Thug Kitchen: It’s not just about aping and appropriation, it’s about privilege

 

Hugh Craft, Big House, 1851

Hugh Craft, Big House, 1851

Slave Cabin/Kitchen House, Hugh Craft House, 1851

Slave Cabin/Kitchen House, Hugh Craft House, 1851

I’m writing to you from “the most Southern place on earth,” the state of Mississippi in the midst of the cotton picking season.  I am sleeping in a house that was built 160 years ago, looking out a window at an equally old slave quarter/outside kitchen.  I’ve waited three weeks to say something about the “Thug Kitchen,” debacle but now I feel I have the spiritual grounding to say what I need to say.  As my hero August Wilson once said, “I stand myself and my art squarely on the self-defining ground of the slave quarters, and find the ground to be hallowed and made fertile by the blood and bones of the men and women who can be described as warriors on the cultural battlefield that affirmed their self-worth.” It’s time to get real about Thug Kitchen, and I’m going to start where August Wilson said I should…on the self-defining ground of Black struggle.

We are an ethnic group, not a race.  Please do not attempt to couch my argument as race-baiting or racialized babble.  We are a unique group with our own language patterns, culture, history, conditions, class issues, gender and sexual variations, and structures, arts, material culture and social and aesthetic presence.  We are a sovereign ethnic group, a tribe unto ourselves with many clans based on region and variables that were colloquial and discretionary to our history.  We are a dynamic, category-defining ethnic group. Like our cousins, the Garifuna of Central America, or the Afro-Brazilians, Afro-Cubans, Haitians, Jamaicans, and many other unique genetic and ethno-historical parts of the African Diaspora, we are a special product of a specific story, and our people are special, and despite our constant internal and external struggles, proud of our ability to defy the odds and defy expectations.  I repeat, we are a sovereign people, the African American people.

Thug Kitchen is a popular blog and now it’s a best-selling cookbook.  It’s also a really great gimmick.  Its genius lies in both its graphic presentation, branding and of course its Samuel L. Jackson meets Chris Rock meets Gangsta Rap (so past tense) profanity all in the effort to popularize fashionable foodieism, specifically healthy, vegan eating. If you’re a member of the Millenial generation, it’s a combination that’s sexy as fu#k.

Thug Kitchen is also written by two pretty ass white kids from West Hollywood.  These pretty Anglo-Saxons not only have sex, they cook together too—and when they cook they morph into “thugs,” brandishing cross hatching butcher knives to encourage people to eat like they “give a fu#k.”  They have Gwyneth Paltrow hot to trot and I’m sure they made an agent want to put a cap in somebody’s ass just because they chose to work with them to put this cookbook out and further commodify their 21st century culinary minstrel routine.  Ok, so you can FEEL me getting pissed, can’t you? Other people have made the comparisons between this blog and early minstrelry and I don’t need to repeat those sentiments beyond the comment I just made.  I need to take you to a new place.

Thug Kitchen is built on the privilege that two pretty white kids from West Hollywood can be “thugs,” but I cannot.  In fact, Michael W. Twitty, your favorite Black, Jewish, openly gay, culinary historian who lives his history and puts it in a contemporary context; can’t even be himself because I’m too damn complicated—but actually I’m not.  I’m just human, I’m just an American, and by G-d and I am proud to be labeled one—I am an African American.  We’re not supposed to be thugs because of the culture of respectability; and yet we are not supposed to be complex and richly layered because that defeats stereotypes that Black authenticity is boxable, marketable only through specific lenses of comfort, cool, country, city, and coonishly quaint.  And just in case you didn’t check your calendar by the way, its 2014…

What I’m referring to is the constant creative frustration African American culinary folk (and just about everybody else with an “art”) feel, especially when we, a sovereign people, a time-honored people with a history and futures and destinies that the ancestors who lived in the slave cabin I now look at could never have dreamed of are told who we can and cannot be, while Roy and Dale get to live the American Dream on the backs of the American nightmare.

I am hurt that so many of my friends talk about being put into boxes as they try to market their cookbooks or restaurants.  People don’t “buy” the way we want to tell our stories, they want us to be the next smiling soul foodie or hip and cool and hoppy—but respectable. Black people from so many arts and disciplines will sympathize with this—we’re told who we need to be not told to be free to be who we are.  Remember Basquiat’s famous quote about being a Black artist?  “I use lots of colors, not just black…”   That’s still not acceptable in 2014, where I have “the talk” once a week with a fellow African American creative who is hurt, bewildered and stressed because they can’t be themselves as they see fit.

