Race, wellness, and why we should care about the hilarity of Thug Kitchen

Blogging Like They Give A Fuck

A black football fan tailgates with quinoa burgers (“queen-oh?” “Is that a loofah?” asks his baffled buddy) in a popular Bud Light commercial. Homeless people take a cycling class and breathlessly declare they are “worth it to work it” in a viral comedy clip. A vegan cooking blog written in self-described “thug” lingo garners a massive following and a book deal, praised by a giggling Gwyneth Paltrow and Rachael Ray as “hiLARious… like a gangster vegan chef!”

These snippets are so uproarious to so many because it feels incongruous to imagine a “thug” perusing the local greenmarket or the homeless being as “obsessed” with daily exercise as the wealthy consumers who patronize the juice bars and boutique fitness studios dotting affluent areas across the country. America might indeed experiencing a broadening “wellness revolution,” (think organic food at Walmart; the White House’s “Let’s Move” campaign) but it is so socioeconomically constrained that it is literally laughable to imagine it including the poor and minorities.

This week, thanks to Epicurious, we learned the identity of the creators of Thug Kitchen (TK), the viral vegan cooking blog and forthcoming cookbookfavored by Paltrow and friends: they are Matt Holloway and Michelle Davis, two enterprising white twenty-somethings from Los Angeles. Over the last two years, Holloway and Davis anonymously developed Thug Kitchen, imploring readers to “Eat Like They Give a Fuck” by stocking the “dirty-ass fridge” with ingredients such as kale, avocado and fresh fruit. Processed snacks like “a pickle and ketchup sandwich” earn a “FUCK YOU”; Jamba Juice also gets an F-bomb for “seven dollar juices.” Instead, in their signature “thug” lexicon, TK provides fancy-sounding recipes such as “Peanut Tempeh Summer Rolls” that can be prepared “cheap as fuck.”

Even before the big reveal of the brains behind TK, the blog’s runaway popularity was a little depressing. “Thug,” as the Richard Sherman debacle so painfully revealed, is widely perceived as “the new n-word,” an association that must not be lost on Davis and Holloway.

Moreover, the idea that healthy recipes articulated in a bastardized version of Black English is inherently humorous is unfortunate given the unfunny fact that many health issues that might be redressed by a healthy diet remain stubbornly “urban” – another code word for “black” – problems.

credit: Matt Duckor

But the fact that the creators of Thug Kitchen are white raises other important questions. Privileged people appropriating minority and working-class culture for their amusement is of course nothing new. To an extent, TK is the foodie-blog manifestation of Miley Cyrus: perpetuating stereotypes of African-Americans while profiting from their experience and labors. That’s certainly the most immediate issue that comes to my mind when I see Holloway and Davis’ smiling white faces juxtaposed with their tough-talking blog.

But it would be too simple to censure Holloway and Davis as racists just for their white faces and move on; cultural appropriation and humor is complex, shifting terrain. Also, for all we know, they may not even be particularly privileged: Davis had been working as a cashier and Holloway felt alienated by many healthy-recipe blogs that seemed to double as luxury-lifestyle sites. Yet seeing these two celebrated for their comic take on “thug” culture without even acknowledging the fraught racial dynamics of their project and the larger culture in which it participates is a real disappointment and a missed opportunity to expand our conversation about race, class, and wellness in America.

I’d like to know: Why did Davis and Holloway feel the need to chronicle their “thug life” in the kitchen anonymously? Why do they think people find it so funny? What does “thug” mean to them? Why use a large, menacing-looking knife emblazoned with “thug” as their logo?

In the promotional video for their cookbook, the message is that everyone from grandmothers to homemakers to suburban dads can benefit from “eating like they give a fuck,” yet every single person used to convey this universalist message is white! Why make that casting decision? I find it hard to believe that two Angelenos who have spent the last two years carefully cultivating their “thug” voice in one of the country’s most diverse cities have not given “the race question” some serious thought, even if they have failed (so far) to give it voice.

I’d love to see Davis and Holloway (as well as the journalists who effuse over them) use their newfound celebrity to speak out about how troubling it is that health and wellness – social goods we might like to think of as human rights in an industrialized society – are so thoroughly perceived as luxurious perquisites that media sensations are made by capitalizing on the absurdity of imagining the poor, black, or homeless eating quinoa, cooking tempeh, or indulging in a group exercise or self-help session.

The last thing we need is to embed a set of cultural assumptions that defines healthy living as uniquely upper-crust and makes its imagined appropriation by other groups comic fodder. The Thug Kitchen team, with their massive following and imminent book release, have an opportunity to provide some more laughs and recipes to the rarefied reaches of society that already enjoy the time and resources to eat and live healthfully (and read blogs about it!). But they also have an opportunity to expand a conversation and support activism that could democratize access to health and wellbeing among the very groups they implicitly mock. Now about THAT I would give a fuck.