Thug Kitchen: A miniature controversy
Content note: language
The vegan blogosphere (work with me here) is awash with controversy regarding the cookbook Thug Kitchen, which according to Amazon seems to be the best-selling vegan cookbook at the moment. (Gwenyth Paltrow is a fan.)
“Thug Kitchen” is strange title for a vegan cookbook, and it has attracted some controversy, especially after the authors revealed they are a couple of white 29-year-olds living in Hollywood.
Of course they are.
Not everyone understands why this might cause consternation:
who cares what color they are? I know very little about them but I had assumed they were white all the time, because most vegans in America are white. Did they ever lie and say they were black? Had they been black then it would be OK for them to say “Thug” and use street slang, but being white it’s not alright?
Thug, to me, by they way they had used it, meant someone with a positive confident attitude.
Sorry, I just don’t understand all the negative hoopla about the authors and their book.
I can empathize with at least some of these feelings. It does seem fundamentally unfair that some people can use certain words and others seemingly can’t. But there are lots of unfair things that are nevertheless true. Add this to the list.
Among the many stereotypes about black people is that black men are in some fundamental way cool and edgy. White comics regularly make fun of themselves, but I can’t think of a black comic who indulges to the same extent. When they do, it’s usually because of a black woman, and it passes quickly. Some, like Eddie Griffin don’t even go that far (to my memory).
Seeking to take advantage of this stereotype, people from other communities will often mimic things said by black men (and sometimes black women) in various contexts. There are a legion of verbal expressions with American black heritage (“my bad”).
I think this is the reasoning for the title of Thug Kitchen, and it explains the response above that it means “someone with a positive confident attitude.”
I’m generally of two minds when it comes to such cultural appropriation. I don’t think a majority culture borrowing from a minority culture is always wrong and think a lot of multi-cultural theorists should relax. I don’t get offended when white people do yoga.
On the other hand, certain things do make me uncomfortable. People are getting shot in the streets, and many excuse the shooters by calling the victims thugs. This probably feels like a far-away problem to the writers of Thug Kitchen and their readers, who have the unearned privilege of invoking “thug” without acquiring the negative associations. Still, these events are actually happening.
Additionally, this grasping at coolness by the authors seems shallow. How they canceled a book reading due to protests reinforced this impression:
We were looking forward to meeting all of you and having a real fucking conversation. But there are some who are looking to disrupt the event and create problems for these great local, small businesses—who were kind enough to partner with us on the launch—so we’re holding off on our visit for now. Until we get our asses back up there, we’ll see you guys at our other stops!
Hey, they used bad words!
Indeed, a potty mouth is an integral part of the Thug-Kitchen brand. Again, this makes them seem edgy, real, and cool.
But does it really?
There are no official rules for using profanity, but some people do it better than others. When they write about wanting “a real fucking conversation”, it doesn’t seem earned. A book reading is the opposite of conversation. It’s simply a way to promote your book…by reading it. Referring to it as “a real fucking conversation” simply makes it doubly disingenuous.
“Fucking” would work as an adjective if there were a sense of exasperation that had been earned, perhaps by an inability to have had real conversations previously. Instead, the authors use the word as decoration. The Thug-Kitchen brand requires “fucking”, so it is there whether it makes sense or not.
Here are a couple of questions from their FAQ:
The FAQ “Where the fuck am I” seems similarly unearned. Their website doesn’t seem sufficiently puzzling to merit a “where am I?” let alone a “where the fuck am I?” This is what profanity looks like when it is done by quota rather than meaning or even style. It reminds me of the way I used to cuss for a couple of months in middle school.
Overall, I get the sense that the authors are at least a bit insecure. Their writing strikes of trying way too hard. Their striving for hipness just demonstrates that they are tools. I feel bad saying, that, but the writing screams it at me.
Then again, if they had presented a more honest picture of themselves, they might not have sold as well.
Addendum: Apparently this is not the first time a vegan has toyed with the idea of going ghetto. In this charming video, Isa Moskowitz says she felt like she should adopt a hip-hop persona. Crucially, she doesn’t. Because she is not a tool. She is wise enough to recognize her limits. Interestingly, in another video, she declines to attempt a New England accent because people might find it offensive.
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