A white friend once said to me that one of the consequences of the history of whiteness is that you can fill in that “blank” of pan-European American assimilation with whatever you choose.  The world is your oyster and opportunities abound for how you construct your narrative.  Thug Kitchen has been defended by many who deny any racial connotations to the word “thug,” or the style of the cookbook’s language.  It’s all in good fun, it’s just really cleaver, and “It’s just food,” they seem to say “not Ferguson.”

And for you amateur etymologists out there, “Thug Kitchen,” isn’t referencing a secret society claiming to be the children of the goddess Kali. Thugee and it’s equally interesting relationship to the colonial presence is not on trial here. So take that Rudyard Kipling esque white man’s burden stuff back to Wikipedia. We are talking about how a slice of the African American urban underclass reinterpreted a label given them by others privileged to define them, label them, and take their lives.

But it is a cultural battleground when you’re me. I couldn’t be inauthentic before a publisher or producer; I’m not even allowed TO BE authentic.  I’m not at liberty to say who, but in my own journey I’ve had important decision makers tell me—don’t be Jewish, don’t be gay, don’t be too Black…you need to be just Black…(I’m sure they don’t know what the fu#k that means…) constant pushing and pulling over identity.  You live that constant test of your personal authenticity and cultural authenticity and people trying to read you and box you in making it easier to digest you without actually trying to understand something new and challenging and real.

L.A. is a very pointed place to be branded a thug chef.  Let’s get this sh#t straight: Almost nobody thought Thug Kitchen was a solely Black act, if Black at all.  We (people of color) inherently knew that none of us could ever get away with melding a sliver of culture from the underbelly to sell a very upper middle class-based diet profile—I mean witness the hell Michelle Obama got for “Turnip for What?”  Our First Lady—is using everything—including humor to reach the same purported goals as Thug Kitchen, but she’s called “stupid” and an “embarrassment” on Facebook, while the Thug Kitchen people get defended as geniuses and the next thing to watch. “Twice as Good to Be Just as Good,” as our parents would say.

L.A. was the home of Tupac Shakur.  Tupac, no matter what his personal issues, was a thoughtful young Black man who really cared about his people and didn’t know how to answer the problems of class inequity, racial hatred and violence in his community.  He struggled with marketing an image that brought him millions with a thought life that tended towards the revolutionary culture passed to him through his mother Afeni. Tupac tried to balance his perspectives by talking about Thug Life.  Thug Life, is really key here because it was a code, a message, a negotiation between the street and civility.

Thug Life was never meant to be a celebration of criminality.  It was about the hustle, a uniquely American hustle that has been part of the African American peoplehood since 1526 and 1619.  You have nothing, you are underprivileged and disadvantaged but you use what you have to succeed and prevail.  The thugs of Tupac’s imagination weren’t petty criminals (especially since we now live in the “post-racial” age of using “thug” as stand in for “nigger”) they were mental and social warriors fighting the status quo.  Thug Life was an attempt to reclaim a word and a label from further linguistic destruction.

I don’t get hung up on the politics of perception.  That’s not what’s important to me.  What’s important to me is what is real and truly felt.  It’s painful that the double standard has been ignored in this debate around the Thug Kitchen.  Black people struggle to self-express and sell our unique visions while others ape and appropriate the cultures we have created and when they package it right—become outrageously wealthy and established.  I have spoken often of culinary justice—and yet there are still certain white chefs who have been lauded for “discovering the African roots of Southern food.”  (Post-Paula Deen essay language) This isn’t about their color—these creators of Thug Kitchen—it’s about the fact that when you are oppressed how you survive your oppression becomes the greatest capital you possess.  If nothing else this debate gives us insight into the distinction between referencing, quoting, borrowing, fusing, mocking, aping and appropriating.  This debate is about what we lose when we give the green light to squandering our democratic discourse by celebrating the undermining of cultural integrity.

That slave quarter out there empowers me.  Sometimes when I write I feel the tension of whether or not what I say will be received the way I want it to be or will be treated with disrespect.  Right now I don’t care.  The bottom line is my freedom to say my truth was bought by the people who lived out back cooking and caring for the people in the house I’m typing in. Thug Kitchen is as much now a part of American cultural history as the early cookbooks that used the language of former slaves to communicate authenticity and entertainment as a stamp of authority.  Well, right here and right now I’m privileged to say as a member of my beautiful, sovereign people, Thug Kitchen has nothing to do with us, because it’s not grounded in the real Thug Life, and sure as fu#k isn’t rooted in the ground on which I stand: the self-defining ground of the slave quarter, my everlasting hallowed earth.

