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.

About michaelwtwitty

I am a Judaics teacher and Culinary Historian focusing on the foodways of Africa, enslaved African Americans, African America and the African and Jewish diasporas.
This entry was posted in African American Food History, Diaspora Food Culture, Food Philosophy at Afroculinaria, Pop Culture and Pop Food, The Cooking Gene and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. Ellen Hawley says:

    Great post. Sounds like Thug Kitchen is the work of white kids who haven’t noticed they have a history and culture of their own so they think they need to rip off someone else’s. Or maybe their own is too uncomfortable for them. Fu#kin’ pitiful. Not to mention offensive.

    • Adam says:

      Wow you are kidding right??? “Thug” is a Hindu word and was then used by Whites for over a hundred years long before the invention of rap or hip hop. Please get an education.

      • I’m well aware that THUGEE the cult that has sort of anti colonial roots (Mughal and British) is the etymology of thug. Yes you’re right, they stole the word first. It’s not that Black ppl own this word. It’s that the culture and aesthetic these guys chose as their brand is One African American underclass interpretation of a word and an approach to survival. They aren’t referencing a 19th century Hindu cult.

  2. Enncy says:

    Beautifully written piece; looking forward to following your work.

  3. True! says:

    HELLO! and Amen! Great insight and letting the People know what they are not understanding! My Everlasting Hallowed Ground!

  4. Tami says:

    Micheal, this a very important piece. African American;s culture has never been given comprehensive review, ethnographically in a large forum. Some feel that the ” stealing” of culture started long ago ( and i agree). Perhaps it was a borrowing, but at some point, they and everyone – is aware that is is theft if not acknowledged. Rock and Roll , for example , is clearly connected to Back southern music ( which if course has it;s won complex roots– and in deed, i feel that Jazz is the only pure american art form, btw, and I consider it of distinctly black origin, as does everyone). The difference is the complete acknowledgement. I also agree that the word thug has been given a new definition and it is thoughtfully abused – and often. I don’t know if these folks can cook, but they can re-weave, re -craft and repackage like no bodies business. Maybe that is the way to finical success and fame in the rarified air of the celebrity food biz; maybe it always was. How often do you really see a new idea? A re-conceived tradition? It’s mostly just another. Thug kitchen may come and go, or it may stay a bit, but it the long run the damage it does by reaching into the millennial hipster consciousness ( read white young post-sububamitis, just lithe punk spfthe 70 and hippies of the 60’s) is really what worries me. It lacks compassion and stressed abuses of culture and language that simply isn’t ( or shouldn’t) be real.

  5. Tracy says:

    Awesome post and thank you for publishing it.

  6. ArizonaBorn says:

    Thank you, Michael. I just heard of this cookbook and dog and pony show from your post. I so appreciate how you broke down who we are as a people. Thank you for debunking these “thugs”.

  7. Such a good post. I remember when I was linked to Thug Kitchen by some friends of mine. I admit, I laughed. I come from the DC area, grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, and thought this might be the kind of person I grew up with who decided to be a vegan and write in this way. When I found out it was a white couple, I wasn’t surprised in the least. IN THE LEAST. Of course it was a couple of yuppie vegans. I’m disappointed, but you’re right. If a black person had done this, I doubt this many people would buy into it.

  8. Whoo-hoo! Thank you, thank you! For thinking this through, for writing it down clear as a cool woodland stream, strong as a whirling eddy. This is much more than a post. Like so much of your writing, it is an important part of an evolving manifesto. Teach!

  9. DeAnna says:

    Bravo Michael! This a an eloquent, honest and from-the-gut work of art that will hopefully become a definitive view on the subject of race appropriation. You, Dear, are a great writer!

  10. Alisa Boyd says:

    This middle-aged white lady always enjoys what you have to say because it forces me to think about my privilege. It’s not always comfortable to do so, but I need to take this journey for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. I like that you are real; I like that you aren’t afraid to say what you think; I like that you make me think. Keep it up, Michael.

