July 14, 2014
The newest dessert at Swift’s Attic in Austin now has an even newer name. And, for good reason, too: “Can you imagine Grandma ordering 'Bitch Pudding?'” giggles pastry chef Callie Speer, who created the boldly titled dessert for the Austin Food & Wine Alliance's Live Fire event this past spring. Speer says she needed something sweet and familiar to entice the mostly male and meat-obsessed audience to try her cooking. So, she came up with this modern spin on banana cream pudding, incorporating malted chocolate stout, hazelnut beer brittle and foamy banana bubbles.
The bawdy name is a nod to the arch Cartoon Network program Robot Chicken, which features a sassy character called "Bitch Pudding" who hurls a storm of curses at anyone that stands in her way. (Watch the NSFW clip below.) The profane toon reminded many of her colleagues of Speer's own sweet-and-sour persona, and it quickly became her nickname around the kitchen. “It’s not just heckling and ‘your mom’ jokes,” says sous chef Zack Northcutt. “As head of our HR department, she’s also introduced Sexual Harassment Fridays and Dry Hump Wednesdays.” Assigning the same name to her newest culinary creation was Speer's way of embracing the dubious moniker, she explains. “I mainly made it because I wanted to call something 'Bitch Pudding,'” she says.
The risqué title might have resonated well enough with the meatheads at Live Fire. But, after a week on the actual menu at Swift’s Attic and a few shocked looks from patrons, management decided to tone it down, rebranding Speer's dessert as innocuous “Naner Puddin.” (“We still write ‘bitch’ on the tickets, though,” Speer notes.)
In many ways, the story of Speer's "Bitch Pudding" sums up so much about the current saga of women working in the male-dominated restaurant world. Though it was all in good fun, it’s telling that Speer conflates food and self, revealing an underlying conflict: how can female chefs — and women, in general — be both bitch and pudding?
It takes a brazen personality to hold her own in the competitive sport of professional cooking. The ladies in Speer's line of work are chock full of that. “Women chefs are kind of bitches,” says Speer. “They’re obnoxious and rude, and they don’t usually support each other.”
At the same time, most female chefs are still working in the pastry department, where sweetness is part of the job description. In this much-quieter private sphere, they turn out desserts steeped in nostalgia, from pain de genes made modern to donuts elevated to cult status.
And so we find a generation of foul-mouthed bitches still churning out sweet pudding. The contrast between salty and sweet is what makes the Robot Chicken sketch so funny and what makes the plight of female chefs so confounding.
Even outside of pastry, women face the same issue. Take, for example, that well-known photo of Beast executive chef and owner Naomi Pomeroy holding a whole pig like a mother with her child — a child she’s just slaughtered and is about to butcher and cook, nose to tail. Pomeroy is still cast as operating in a domestic mode, even while working in a traditionally male sphere.
Male chefs, on the other hand, are expected to be pricks. And their cockiness is actually celebrated in the cooking, as well. GQ critic Alan Richman recently called the food coming out of today's male-dominated kitchens “egotarian cuisine.” Richman posits that a generation of young, smug male chefs is aggressively combining ingredients never before set together on one plate in a self-indulgent display of testosterone-laden “dude food” (which, granted, sometimes turns out genius).
It’s no accident that women are absent from the egotarian movement, which rejects all things generally associated with the feminine: hospitality, selflessness, sweetness, community and more. It’s part of an age-old division between men as creative public artists and women as domestic craftspeople, a societal constraint that has taught both genders that women aren’t supposed to be driven by ego.
Richman’s tagline for egotarian cuisine is that “the only person who needs to be pleased is never you, it’s the chef.” Sounds like pretty bad sex if you ask me. Richman calls it “mental masturbation." Ew.
Meanwhile, a generation of female pastry chefs is actively trying to please their diners by appealing to memories of childhood. How motherly!
So, if women aren’t part of the biggest culinary movement in the country, where do they belong? The New York Times’ Julia Moskin recently pointed out that female chefs are beginning to emerge from the “pink ghetto” of the pastry kitchen. But, with a few notable exceptions — April Bloomfield and Jenn Louis, for instance — most of them are still in subordinate sous chef or chef de cuisine positions, not heads of their own restaurants. Moskin argues that these women will become the “next generation of restaurant leaders.”
Let's hope so. We can't wait to see what the menu says when Callie Speer opens her own place. Until then, we'll skip the "Naner Puddin," thank you. Bring us the original "Bitch Pudding," please.