Thug Kitchen: Local Authors of Vegan Cookbook in the Center of Race Debate

You might have expected the new Thug Kitchen cookbook release from Rodale Books to be fairly uneventful. A lot of popular cooking blogs lead to cookbook contracts, and online fans provide a pre-established market for the book.

But the popular, irreverent, vegan site was written anonymously, so fans only recently learned the identity of the authors during the lead-up to this month’s book tour. Enter the controversy. It seems that many followers of the site expected the writers to be black — or at least not to be a young white couple from Hollywood.

Thug Kitchen has a clear brand — liberal use of profanity and slang intended to champion healthful eating habits for everyone and “not just people with disposable incomes who speak a certain way.” Typical posts include language like "dope as hell," "slap that shit out of your hand," and "chickpeas are versatile as fuck." And then there’s the title's hot-button word, “thug.” 
While the blog writers remained anonymous for the past two years, little was said about the racial coding of the site. Gwyneth Paltrow promoted the blog on The Rachel Ray Show and Saveur named Thug Kitchen the Best New Food blog of 2013. The site’s Facebook page attracted more than half a million followers. 

But after a reporter for Epicurious read an advance copy of the cookbook, he tracked down authors Michelle Davis and Matt Holloway in Los Angeles, wrote about the couple who launched the site, and posted a picture of them. While he did not indicate any surprise at the identity of the bloggers, others have responded not only with surprise — but with disappointment and anger.

Critics accuse Davis and Holloway of appropriating black "voice" in a stereotypical and cynical way for financial gain. In recent articles, writers for CNN and The Root describe Thug Kitchen as digital blackface. They argue that Davis and Holloway realized they had to disguise their identities for the project to work and that's why they wrote anonymously.

Meanwhile, others are puzzled or outraged that the word thug and a heavy use of profanity are presented as “black culture” in this argument or taken to be indicative of race at all, when race is not explicitly mentioned on the blog. Some always imagined the site was the product of “frat boys" – college humor written by and for a post-Tupac generation.

But in the wake of a news period that brought us the Zimmerman trial, Donald Sterling and Seattle Seahawk player Richard Sherman’s response to being called a thug after his rants on the football field, lots of people aren't buying a twenty-something white couple's struggle to pay for organic veggies as a “thug life," joke or otherwise. 

While blog wars and Internet comment debates aren't usually known for their civility or even relevancy, this one has inspired many commenters to discuss everything from the origins and transformations of the word thug, to the history of the Amos 'n Andy show, to when and why minority culture enters the mainstream and who benefits. 

For their part, Davis and Holloway have said their intention in writing the blog anonymously was to make the food the message instead of posting pictures of themselves — and that their use of the word thug describes “an attitude” about “being a badass in the kitchen.”

The cookbook hit stores last week, and it does contain actual recipes, featuring dishes such as roasted beer and lime cauliflower tacos and mango curry. In sidebars titled “Dropping Knowledge,” the authors explain ingredients like miso paste and rail against the prevalence of sugar in prepared foods.

Some Thug Kitchen fans and several food writers have wondered why everyone can't just focus on the food and not the politics. But wouldn't bloggers who intended to challenge our perception of veganism or change the face of the health food movement actively seek a diverse political discussion?

Book launch events in the Bay Area were cancelled last week due to protest threats. Davis and Holloway released a statement saying they didn’t want to “create problems” for the book stores that partnered with them, but might return at a later date.

The current tour schedule includes a book signing at Kitson in Santa Monica on November 11 at noon. 

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