  11. yankeefarmer says:

    Michael, I’ve been following your posts and blog irregularly at-best. Sorry if you’ve covered this ground already, I usually stumble over you on Facebook.
    I’m keenly aware of the “one label” nation we live in. “You’re a…” and that’s that.
    A -hyphen-hyphen–dash American doesn’t fit.
    Some thoughts on the substantive issues of your post. “Black but not too Black.”
    Small b black is sellable to Whites, Jews, Gays. It fed and clothed the Civil Rights movement.
    Big B BLACK is still scary negro stuff. We haven’t moved past ’65.
    Your choice of 1765, 1865, or 1965.
    I see this remains a problem inside the greater African-American community, not solely an inter-racial issue (though it is). How black is too BLACK, depends on the audience. It shouldn’t be.
    Whites (seldom) view one-another as too dark (ok, not since the great Italian migration) or too white (Scandinavians). They usually split on religious ideology instead.

    I’d like to have you write: The Pasty-Ass Cracker’s Table – sending flavorful food back to the kitchen – 2 millennia of boring-ass food.

  12. Rachel says:

    Thank you. You nailed it. I also enjoyed the Freudian “cleaver”- unintentional though it may have been- it was apropos.

  13. sooze bloom deLeon grossman says:

    I feel like I read this entire post without taking a breath—taking great big bites fast fast fast trying to get it all in quick quick quick because you write with such passion and conviction. I live on a little island, thank you for taking me to a bigger place. be well.

  14. Thank you Mike. I just gave an extensive talk at Middlebury College tonight and really focused on Shakurs Thug Life and how his definition is NOT the same at Thug Kitchen’s “thug”. I showed the audience a 1994 interview with Shakur. My talk was a critical race materialist analysis of Thug Kitchen and I also brought in what Shakurs definition of thug life looks like in the form of vegan cooking, but through the embodied knowledge of several leading Black male vegans who use hip hop methodologies and race-consciousness. I spoke of Stic.Man, DJ CAVEM, Bryant Terry, and Supa Nova Slom. It was video recorded and will be posted online. I titled it ” On Ferguson, Thug Kitchen, and Trayvon Martin.”
    -Dr. A. Breeze Harper

  15. Thank you Mike. I just gave an extensive talk at Middlebury College tonight and really focused on Shakurs Thug Life and how his definition is NOT the same at Thug Kitchen’s “thug”. I showed the audience a 1994 interview with Shakur. My talk was a critical race materialist analysis of Thug Kitchen and I also brought in what Shakurs definition of thug life looks like in the form of vegan cooking, but through the embodied knowledge of several leading Black male vegans who use hip hop methodologies and race-consciousness. I spoke of Stic.Man, DJ CAVEM, Bryant Terry, and Supa Nova Slom. It was video recorded and will be online soon.

  16. Sorry I posted twice! Erase that😉

  17. Jimmy H. says:

    You’re an outstanding writer. Your combination of passion and logic is usually incredibly persuasive. But this one reads like it was written by a 19-year-old at a liberal arts college who’s intellectually frozen by a victimization fetish. There are many fights that still deserve to be fought about race and privilege. Anyone who thinks this is one of them ought to go watch CB4.

    “Almost nobody thought Thug Kitchen was a solely Black act, if Black at all.” This is based on what? As I understand it (I hadn’t heard of Thug Kitchen before today), the blog’s Facebook page has 550,000 fans. How many of those did you talk to before reaching this conclusion. If people had become fans of the site with knowledge that the authors are white, then my critique of your piece has no merit. But if people didn’t know, then there’s no reason to assume the blog wouldn’t have become every bit as popular if it had Black authors. Indeed, popular culture has historically been (and remains) one area where Black Americans have had success in White America.

    “Thug Kitchen is built on the privilege that two pretty white kids from West Hollywood can be ‘thugs,’ but I cannot.” This is based on what? You don’t think the blog would have grown in popularity if the then-anonymous authors were black? Based on what? You don’t think the immensely popular blog would have been passed over by publishers if the authors had been black? You think the publishers would have passed on the opportunity to publish a cookbook by website authors who had the kind of following these guys had? Based on what? Is there a case you can identify of a Black blogger with the kind of following that Thug Kitchen has that did not get a book deal?

    “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.” Really? How many people made fun of Michelle Obama? How many people defended her? How many people defended the Thug Kitchen duo? How many people used their bully pulpits to mock them or attack them on a personal level? How many times has Michelle Obama had event organizers cancel her events because people were outraged by her? It’s happened to the Thug Kitchen people three times already.

