I think the suggestion that women lack the fortitude for this industry is still too closely embedded in the way we use the term.
I wish they'd stop qualifying us as women. We are chefs, writers, cookbook authors. It's 2019 — we can drop the woman/female as a preface, I promise.
Um, female chef. It implies that chefs are normally or should be men (like female doctor, ugh). Can she just be called a chef?
I'm not a chef. I'm a professional home cook. Some of my close friends are chefs.
Nothing specific, but I hope that as writers we will always stop and think, Would I use this word or describe this aspect of a person if they were of a different gender (or orientation), and if not, should that make me pause and think twice here?
Beautiful, attractive, young, former model.
ALEX VAN BUREN
I do not want to hear ANYTHING about a woman's weight when I'm reading a profile about her work as a chef. It's such a common trope in the female chef profile. It always makes me roll my eyes.
Obviously, anything that focuses on appearance, or makes a woman seem an unlikely candidate to get as far as she did.
I read a profile on Elizabeth Warren the other day that started by describing a cardigan she was wearing, and then used that cardigan as a metaphor for how she operates as a person and a politician. And I nearly threw the magazine across the room. So many profiles of women start with a physical description meant to tell the reader something about the personality of the woman being profiled. And usually in terms that you just don't see in profiles of men.
Bitchy. Emotional. Sensitive.
"The Girls" — as we were always referred to collectively, and it sounded condescending every time.
Chick. I hate that word. Is it a chicken? It sounds so cheap. It sounds like an animal. Does it really mean chic like fashion?
Any modification to the word boss: boss babe, girl boss, badass boss bitch. It makes me even crazier when women describe themselves this way. You don't see dudes being, like, Hey, I'm a Boy Boss.
Pioneer. Matriarchal. Ball-busters.
REBECCA FLINT MARX
Strong. Because that implies that the default for women is 'weak.'
Badass. It's like interesting: so bland as to be almost meaningless. It's a token word that only conveys pandering, along with the (food) media's (somewhat condescending) efforts to make up for lost time/recognition/opportunity/respect where women — chefs and otherwise — are concerned.
What about words or phrases used to describe male chefs (or men, at all) that you'd like to ban?
I wish terms like tough, badass, hardcore were meant to describe strength. 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.
Can we stop with the rogue/bad boy nonsense? There are other virtues like creativity, curiosity, and kindness that are much more intriguing.
Kill celebrity chef.
Traveler, in search of, rebel, obsessed, hard-drinking.
Pioneer. Saying they "discovered" anything. Bad boy. Falstaffian (whereas women chefs would be considered fat).
Bro. I use the word but I hate it because it means everything I hate when we say Bro Culture. Nothing positive about the word bro. Maybe the men need to come up with an alternate way to describe Bro Culture because it's all negative.
Rockstar, genius, self-taught when what they really mean is "didn't go to culinary school."
REBECCA FLINT MARX
Genius. Badass. Towering. King. God. Pirate. Lion. Lion is the worst.CHAPTER 2
Sadie Stein could write about anything — spreadsheets, watching paint dry, golf — and I would want to read it; she brings an unexpected perspective and unforced wit to every sharply observed situation she finds herself in and every story she drafts.
I had an idea in mind for her essay when we met at Café Loup, a Greenwich Village haunt that we're both fond of. But as we sat there gossiping with our glasses of wine (with Sadie spreading a more-than-passable country pate on some sliced baguette), something rather remarkable happened.
For a long time, I'd been harboring a secret — a lack of love for a food writer held up as the ultimate, shining example of her profession by most who engage in it or are interested in its subject. I saw my inability to appreciate her work the way others did, so zealously, as a shortcoming. But it just didn't speak to me. I thought maybe one day I'd have the courage to put this in writing.
And then, just as I was about to tell Sadie about her potential topic, she blurted a confession of her own — the same one, in fact, that I had been too cowardly to blurt myself. In that moment, the universe reminded me that kindred spirits do exist, and made it perfectly clear that Sadie had to write the following essay, which, no doubt, will leave you as much in awe of her — and rightly so — as almost everyone else we know is of this literary paragon — or was; the following might change their minds, or elicit a few more confessions.