Posted in African American Food History, Diaspora Food Culture, Food Philosophy at Afroculinaria, Pop Culture and Pop Food, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments

My Eater Piece!

Your favorite food interest site and mine, Eater.com has just relaunched with a really hopeful, insightful and mission – oriented set of responses to questions about how food can change the world, and about the future of food and where things need to go. Yours truly was asked to give his humble opinion, along with 71 other voices from Alice Waters to Ari Weinzweig to Dan Barber and many others! Enjoy: http://www.eater.com/a/72-ways-food-can-change-the-world/michael-twitty

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The symbol of our resistance: Carolina Gold Rice.

Posted in Events and Appearances, Food and Slavery, Food Philosophy at Afroculinaria, Pop Culture and Pop Food, Publications, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rosh Hashanah is time for sweetening the new year – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

http://www.post-gazette.com/life/food/2014/09/18/Rosh-Hashanah-is-time-for-sweetening-the-new-year/stories/201409180012

Just a little quote from me about Rosh Hashanah 2014. Everything sweet is a different kind of sweet, a different flavor and savor. Just as we appreciate different kinds of sweetness we should appreciate different blessings for what they are and how they brighten our lives.

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Journeys in the Upper South: A Photo Essay

As I officially begin to work on The Cooking Gene, I have begun to travel the South again in search of bits and pieces from the world of my Ancestors.  I am ever amazed and grateful for the journey and the people I meet. Pastry chef and foodie Stella Parks of Lexington reminded me the other day that this project, nay–book, is not just about food and family history; its about the family we create, find, and discover through food and the magic of place and connection.  I’ve spent the past few days in Kentucky and Tennessee, the old Southern backcountry that became the heart of the mid-South,  re-learning and discovering; searching for the parts of a larger story of Southern food in the hands of the African American growers, producers, bakers and cooks of the past and the legacy they left for all of us.

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Stella Parks giving me a tour of the burley tobacco and horse farms of bluegrass country.

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Tobacco farm, Kentucky, 1944

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Note the stakes on the ground.

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Modernized historic home, the former "big house" of a small Kentucky plantation established before Washington was president, when Kentucky was the Virginia frontier.

Tobacco, corn, rye, and hemp were major crops in Kentucky during slavery time. Much of the rye and corn were transformed into whiskey.  70% of the nation’s burley tobacco crop is grown in Kentucky, with smaller amounts being grown in Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia.  As I traveled from Virginia into Tennessee and Kentucky,  the late summer fields of brilliant,  blinding golden leaves curing in the sun set themselves apart from the emerald bucolic face of the hills and the pale blue skies above.  The black roofed barns slowly swallowing the harvest swelled with stakes of cut plants, emitting an acridly sweet mustiness each time the breeze gave life to the leaves and pushed it’s way through the open slats used to impregnate the crop with dew.  The leaves go from crumbly to a leathery pliable texture.

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The countryside between Louisville and Lexington was one of the heartlands of Kentucky slavery. At the auction spot near the Fayette County courthouse, numerous enslaved cooks were sold including two “likely” women in 1864, both noted as talented cooks. Today, where enslaved people once waited to be sold “down the river,” the Farmer’s Market now stands.

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Lexington Farmer's Market

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Monterey, Tennessee

The upper Southern midlands preserved much of the heritage brought from the Chesapeake and Maryland, Carolina and Virginia piedmont.  Enslaved people’s dietary and cultural preferences shined through as watermelons, corn, muskmelons, hot peppers, okra and tomatoes joined gourds in the gardens of new plantations and farms west of the mountains.

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19th century artist, Lewis Miller's rendering of enslaved people being marched from Staunton to Tennessee.

Riding down modern highways it dawned on me that my journey was infinitely easier than these Ancestors marched into the unknown. Barefoot, subject to the elements, leaving behind the world their African forebears had arrived to from 1619-1778, the enslaved of Kentucky and Tennessee had to build new lives in coal mines, corn fields,  tobacco barns, and in central and western Tennessee, acres of upland cotton pushed down the Mississippi from Memphis. The classic dishes of Maryland and Virginia morphed as they were forced to make do with new landlocked environments.