    • Ok let’s take this piece by piece. First I appreciate your compliment. After that, I couldn’t disagree with you more; but I need people who are willing to give me an honest critique from their point of view. If everyone agrees with me, I’m probably doing something wrong. I’m a busy guy but I will try to answer some of your concerns. This was full of generalizations, you’re absolutely right. Rhetorically, I wasn’t looking to write a logos piece. It’s a piece based in appeal to ethos and pathos. I am under no obligation to assess the racism of the fans of TK, some of whom are of color. I take great umbrage to your characterization of me as a fetishist of victimization. It’s interesting that you chose that language when I wrote this piece with the same sort of perspective that one finds when we Jews say “back off, we claim and own our pain…and it’s healing process as we see fit.” When I write from that perspective I tend to get more pushback because just saying the words “we are a sovereign people” pisses people off. This isn’t hard science or a sociological study Jimmy, this is how perceptions become reality and how that affects people’s lives. You and I both know that the African American presence in popular culture has a very checkered history. Mostly checkered. Amos and Andy and Steppin’ Fetchit were very successful but they were also an embarrassment to dignified Black manhood. Critical analysis of media history clearly bears out that African Americans can be comforting, chill, coonishly quaint and ppl eat that up. Clearly they got the same message trickled down through time. They built a big brand based on Bill O’Reilly ‘ s vision if Sylvia’s where mfking son of ….was his preconceived notion of how a Black restaurant was run. This is not about samplings of Facebook people. These are unwritten rules of dealing with perceptions that are larger than science or logic could ever hold.

      Maybe I didn’t make this clear enough. I was told straight up you are Black and this is what WE want or think YOU should be…because of you being Black. Black thinkers and creatives ENDURE THIS ALL THE TIME. It’s bloody humiliating and frustrating and nobody wants to talk about it. But let me end this here. It’s gross for anyone to think that they can tell a sovereign ethnic group how to feel as they are constantly co-opted, stolen from, re-presented for capitalist gain. We don’t mind dialogue, debate, argument or conflict. However, we will not be told how to feel or process our feelings when we feel disrespected and boxed into corners of disempowerment.

      • Jimmy H. says:

        “Critical analysis of media history clearly bears out that African Americans can be comforting, chill, coonishly quaint and ppl eat that up.”

        I agree with this 100% and that’s why I think your anger on this particular issue is misplaced. Or, put another way that avoids me telling you how to feel, it’s why I don’t get your anger about this. Whatever publisher said told you what should be is an idiot. They’re also likely not very good at their job. From bell hooks to Allen Iverson to Nicky Minaj, there are countless examples of Black people who have climbed to the top of their public professions while actively rejecting the concept that they have to fit into a box. That doesn’t mean I doubt what happened to you at all, only that there isn’t some bright line that can’t be crossed. The boardroom is far behind, but that’s a world where radical individualism is disfavored and the racial implications and problems there are a different discussion.

        “Coonishly quaint” is brilliant phrase – there’s a lot packed into that. But isn’t coonishly quaint precisely what these white authors were being? Isn’t that what explains their appeal? To me the notion of writing a vegan cooking block in the voice of a comically bad stereotype strikes me as what people were attracted to.

        Let me put it another way. If it turned out the authors of Thug Kitchen were Black, do you think they get the book deal they got? Would anyone be protesting them to the point that appearances were canceled? Would they have sold even more books?

        Lastly, does your anger about Thug Kitchen extend beyond the use of the word “thug”? If the recipes were written the same way and the blog was called “Profane Vegan” would you be bothered by it at all?

      • Coonishly quaint IS the problem. It’s like the women who wrote Southern cookbooks in Mammy speak. The message is clear, it’s a weird sort of re-representation. My anger isn’t about the word, it’s about the ideas around the word and the aesthetic they are employing. I don’t want this to get hung up on who owns the word. I have said on other forums that profane vegan would have been a better way to go minus the GRap trappings.

      • Michael ‘Maybe I didn’t make this clear enough. I was told straight up you are Black and this is what WE want or think YOU should be…because of you being Black. Black thinkers and creatives ENDURE THIS ALL THE TIME. ‘

        I agree. My red flags go up all the time when white identified people or white led leadership with ‘good intentions’ immediately tell me that I CANNOT feel or think a certain way about something ‘so little’ (or I’m being distracting to the REAL problems of the world.). That’s a classic All-knowing White Expert Approach. I just finished reading the book “Pondering Privilege” by Jody Fernando last night . It’s a book by a white woman (Fernando) who talks about who well-intentioned white folk make these common mistakes, including telling POC of they should or should not feel about something that POC experience as a racial injustice issues.