Serve It Forth
When I turned eleven years old, my grandfather made his annual visit to New York from Monterey. He always timed his visits to overlap with my birthday. Per usual, he'd brought as many massive, decrepit suitcases as the budget airline would allow. (Each visit lasted a month.) From these he produced packages of ancient rope licorice, tarnished pieces of silver, various knives and weapons he'd picked up at tag sales, and dozens of books. That one could find these things in New York was irrelevant; being able to transport them at no additional cost seemed to him a remarkable feat that had the further benefit of, in some way, cheating the system.
For this particular birthday, my grandfather threw a heavy, seventies-issue paperback book onto my bed, How to Cook a Wolf. He said, "Read that. You'll need it. She's quite a gal."
At twenty, in London on a junior year abroad and suffering from a bad case of flu, I was sent a care package by a British family friend, who lived nearby, a bon vivant and gourmet. It contained a pack of Solpadeine, a plastic container of homemade chicken stock, and a raw egg, which I was instructed to beat into the broth for extra nourishment. Oh, and a copy of The Gastronomical Me. "The best food writer going," he'd written on the flyleaf.
When I graduated college, my boyfriend's father, knowing I liked to cook and read, presented me with a generous gift: a vellum-wrapped first edition of Consider the Oyster.
On a date to a then-new West Village hotspot with serious culinary bona fides, a nice young man with an interest in food gave me "one of my favorite books" — Serve It Forth.
I still own them all. I own most of her other books too. It seems for the better part of my life, men have been pushing M. F. K. Fisher on me. I've never had the heart to tell them I don't much care for the writer John Updike called "poet of the appetites" and of whom W. H. Auden wrote, "I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose."
Thanks to that prose, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher's is a well-documented life. Born in Michigan in 1908, she was raised from early childhood in California — a defining motif in much of her work. A long stint in France with her first husband proved formative, as detailed in The Gastronomical Me; she would return there all her life.
Upon coming home to California during the Depression, Mary Frances began to read about culinary history at the library. The short essays on gastronomy and philosophy that arose — she'd originally read them to guests before dinner — caught the attention of a friend of a friend in publishing and ultimately became her first book, Serve It Forth. It was well-received. While plenty of mostly male writers wrote about food and travel, and plenty of mostly female ones wrote about nutrition and home cooking, what she called "humanistic-gastronomic writing" was hers alone. She had, in effect, created a new genre.
Was it a genre especially suited to the male palate? From the beginning, men liked Fisher's books; at a time when women were routinely overlooked or condescended to by male critics, her work was universally celebrated.
The next chapter of Fisher's life only enhanced her legend — her affair with Dillwyn Parrish, whom she would later marry, at the Swiss artist's colony where they briefly lived with her first husband and which culminated in Parrish's suffering and ultimate suicide. In the midst of this, her 1940s output was remarkable by any standard. (Consider the Oyster, published in 1941, is thought by many her finest work.) And yet, from a professional standpoint, it was only the beginning: She would go on to write the wartime manual How to Cook a Wolf and gain wide readership through magazines like Vogue, Town and Country, and the burgeoning Gourmet. Her translation of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste, the founding bible of French gastronomy, was accounted a revelation that brought the classic to a new generation of sybarites.
A crony of James Beard and Craig Claiborne and a mentor to countless rebels waking to the pleasures of the table, Fisher spent much of her life in picturesque locales, having what looked, superficially, like equally picturesque adventures. But her life was hard by any standard: filled with death, caregiving, money troubles, and the stigmas and difficulties of being a single mother. Her death, at eighty-three, at the fabled "Last House" in Glen Ellen, California, came after a long battle with Parkinson's. And through it all, her work, more than twenty books in all.
In 2014, the late food writer Josh Ozersky issued what can only be called a screed against the cult of Mary Frances. He ranted, "I personally find her work to be dull, monotonous, and eventually stupefying, like the endless chatter of some lady you sit next to on a bus ... Fisherism is, not to put too fine a point on it, a straight-up form of cultural hegemony." Ozersky hated everything about Fisher. He painted her as a vapid snob whose legacy of self-indulgent, unapologetically bourgeois navel-gazing was the original sin of food writing as we know it. The piece — as intended — provoked a minor uproar. Five years later, it already reads as profoundly dated, almost quaint; food writing has changed a lot since both their times and much of the essay presents as barely veiled misogyny.