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The varied fish of the rivers, creeks, mill ponds and oxbow lakes gave enslaved people new sources of protein. I visited the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga to learn about the ecosystems and habits of bream, blue catfish, eels, buffalo, chubs, shiners, suckers, bass, trout and other native fish the Ancestors added to their cooking pots.

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Loveless Café biscuits…heaven on earth…..they need sorghum.

Sorghum, a grain grass from Africa,  has a sweet, chewable core. The juice was used to make sweets in Northern Nigeria.  A variety of sorghum grown by the Zulu Empire for chewing arrived from the Natal region of South Africa in 1857 and as a result this plant, once crushed, juiced and boiled make a true culinary treat that could cheaply and quickly provide a source of sweetener. It became central in the Appalachians and was known simply as “cane,” although in many places it was erroneously labled “Chinese sugar cane.”

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The juice is strained and collected until it goes into a steam heated series of vats where voila,  30 minutes later it thickens into sorghum syrup.

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The Mennonites make sorghum in central Tennessee, among the goodies they make with this plant with soul is a magnificent sorghum – butter pouncake. The Guenther family was extremely hospitable to me as I documented sorghum making the way my Grandparents remembered.  It was really special to get multiple “Gd bless you on your journey.”‘s as I took leave of the Muddy Pond Sorghum Mill.  I felt as though I had found a new and unlikely family in a part of the world I never dreamed I would see.

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I had the occasion to meet a celebrity chef I admire,  Chef Ed Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville.  Next year I may be going to Louisville to do a dinner featuring historic foods from Afro-Kentuckians, so as we make plans, stay tuned. His amazing book, Smoke and Pickles speaks to the Newer New South, where chefs of all backgrounds make traditional dishes sing with urgent life based on their ethnic origins, personal journeys and conversation with traditional ingredients. 

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Husk Nashville

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Knox-Mason, Knoxville

Field peas make great table decor.

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I’m learning a lot about this often overlooked part of Southern food culture. I am in the land of country ham, red eye gravy made with coffee, biscuits, fried chicken, hot browns, hot chicken, rib barbecue,  scrapple and panehas, catfish, burgoo, and mutton cue. As I explore and research, I hope the book will reflect the honor I feel visiting the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King shed his blood for the freedom of his people; and the reverence visiting the boyhood home of Alex Haley, where the thirst for roots began.  I had several ancestors enslaved here in Tennessee, and every step brings me closer to them and the world they knew.

I am in the Southern heartland and now it’s beauty, pain and yearning is in my heart. I am off to the Association of Food Journalists conference in Memphis, do please follow my notes on Twitter. Until next post, MWT.

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Cotton Field, West Tennessee

Posted in African American Food History, Events and Appearances, Food and Slavery, Food People and Food Places, Food Philosophy at Afroculinaria, Heirloom Gardening/Heritage Breeds and Wildcrafting, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Sorghum Chicken Wings for Rosh Hoshanah

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/jewish-and/2014/09/09/an-afro-ashkefardi-recipe-for-rosh-hashana/

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Sorghum boiling away in Tennessee

Posted in African American Food History, Diaspora Food Culture, Events and Appearances, Food Philosophy at Afroculinaria, Heirloom Gardening/Heritage Breeds and Wildcrafting, Jewish Stuff, Pop Culture and Pop Food, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Lexington, Kentucky September 8th? Come See Me! Kosher/Soul!

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Blogging While Black: Yeah, It’s a Thing.

michaelwtwitty:

From my friend, Rabbi Ruth Adar…an essay of support and solidarity. B’shalom!

Originally posted on Coffee Shop Rabbi:

 :לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor. – Lev. 19:16

Yesterday, I posted a link to a blog post by Michael W. Twitty from Afroculinaria.com. He titled it #Ferguson: My Thoughts on an American Flashpoint, and it is a moving piece. It began with an image someone sent via Twitter to him: a racist manipulation of the image of Michael Brown’s dead body lying on the pavement.

I’ve received a share of hate messages via social media. They were nasty bits of Jew-hatred, woman-hatred, or fat-hatred, and occasionally a rancid mix of the three. But none were as violent, as personal, as those sent to my friend. I deleted them and blocked the source, if I could. Then I tried to push the image, or the words out of my head: easier said than done.

But Michael Twitty took this ugly, hateful, personal image and…

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