        Personally, ‘thug’ and its use in Thug Kitchen is a somatically traumatic and triggering word. It’s not a little thing. For me, what trails behind it is violence and suffering (in the context of the past few years and huge media attention around Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin). I wonder if at least Black Americans in the USA have a type of somatically traumatic response to processes like ‘thug’ (because it was in fact a racial process to turn ‘thug’ into how it is used today to justify killing young black men like Davis and Martin) that most white Americans just cannot every know, in terms of embodied and visceral based knowledge. Triggers and trauma are deep and it breaks my heart that many of us POC who are saying that ‘thug’ is killing us to hear, experience, etc., in the context of project like Thug Kitchen and most white Americans dismiss it. I just don’t know where to go from there, other than to suggest a few introductory books to the problems of using white epistemologies and embodied experiences when that demographic is trying to analyze racial issues.


      • Love your contributions here!!!

      • Sorry, lots of spelling and grammar mistakes. Will try to be better about it next time. I am nursing my baby while trying to type on the tablet and should be paying attention better.

      • Jimmy H. says:

        Thanks for joining the discussion Dr. Harper. I’m going to respond separately to your post below but here I’d just ask whether you think it’s ever okay for one person to tell another person how they should feel and if so, when? Can one white heterosexual middle-class 30-year-old man who was raised by their mother and father tell their twin brother who was raised with him how they should feel? If the answer to that last question is yes, then I’d ask where the line is drawn that some people are able to tell others how to feel. If the answer is no and you don’t think it’s ever okay for someone to tell another person how they should feel, how do you hope to ever change minds about important issues that evoke strong emotions.

    • Rene says:

      Thank you Jimmy for bringing some reason and common sense to this ridiculous post. The whole thing sounded like nothing more than a 20 year old college kids jealous rant.

    • Raina Beasley Dye says:

      Thank you. I woul like to add, people criticizing Michelle Obama are probably good old red meat eating redneck/ahem/republicans. People loving thug kitchen are vegans or vegan minded. They are no different than the other 100+? people appealing to the VEGAN culture. If they were asking the country, with authority, to eat healthy with less animal products, they too would be greatly criticized. I think Michelle is held with high regard and have not heard bashing of her fabulous recommendations. I just saw someone in a vegan group remove someone’s post of thug kitchen due to its potential offensiveness. I have never heard of this before. Maybe I should watch their demeanor, but thug to me has always given me a vision of a 50’s rebel James Dean or in today’s society, a white rebel not a good one. I never think of a black bad person when hearing this. I agree! How the heck do you know if done by African Americans it wouldn’t have done well?? I bet it would do fabulous! I would buy it. I am always hoping to see more black vegans in the movement. There are more now, and I love it. I realize I can never, as any white person could, understand a black persons perspective on many issues. But white black or otherwise, we ARE all told how to act, how to appeal to others and do well, preferably with class or with a great level of amusement to receive the right attention.

  18. Phil Ford says:

    I’m 55, white, and I don’t get it. If I understand things correctly, white folks aren’t supposed to use the word “thug” anymore because it now belongs to black folks, even though black folks don’t want to be called thugs in the first place. I mean, I use the word sometimes, usually towards a Middle Eastern dictator or American cops who have become a professional thug class. Tupac to me is just some guy from the 90’s you see in a lot of t-shirt shops. Anyway, my younger nieces and nephews have been reminding me of late on facebook about the horrors of the word thug, even though I never use it in reference to black people. Forgive me the “get off my lawn” style rant, but I think it’s a load of PC nonsense where everyone has to be a victim.

    • Here’s the deal, and I appreciate your honesty. It’s not that white people can’t use or say that’s not it at all. It’s that the word and the culture these writers evoke is associated with one particular sliver of a part of the Black experience that quite frankly isn’t that positive and is at best culturally and morally ambiguous. On the one hand here are the “knights” and “rebels” and on the other is the legacy of violence, petty criminality. Tupac wasn’t just a rapper, he had a wider influence because unlike many entertainers you saw his world view. Beneath his lyrics were deeper thoughts about the ghetto and the overall Black condition. He was the “Thug poet.” His death at a young age to Black on Black violence adds to his mystique and conflicted narrative and myth. But here’s where I want to tie it together—this isn’t about the cult of victimization. This is about boundaries and saying we are tired of being held to a different standard and being limited while others try on elements of other cultures willy nilly like Halloween costumes, and if successful they get rewarded for mocking and stealing from us. It’s an ethnic not racial issue..many groups could come from the same place and make similar arguments. Yet, here it is..its tragic when underprivileged people have the one capital unique to them..their systems of survival stolen and abused in the name of capitalism and because as a white person, they just can..its a privilege of being able to be free to play and dance with identity as much as it is a privilege to not have to answer for those choices..not quite the lives that me or most people of color live. We may agree to disagree but I really appreciate your honest, straightforward comment. That’s critical in this dialogue.