But then, so too does the uncritical adulation he was responding to. Ozersky wasn't wrong: Fisher was able to inspire a sort of slavish, thoughtless genuflection that today reads (to me) almost as a soft dismissal. In her New York Times obit, the author praised Fisher's "ebullient embrace of the slow, sensual pleasures of the table" which, in turn "was matched by her cool acceptance of sudden violence and evil." As usual in discussions of Fisher, the Times was quick to comment on her looks, describing her as "a beauty and an enchantress." Even Ozersky gets in the inevitable mention of her physical charms: "Being outrageous [sic] good-looking didn't hurt, either — she was, on top of being rich and smart, so gorgeous that Man Ray once photographed her for his own pleasure. Fisher had it all, and she knewit."
While Fisher was unquestionably an attractive woman, I wish they'd knock this off; what they mean, one supposes, is that she had an active love life, some of it with married men, and bore a child out of wedlock — and apparently no one can accept that anyone but a stunning vixen was capable of such a feat. I always find myself wondering: why do they mention it at all? Perhaps because, if her subject was the table it was not, exactly, the domestic one. She was very much a woman and not, particularly, a wife.
My own complaints about Fisher were never Ozersky's; in fact, I remember feeling somewhat irritated that he'd forced me into defending her so rabidly. But, on the other hand ... what were my complaints? I have never enjoyed being told what I ought to like. At times, I have even felt a perverse and juvenile pleasure in rejecting what was, to others, sacrosanct — an impulse that should rightly be binned with the CD collection.
For the purposes of this piece, I was determined to reconsider my long-embedded resistance to Fisher's spell. If I could not be wholly dispassionate, then at least I would be well informed. I reread her entire oeuvre, her letters, and her posthumous work; I looked at every interview I could find and at what film remains — most of it dating from late in her life, when Fisher was already very ill.
Her fans were just as right as Ozersky. Fisher is indeed a wonderful stylist, crystalline and — overused word — elegant. She writes with enviable economy and lack of sentimentality. There are sentences in her work — particularly her memoir — that really can rival anything of the period for grace and pith. Take this, from How to Cook a Wolf:
Another thing that makes daily, hourly thought about where withals endurable is to be able to share it with someone else. That does not mean, and I say it emphatically, sharing the fuss and bother and fretting. It means being companionable with another human who understands, perhaps without any talking at all, what problems of basic nourishment confront you. Once such a relationship is established, your black thoughts vanish, and how to make a pot of stew last three more meals seems less a nightmare than a form of sensual entertainment.
Fisher was a fearless pioneer who made unconventional choices and forced readers to take food writing seriously as an art form. She was unencumbered by the dicta of midcentury morality. She was unapologetic and smart. She encouraged the women of America to think beyond the limitations of their palates and circumstances, and in the process credited them with intelligence and taste — or at least the capacity to develop these. She was a pro: She wrote to earn her living, and throughout her life was remarkably prolific and disciplined, never allowing the artist's ego to outstrip the professionalism of the working writer. She was tough: She wrote some of her most iconic work while her second husband was being consumed by a painful disease, and after he took his own life.
What's more, her writing on France should qualify as some of the most evocative travelogues produced in the twentieth century, and it's unarguable that for anyone who wants to study the essay, food writing, or the lost craft of the letter, Fisher's body of work is essential.
Still, I don't love it. Or, rather, I don't enjoy it. As Cyra McFadden once observed, "Food is what she wrote about, although to leave it at that is reductionist in the extreme. What she really wrote about was the passion, the importance of living boldly instead of cautiously; oh, what scorn she had for timid eaters, timid lovers, people who took timid stands, or none at all, on matters of principle."
The scorn, I feel. That's not what I'm looking for when I read about food, or anything else. When I read about food, I want to be made hungry — coarse but true; I know this consigns me to the philistines.
Certainly, her descriptions are nothing if not vivid. "The first thing I remember tasting and wanting to taste again is the grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam," she wrote in The Gastronomical Me. Who can forget that — or her first boarding-school oyster, viscerally tied to experiences of erotic awakening and horror? Or the tangerine peels she left to dry on her Strasbourg window-ledge as a new bride? Or, for that matter, "The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water ... indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight."