If you’ve been inside a Barnes & Noble in the last ten years, you’ve probably heard of Thug Kitchen. The company was founded by Matt Holloway and Michelle Davis in 2012—though initially they didn’t identify themselves—and its first cookbook, Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook: Eat Like You Give A F*ck, debuted in 2014. (Remember the early 2010s? The age of children’s bedtime stories like Go The F**k To Sleep? We sure loved swearing back then!) Thug Kitchen was a counterpoint to the dominant food media landscape of that time: florid, verbose, and upper crust. It was also intended as a “fucking wake-up call” to those adults out there who hadn’t learned to cook healthy food yet and were still subsisting on a college student’s diet. The intro to the first TK cookbook tells us all we need to know:
Welcome to Thug Kitchen, bitches. We’re here to help. We started our website to inspire motherfuckers to eat some goddamn vegetables and adopt a healthier lifestyle. Our motto is simple: EAT LIKE YOU GIVE A FUCK.
The cookbook became a #1 New York Times bestseller, and pretty much as soon as it rose to prominence as the go-to birthday and graduation gift for any white person under 30, the public started voicing concerns about use of the “thug” branding by the two white people who ran the company. Many pointed out the term’s racist history, used by white people to disparage and further marginalize Black Americans, and chef Bryant Terry wrote an essay in 2014 about the pervasive problem of “whites masking in African-American street vernacular for their own amusement and profit.” Holloway and Davis defended their vulgarity at the time, though they engaged mostly with the idea that the swear words were justifiable and fun; they tended to side-step the weightier accusations of racism against their brand.
Now, though, as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to amplify the systemic injustice underpinning every facet of American society, food media is facing its own reckoning. On Saturday, Thug Kitchen announced changes to its brand in a statement titled “We’re Changing.”
“When we first launched Thug Kitchen in 2012, we wanted our name to signal our brand’s grit in the otherwise polished and elitist food scene,” the statement begins. It goes on:
Over the years, as our critics pointed out the racist connotations of two white people using the word ‘thug,’ we tried to contextualize it by talking about our backgrounds and our beliefs. We realize, however, that whatever our original intention, our use of it reflected our privilege and ignored the reality that the word is assigned to black people in an attempt to dehumanize them. That’s fucked up and not at all what we want to stand for. We apologize. We recognize we need to do better.
The statement outlines Holloway and Davis’ plan to change the company’s name and branding, rename their past and future cookbooks, “closely re-evaluate the content of each book,” and use their platform to push for greater inclusivity and empathy within food media.
The question remains whether any amount of edits to the original material can save the brand from its shaky foundations. Because beyond its problematic language, the very idea that eating fast food means you “don’t give a fuck” or that frozen vegetables are “bullshit” only reinforces the elitism that the brand ostensibly hoped to challenge with its parade of F-bombs and blotchy typewriter fonts. After all, not everyone has the opportunity to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon in their kitchen preparing “gangster” kale after a trip to the farmers market. Not everyone would take that opportunity even if they had it. Neither type of person is more virtuous or correct, and a food media landscape that accommodates both is something worth giving a number of fucks about.