      • Rene says:

        I don’t get it. AT ALL. My entire family is from the south. They all talk just the so called “privileged white kids” that wrote this book your hatin’ on so badly. And my black son-in law (forgive me, should that be a big ‘B’ or a little ‘b’), talks the same way. We all black and white in this family use the word thug interchangeably. And we all in this family have our own histories, cultures, etc. which make us a sovereign race of people. So tell me, where is it written that my family can’t talk like yours? And the “privileged white kids” that wrong Thug Kitchen can’t talk like you? Or that any of us can’t use a word that YOU associate with GRap? Who made YOU the spoke word police?

      • Jill says:

        Thank you for this article and for generously replying to comments. For what it is worth I am a white woman who assumed Thug Kitchen was written by someone black because it would be just tin-ear offensive (in ways that you and other posters were able to clearly describe and elaborate on) otherwise.

  19. Chickenpig says:

    This is an amazing post. It isn’t often that you can stumble upon something at random on Facebook that makes you just stop everything and think. Thank you for this. I have never heard of Thug Kitchen, and now I am very curious to find out more…in a kind of “I can’t help myself from looking at the train wreck” kind of way.

    I am white, and I don’t think I could have grown up in a whiter area of the US. But I also grew up poor…very poor. When I went to college, though, I could (to an extent) leave that behind, because I was white. Our identities are flexible like dead fish. Being white doesn’t mean being without a soul, or a history, or a cultural identity. We have so much to identify with, why should a couple of privileged white hipsters need to co opt another culture this way?

    I am a historian, of food, culture, art, material culture you name it. Yesterday I was watching a seminar from Monticello on interpreting slavery. One of the speakers mentioned that geneticists at Harvard are tracking the genome of African-Americans, and they haven’t found one black person, not one, who doesn’t have European DNA. Not only that, but is tracked only on the Y chromosome. The geneticists said that it looks exactly like the effects of conquest…genetic spreading through rape and possession. Can you imagine having a cooking revolution based on THAT? Thomas Jefferson Thug kitchen. Ethnic identity and slavery are VERY touchy subjects here in the US. I think you hit the nail on the head with this post.

  20. Lavada Nahon says:

    Eloquent as always. Privileged to be your friend and culinary companion. Thank you!

  21. Jimmy H. says:

    Well apparently you have an interesting comment policy in which you take to twitter to mock critical comments rather than publish and respond to them here. That’s unfortunate. Was the victimization fetish too personal of an attack? That’s odd because I thought I made it clear I’m generally a fan of your work and the criticism was solely on this post.

    What I’m not a fan of is sweeping generalizations of the type that pervade this piece. For some people race is an incredibly difficult issue to discuss. If your goal is simply to preach to the choir, then keep on doing what you’re doing. If your goal is to change minds and educate folks you think need educating, then I’d recommend taking a different approach.

    All the best,


    • You’re right. I need critique agreed or not. I think it was bordering on ad hominem, because I never use the word victim to describe myself. I have responded to your initial comments but caution that due to my schedule further commentary on my part will be delayed.

    • I’d argue that for most white people in the USA, race is an incredibly difficult issue to discuss since collectively, they don’t really have to think about all the forms for racism (structural, systemic, overt, etc) that will negatively affect their life’s chances for happiness, health, safety, etc. And this isn’t some opinion of mine; there are entire canons of critical whiteness studies and critical race studies thoughts that support this.

      For most non-white identified people who have spent a fair amount of time living in the USA (or other white settler nations), it’s not difficult to discuss race at all; we kind of have to do it from the get go in order to survive. I also feel like there is a literacy around ‘nuances’ of racial issues that at least a lot of POC get that most white people just don’t get or experience as ‘why is this one word or occurrence bothering you or angering you”… and it leaves a lot of white people who try to engage in these conversations to feel like the author should start talking about race with the assumption that the primary audience is of the white post-racial ‘but I’m not racist’ demographic. If the author started at this point, they’d probably end up only appealing to whites and not be able to build more with people of color who already have complex and comprehensive literacy around the machinery of racism and whiteness.

