June 15, 2020 update: In response to nationwide protests against systemic racism and police violence – and nearly six years after Bryant Terry first criticized the term “Thug Kitchen,” the group announced they are in the process of changing their name to “widen the table in our country’s conversation around food” and to “reflect inclusivity and empathy.”
“In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” The opening quote of the Thug Kitchen Cookbook: Eat Like You Give a F*ck may sound like it was pulled straight from the blog’s expletive-laden homepage. But it’s actually a quote from Julia Child, originator of kitchen irreverence and inspiration to whimsical cooks worldwide. Child was one of the first cooks to encourage her audience to truly start from scratch in the kitchen, encouraging those with few skills to step up to the stove. The co-founders of the popular website Thug Kitchen (TK) use a millennial approach to this same philosophy–taken to the extreme.
“This is a fucking wake-up call,” the book announces in its introduction. “Skipping breakfast is not only lazy, but that shit is detrimental to your health,” it reads later. Part recipe blog, part aggressively straightforward advice column, Thug Kitchen is never shy. And their fans–over 500,000 on Facebook alone–eat it up.
Michelle Davis and Matt Holloway didn’t start Thug Kitchen in August 2012 to become famous. They had, in fact, been anonymous until just last week, when Epicurious revealed their identities to the world. Anonymity is an unusual choice in the world of food blogging—with the notable exception of Ruth Bourdain—as so many blogs are built around the personalities of their creators. But Davis and Holloway chose to remain anonymous even after Thug Kitchen picked up steam, when a rave review from Gwenyth Paltrow in 2013 dramatically expanded their audience.
“We’re really proud of all the hard work we’ve put into the site, but we didn’t start it to self-promote,” explains Davis. “So when it got popular, we just kept it the way it always had been.”
Thug Kitchen’s premise is that cooking isn’t hard, but it helps to build basic skills. “We wanted to show people that eating healthy can be done, but you do have to put in some effort,” says Davis. The authors encourage readers with a mix of crude tough love and bold empowerment. For example, the first lines of a whole-wheat pancake recipe in the cookbook read: “Serve these warm with legit maple syrup (none of that fake-ass corn syrup) and some fresh fruit on the side. You know how to eat a fucking pancake. Makes about 12 pancakes, which you can freeze and eat wheneverthefuck you want.”
“We wanted to write this site the way we would speak it,” Holloway says of the blog’s tone, which prioritizes vulgarity and emphatic use of capitalization. Davis adds, “I can read a boring cookbook but most people can’t and don’t want to. We wanted to make it funny and a good experience for the reader. We like to walk that line between food writing and comedy writing. And we think the word ‘fuck’ is funny.”
When it comes to the creative energy behind the site, Davis and Holloway have complementary skills. Davis is the primary recipe developer, while Holloway does all the photography. “Cooking had always been a hobby of mine,” says Davis. “I was a passionate home cook, and I worked in grocery stores for about eight years. I was around food all day, talking about food all day. But it can be really difficult when you work in jobs like that, where healthy eating is promoted, and you can’t easily afford the lifestyle.”
Thug Kitchen is sensitive to its audience’s tendency toward frugality, suggesting healthy recipes with as few pricy, exotic ingredients as possible. And in the TK world, healthy also means vegan. But a quick glance through the cookbook or the site’s recipe index provides no immediate evidence that the site avoids animal products. There’s no proselytizing, no weight loss stories, no scary pictures of factory farms. And that’s the whole point–-to bring people into the fold, not shut them out.
As for Holloway, this is his first foray into food photography. “I come from frozen pizza land,” he says with a laugh. “I’m new to the vegan and health food world.” He was trying to make that transition just like many of Thug Kitchen’s readers. The cookbook’s photography is vivid and direct, much like the tone of the writing. Interspersed between recipes are pictures of smiling, tattooed friends, cityscapes, and Holloway’s dog. “We wanted the book to feel like the environment that is our life,” explains Davis.
Holloway and Davis’s step into the spotlight has not been without complication. After their identities were revealed, readers and critics asked some hard questions about whether it was insensitive for two white bloggers to run–and profit from–a brand that regularly invokes the word ‘thug.’ Some had assumed the site was run by one or more black bloggers, given its invocation of “thuggish” vernacular (an assumption that itself is somewhat dangerous, as noted by prominent writer Roxane Gay).
The word “thug” carries a heavy racial connotation, especially since Richard Sherman, the Seattle Seahawks cornerback, commented in January that the media labeled him as one after a grandiose outburst because “it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays.” Popular news site The Root, which reports on issues important to African-American communities, labeled Thug Kitchen “a recipe in blackface.”
“We understand that ‘thug’ is a loaded word, and it has only become more loaded in the last year and a half,” says Davis, when asked about the recent critique. But beyond that acknowledgement, neither author appears very interested in engaging their critics. “The site is about being a badass in the kitchen. We’re about verbally abusing people into eating their goddamn vegetables,” she adds.
Plus, this kind of pushback is nothing new for the two seasoned bloggers. “We’ve been on the Internet for two and a half years,” says Holloway. “Almost everything we post, we get someone emailing us saying, ‘I fucking hate lentils!’”
“It’s the Internet,” Davis concludes. “It’s always a shitshow.”