Thug Kitchen is done. Finally.
The plant-based website that launched in 2012 and became known for its profanity-laced voice has been drawing criticism for its name, well, since 2012.
At first, the website's foul-mouthed writers remained anonymous, but after signing a publishing deal with Rodale in 2014, the authors, a white couple based in Los Angeles, revealed their identities.
That’s when people like Bryant Terry, a Black cookbook author and activist, started speaking out. He wrote a piece for CNN in late 2014 that spelled out exactly why two white authors using the term "thug" was problematic, but the book went on to become a bestseller anyway. (Terry’s most recent book is called "Vegetable Kingdom," a follow-up to the lauded "Afro-Vegan," which came out in 2014. He is currently the chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.)
The website’s authors, Michelle Davis and Matt Holloway, released two additional cookbooks at Rodale.
Now, as the food media world continues its own reckoning with racism, with Alison Roman’s suspension at the New York Times for insensitive remarks she gave in an interview earlier this year and Adam Rapoport’s resignation as the top editor at Bon Appetit after photos surfaced of him appearing in brown face, Davis and Holloway have announced they are changing the name of their company and website and will "discontinue the use of Thug Kitchen as the title of all our previous cookbooks and closely re-evaluate the content of each book."
"When we first launched Thug Kitchen in 2012, we wanted our name to signal our brand’s grit in the otherwise polished and elitist food scene," they wrote in an apology online late last week. "We realize, however, that whatever our original intention, our use of it reflected our privilege and ignored the reality that the word is assigned to Black people in an attempt to dehumanize them. That’s ... not at all what we want to stand for. We apologize. We recognize we need to do better."
Although Rapoport stepped down for literal brown face, as Terry and others have pointed out for years, Thug Kitchen is a form of digital blackface, not unlike white people sharing Black reaction GIFs and memes, and it’s a form of appropriation that has to stop.
"Certainly, swearing isn't exclusive to African-Americans. But many of the site's captions, usually dreamed up by Davis to accompany Holloway's striking visuals, rely heavily on phrases from black rap lyrics, stand-up routines and films, which eventually went mainstream," Terry wrote in 2014.
"The contrast drawn between the consciously progressive dishes shown and the imagined vulgar, ignorant thug only works if the thug is the kind of grimy person of color depicted in the news and in popular media as hustling drugs on a dystopian block, under the colorful glow of various burger stands, bulletproof take-out spots or bodega signs. ’Those kind of people,’ the visual gag suggests, ’intimidating you into... preparing arugula or tempeh? How absurd, how shocking, how hilarious!’"
Until now, I’ve declined to write about Thug Kitchen since the first cookbook came out, using omission of coverage to suffice as my criticism of the content, but looking back, I should have used my platform to be more vocal about it.
Terry’s right: The TK joke isn’t funny. Six years and three cookbooks is too long to have stayed quiet about it. I’m glad the writers are using all that book money on a campaign to rebrand the company. Maybe they can find other ways to use their platform for good.
One last thing: The editors at Rodale should also bear some of the weight from this fallout. One book could be considered a mistake, but three? That’s a shame on everyone involved.
If you are looking for resources to learn more about the intersection of race and food, here are a few books to start with:
"Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power" by Psyche A. Williams-Forson
"The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks" by Toni Tipton-Martin
"The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South" by Michael W. Twitty
"Decolonize Your Diet: Plant-Based Mexican-American Recipes for Health and Healing" by Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel
"Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society" by A. Breeze Harper and Pattrice Jones
"High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America" by Jessica B. Harris
"Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century" by Kyla Wazana Tompkins
(If you want to make a purchase from a Black-owned bookstore, Lithub.com has compiled a list of more than two dozen bookstores, some of which offer online ordering.)