      So, I do wonder what your(michael) goal is when writing. For me, I personally had to stop spending so much time trying to start at square one for the sake of white people who didn’t get these nuances (or even that racism as changed in form and practice since Jim Crow) and just write and publish for an audience I assumed already understand it. Just a few thoughts as I’m reading the dialogue between Jimmy and Michael. Jimmy, I’m not sure how you identify racially. I identify as African American woman , born and raised in rural white New England, bisexual, able-bodied, Anglophone, advanced degree (PhD), and a mother of 3 children under the age of 6.


      • I meant to say “I’d argue that for most white people in the USA, race is an incredibly difficult issue to discuss since collectively, they don’t really have to think about all the forms for racism (structural, systemic, overt, etc) that will probably NOT DIRECTLY negatively affect their life’s chances for happiness, health, safety, etc

      • And I say “DIRECTLY” because it still ends up screwing them over as well. I won’t get too much into this, but Lombardo’s book “Economies of Whiteness: On the Social Ecology of White Liberals” explains that this demographic eventually harms themselves, their job security, etc by choosing to collude with systemic whiteness (which they do by basically being post-racial and/or not willing to become racially literate for a post-2000 age in an era of neoliberal capitalism).

      • INDIRECTLY it negatively affects post-racial white liberals😉 . Ok, signing out for now.

      • Jimmy H. says:

        I should have been more clear and said that race is an incredibly tough issue to talk about across racial lines among people who do not agree with one another. In joining you in full disclosure, I’ll say I am a white man, born, raised and always lived in large cities in the Midwest and East Coast, straight, able-bodied, Anglophone, advanced degree (JD), single, without kids, and upper middle class. As an aside that will become relevant at the end of this post, I am curious whether you leaving socio-economic status out of your list of characteristics was an oversight.

        In my experience, I find that white people are perfectly comfortable talking about race with other white people but it’s plainly obvious that it’s not a discussion that happens as much among all white groups as it does with all-Black groups. I don’t have enough experience with Asians or Latinos on a personal level to make the same blanket comment about them nor do I ever use the term “people of color” because I find it serves no real function when talking about people who have collectively had such extraordinarily different journeys in and through the United States.

        And of course you’re correct that racism will not negatively directly affect most White Americans personal chances for health, safety, economic success, etc.

        What my goal in writing was to have a dialogue and to offer a different perspective so that people who might come across this page who have not put in nearly the amount of thought that you, Mr. Twitty, or I (surely me not as much as either of you) have into these issues can work through their own opinions on such matters. Typically, I don’t post online or engage in these kind of theoretical conversations about race because I’ve found that once people have thought about these matters enough, opinions simply don’t change and everyone thinks the other person either can’t or won’t “get it” and feelings get hurt. I think I felt compelled to respond here because I find discussions of race to be so rare in the non-academic food world other than blanket banal comments by white people about food opening up doors to understanding other cultures.

        “For me, I personally had to stop spending so much time trying to start at square one for the sake of white people who didn’t get these nuances (or even that racism as changed in form and practice since Jim Crow) and just write and publish for an audience I assumed already understand it.”

        I’m glad you acknowledge this and frustrated that you’ve reached that conclusion. It’s a clear statement of most of my frustration with critical race theory and what I think most people call cultural studies. The question that consistently runs through my mind when reading materials from authors in that world is, “what’s the goal.” Actually, I should say ran instead of runs because I’ve largely stopped reading it because I find it frustrating and counterproductive due to the absence of non-academic perspective and practicability.

        What would the ideal American society look like? I’m not sure that the critical race theory crowd can state their goal. Surely it’s not intellectualism for the sake of intellectualism, right? But what else can I conclude when you have made a conscious decision to avoid engaging in dialogues with “white people who didn’t get these nuances.”

        For me, it’s pretty easy – I’d like race to be as irrelevant to determining a Black child’s potential for professional success as it is for a White child. Do I wish that race would become as meaningless as most European ethnicities are in social interactions? Sure, but I don’t get worked up about that. Do I wish that every neighborhood, school and workplace was racially diverse? Sure, but that’s a secondary concern. My goal for the United States when it comes to race is nobody’s ability to determine their own destiny is limited by race.

