Despite being a full time student at college with plenty of reading assignments filling up my evenings, I still try my best to find some time throughout the week for leisure reading. I’m currently working my way through Melissa Mohr’s book, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, and I’m absolutely loving it. Mohr’s book is about the interconnected cultural and social history of obscenity in the English language, and it directly connects to my interest in popular history writing, and communication and media studies. There’s also plenty of accessible information to feed my curiosity about linguistics and the ways that language develops. Goodreads tells me that I’m currently only 32% of the way through this 316 page book, but I am enjoying it immensely, and have learned a few things already about why we use swear words and obscene language the way we do in English. Mohr writes with wit and provides clear and considerate explanations of where our notions of obscene language originate, and how contributing factors have effected it, and influenced our communication practices throughout various periods of history.
I remember learning in university that languages are constantly evolving and changing, and that they shift to reflect changing culture, beliefs and values, and systems of communication. Swearing then, as a component of the English language, and as a tool used to impart emotional emphasis in speech and writing, reflects these cultural and communication changes as well. Mohr explains that words which are deemed inappropriate, vulgar, or obscene are deemed so in reflection of a communication community’s idea of propriety and morality. Mohr also reminds us that where cultural and behavioural norms are established and accepted as commonplace behaviour, there is also the opportunity and potential to alter these rules and confines in order to suit different purposes. There’s the potential for interaction and subversion of these rules, thus changing systems of power and convention on multiple social and cultural levels.
This sounds a bit wordy and ostentatious, sure, but it directly connects to one of my favourite food blogs running right now: the very cheeky, popular, and potty-mouthed Thug Kitchen. The vegan-oriented (though not exclusively so!) website released a cook book this month, and just like the website from which it originates, the cookbook filled with the same straight-up foul language that made its parent website so striking, entertaining, and interesting to visit. Thug Kitchen wields vulgarity to fantastic effect—effect that Mohr would agree harks back to what the term ‘vulgar’ originally meant.
Early on in her book, Mohr explains there is a connection between vulgar language and class distinction, and that there persists the (increasingly out-of-date) idea that “it is that spoken by ordinary, uneducated folk. It has become a synonym for swearing because “the common people” have through the centuries been thought to be more likely than others to employ profane or obscene language” (11).
Mohr immediately goes on to explain to her readers that this assumption about the education level of the ordinary, swear-happy general public throughout different time periods is rather untrue—that the upper classes (those who were supposedly educated enough to eschew vulgar language) swore like all get out throughout history. (She also describes how swearing and the use of vulgar language doesn’t necessarily disappear as the general level of education within a community increases, either.) On page 55 of her book, Mohr explains that in ancient Rome there were basically two different types of Latin language being used, essentially split along levels of discourse—Latin for the exclusive class of the educated, literary elite (which remained largely unchanged over centuries), and a “vulgar” (common) language that the lower classes (made up of multiple intermingling cultures) used in their daily activities, and which would eventually evolve into the Romance vernaculars.
And indeed Thug Kitchen maintains that its intentional use of obscenity and vulgarity (as common language) isn’t meant to offend or turn people off of their website or its content, but rather it’s meant to find common ground with average blog readers who are looking for recipes and food writing that’s not foodie-elitist or “dull or pretentious as hell” (as Thug Kitchen’s cookbook’s item description on Amazon.ca describes). Thug Kitchen understands that there’s a relatively standardized mode of writing for food blogs (and cookbooks), one that it views as too exclusionary to the common person who’s simply looking to make a healthy, budget-friendly meal. Thug Kitchen labels this certain kind of polite language style that these blogs often use as “dull or pretentious as hell” and implies that it reads as insincere in its enthusiasm, or worse, is elitist in its writing style and content (ex: super expensive, super trendy food styles that are usually only accessible to a privileged, or wealthy portion of the public).
Thug Kitchen wants to avoid that kind of distinctly cultivated and maintained elitist authorial ethos. It wants its blog, writing, recipes, and practical food sensibilities to reflect and connect with the average visitor. We could assume that Thug Kitchen believes this person to be someone who is hungry, is on a budget, and doesn’t know what healthy meal to make for supper tonight. Thug Kitchen also knows that to stand out in stark contrast to the elitist foodie personas and in the blogosphere, they need to consider carefully how they are going to operate within the general conventions of food blogging and food writing, and how they are going to subvert its norms at the same time. Their idea is that in order to reach the average person, they need to use the kind of communication practices and common vernacular that everyone likely uses. Thug Kitchen knows they need to use the same words and familiar kind of language that people generally use in our day-to-day living. And that includes routinely and liberally using all the four-letter salty talk they can cram into their sentences.
There’s been a couple of dishes that I’ve wanted to make from Thug Kitchen’s backlog of recipes for some time. One of them is their vegetarian take on a traditional New Year’s dish from the Southern United States, Hoppin’ John. According to the information I was able to scrounge up from a quick Google search, the dish is supposed to welcome a new year full of prosperity (financially and otherwise) for those that partake in the meal at the start of a new year. The black-eyed peas (or field beans, as they’re sometimes called) represent coinage, while the cooked greens (collard greens, Swiss chard, kale, or other cooking greens) are supposed to represent bank notes. Sometimes Hoppin’ John is made with a coin added to the pot as it simmers, and other times is served with a coin set beneath each diner’s plate (a much more sanitary choice, I would think).
Whether or not you believe in luck-bringing superstitions isn’t too important, since this bean-and-rice meal is flavourful and budget-friendly (definite criteria for its inclusion in Thug Kitchen’s recipes!) and that’s its main selling feature. When I was putting it together for supper tonight, I tailored the amount of spiciness to my family’s tastes, and added in extra peppers in adobo to the mix. The result was perfectly spicy, and no post-dishing up addition of Tabasco sauce was necessary. I served the beans with simple minute rice, and with a single bunch of Swiss chard that I washed and trimmed then sautéed in a bit of olive oil with garlic, and the juice and peel of an orange. The citrus brightened the greens’ appearance and flavour, and added a clean acidity that cut through the worst of the heat from the beans and rice.
The other recipe I tried out today is a more recent addition to Thug Kitchen’s collection. At the beginning of this month, Thug Kitchen published a recipe online for Sweet Potato Loaf—citing it as something somewhere between pumpkin pie and carrot cake. Studded with a generous portion of chopped walnuts, and fragrantly spiced with ground ginger and cinnamon, this loaf made me briefly reconsider my hard line “no thank you” stance on carrot cake. (I say briefly, because while I understand the similarities between it and carrot cake, I still think I’d prefer dense and moist sweet potato loaf with its lightly sweetened, nutty, spiced flavour to that terrible cream-cheese frosted, boringest-of-the-boring-root-vegetables, majorly-over-sugared-in-order-to-make-you-forget-there-are-super-boring-carrots-in-it monstrosity of a dessert.) As for the Sweet Potato Loaf’s pumpkin pie similarities—you know, I wasn’t really feeling it. Beyond the similar spices used in both dishes, and the wonderful aroma and flavours of each, I still feel like the two desserts are pretty distinctly separate from one another. Both make for fantastic fall season baking though!
I think all in all, I’d recommend Thug Kitchen as an engaging and relatably foul-mouthed food blog, its recipes for Hoppin’ John and Sweet Potato Loaf, and Melissa Mohr’s fascinating book on English’s obscene language, too.