        And that’s a tangible goal that, regardless of how people feel, is something that every single year I can point to more evidence of that happening. I’m not suggesting we’ve achieved anything close to racial equality, but we’ve moved far past the time, not too long ago, where the only substantial examples of Black professional success were in the worlds of sports and entertainment. I don’t think we’ve achieved the same level of success as a society in regards to class, which is why I noted your omission earlier in describing yourself. The lack of discussion about class is something that becomes increasingly problematic as historically disadvantaged racial and ethnic minorities achieve more professional and economic success. And those are realities I think the “people of color feel” and “you can’t tell me how to feel” arguments do not sufficiently take into consideration. I can’t tell anyone how they do feel but I think I can certainly question whether those feelings make sense in light of the facts.

      • Jimmy, will respond in the next week more deeply. Class: I grew up working class and am now lower middle class. Interestingly, I have working class sensibilities and have dealt with talking about the ‘shame’ I have had due to internalized racism and internalized classism. I am an unpaid research fellow that makes income through public speaking; interestingly, despite of having a PhD, I was never able to secure employment in academia . .My dissertation chapter on Afrocentric vegan blacks who lead the movement are very much about creating the right ‘class’ is Blacks through ‘proper eating’– but, they do not really think critically about this and focus really on racial uplift through holistic eating as if class has nothing to do with how people define what is ‘proper’ eating.

        More later.

  22. Karen L. Cox says:

    Reblogged this on Pop South and commented:
    A great post by Michael Twitty from his blog Afroculinaria.

  23. Reblogged this on uberherbalmama and commented:
    Read it!

  24. As I have come to expect, brilliant, thoughtful response to Still Another Example of where we are getting it wrong, and missing, denying, or ignoring the point we need to see and ponder. Grateful every day for your great mind and powerful passionate wise words.

  25. Pingback: Weeknight Vegetarian: Black bean tortas, hold the expletives (and the appropriation) | Eat Well Live Well

  26. pjoseph31 says:


    I’ve only recently started following your blog, and since following, I’ve found your writing thought provoking – this piece is no exception.

    I had to read this piece multiple times, and each time my feeling was the same: “I get it and I don’t get it.”

    Let me explain my feelings of duplicity. Throughout history, others have capitalized on the talents, skills, and cultural uniqueness of African-American people, while many of our contributions are trivialized, minimized, and even vaporized. This is nothing new! We’ve seen this happen in arts, sports, music, science, education, and many other disciplines. Thug Kitchen is nothing more than a gimmick, and a continued pattern of capitalizing on the greatness of others. Sound familiar?

    Lucrative opportunities: books, blogs, and cooking shows, now await ‘fashionable foodies,’ or gourmet chefs, who’ve been granted a stamp of authenticity, for recipes and cooking techniques created by, and passed on, by those who may have cooked in the Huge Craft, Big House. While African-American culinary folks, lineal descendants of the cooks in the Huge Craft, Big House, frustratingly market their cookbooks and restaurants, in a post-racial era where ‘blackish’ is still debated. Yeah, it’s complicated! So, I get it when you write, “Ok, so you can FEEL me getting pissed, can’t you?”

    While it is true that “Thug Life was never meant to be a celebration of criminality,” it is now a term that folks use to glorify and justify violence against, and degradation of women – this, I don’t get!

    What I also don’t get is the need for African-American people, to continue to seek approval, acceptance, and validity for their own uniqueness. As you say: “…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.” This ‘specialness’ is what make us unique, and should be the driving force behind us defining and telling our own stories; this is our responsibility. We shouldn’t expect others to tell our stories, or define who we are. If we do that, then we run the risk of others incorrectly defining us, or getting the story wrong. In doing so, we’ve inadvertently given that power over to others, and not giving the power to whom it rightly belongs: God himself.

    To your African-American culinary folks, I say, “keep telling your own stories, market your books and restaurants, and persevere, for the cream always rises to the top.”

  27. Matt says:

    I missed this post by a few weeks, but I really enjoyed reading it. In this sort of discussion, I fee strangely obligated to state my affiliations upfront, so for what it’s worth, I’m a 30-something, middle-class, heterosexual, non-vegan, white male.

    Anyway, when Thug Kitchen blew up, I really didn’t get it. I thought of it as a vegan recipe blog with slick photographs and a generous helping of “Go the Fuck to Sleep” thrown in as a marketing hook. I didn’t like the title for some of the same reasons you expressed, but I also didn’t think too hard about it. To be honest, by the time I read this post, I had already basically written the whole thing off as stupid, for sure, but culturally insensitive only in an everyday, white girls throwing gang signs in selfies sort of way–ugly and inconsiderate, albeit fairly banal. But you’re right, it’s worse than that.

    Now don’t get me wrong, cultural appropriation is just a part of how human cultures work. Being in the majority can get boring, and people have a habit of appropriating what they see as the more dangerous, fun, and authentic signifiers of other peoples and cultures. Toward the end of the Roman Empire, fashion-forward young Romans appropriated the dress of Persian and Germanic peoples as a rebellion against the status quo. More recently, George Gershwin, Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Amy Winehouse, and a host of other white musicians have achieved great artistic and commercial success by drawing from the great reservoir of African American music. Although each artist has his or her detractors, one thing that separates the aforementioned white musicians from the authors of Thug Kitchen is that the musicians borrowed a form of expression for the purpose of creating something of artistic value within that same form. In that way, they demonstrated a basic respect for the culture and the tradition, even if it wasn’t their own. Thug Kitchen is a vegan blog with a ’90s minstrel show tacked on as a marketing gimmick. I doubt that that formula will bring the authors lasting success or notoriety, but even if it does, who (aside from scruples-deficient jerks) would want to achieve it that way?

    Keep cooking, keep learning, keep writing, keep teaching, keep being true to yourself, and the success will come to you, and it will come to you on your terms. Don’t settle for anything less.

  28. Lereia says:

    This reminds me of “Vegan Crunk”, which – yet, again – has a white person behind it. And “Gullah Gourmet”, which is also headed by a rarely photographed white person – perhaps to give the illusion that it is in fact authentic.

  29. Kristian Holbrook says:

    Beautifully said. I appreciate your words on this as I can’t bring myself to say anything about it!

  30. Adam says:

    Hmm “appropriating” cultures….”Thug” is a hindu word later given it’s modern meaning by White Americans, F*uck is a British word first used by the British (real British not fake black British), breakdancing came from the Russian Cossacks, seems appropriation is happening for sure but not in the White community. I suspect the Thug Kitchen people have already made their millions and will be just fine in spite of the unjustified hatred being reaped on them by haters just as yourself. By the way the next time I see a black person singing opera, dancing ballet, playing an instrument, playing golf or soccer, making a movie, reading a book, painting a picture, baking, driving a car, using kitchen utensils, using a computer, etc, etc. etc., I’m going to remind them that they are appropriating White culture. White culture invented just about everything we know of today including just about every form of music and dance. Hip Hop and rap I’ll gladly give you. It’s considered the lowest form of artistic expression anyway. Thanks.

  31. Donna says:

    let’s not forget fashion and wigs (high couture is def a European thing) and most blacks wear wigs made with hair from other nationalities (no afro hair for those divas) oh yeah there’s lots of appropriation alright. black people now stop pretending you invented everything cos you didn’t. just say thank you and move on. the world is sick of your whining and complaining.

  32. Losknor says:

    Very well written piece but I find it a little offensive. The author 0f this blog is equating thug mentality with black Americans. Being a thug doesn’t have to do with race,creed, or religion. Today the word thug has been used quite frequently in rap lyrics and most likely that is where the authors of the book got the title but even those rappers are mimicking Italian gangsters and thugs. Also, I believe the authors of the book used the word is a jeering manner and really don’t consider themselves thugs. It is clearly a ploy to sell more books to a younger generation. Hey, if that helps to make young people eat healthier, why not?

    • When the authors were interviewed on one radio program they jokingly had a Tupac quiz…I don’t believe anyone owns thugishness, I just know in American culture the word has become racialized, if not corrupted beyond just “a crook, a bad guy.” The authors knew this and they are capitalizing on a trope not presenting a fresh, important message.

      I sympathize with your response because I don’t want my ethnic group so labeled. But you know what, it’s our response to a post-post – modern racial “code,” that has fluid meanings and understandings…such is the democratic spirit. Lots of people with lots of opinions and maybe none of us are right.

  33. Really love how you manage to take frustration and anger, discuss it, but always stop before the easy answer. Instead, you find a way for the situation to motivate us all to positive action.

  34. Thom says:

    Dude, do you even Veeg ?

  35. sue yellin says:

    hope you saw the NY Times article on “Thug Kitchen” on Thursday Oct 22nd..what did you think of it???

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s