Story: Avis Hixon
Multimedia: Jalisa Hill
There is more to a Baltimore Hon than beehive hair, jeweled cat eye glasses, heavy lipstick, faux animal print and a house coat. Denise Whiting, the owner of Cafe Hon and Hon Bar in Hampden, Maryland, explains that being a Hon goes beyond the appearance.
“Yeah – big hair of the sixties, outlandish clothes of the fifties and sixties – it’s a fun little get up, but really it’s a celebration of who we are and where we came from,” Whiting said. “It takes us back to a different time and lets us step out of ourselves for a moment.”
Before the height of Hon culture, from the 1950s to the 1970s, waves of working-class migrants moved to Baltimore, they put on events and festivals to celebrate their origins and arrival in America. Out of these various cultures was the birth a new language: Bawlamerese.
“Hon is short for honey,” Whiting said. “It was just the shortening of a word that became a term of endearment. It is a sweet, kind gesture of love and affection.”
Hon is generally used in place of “sir”, “ma’am” or when the person’s given name is not known.
“Baltimore-speak is a combination of a little bit of English, a little bit of southern, a little bit of Cockney, a little of this and that,” Whiting said. “Because everyone came from all of these different places and different countries there was a melding of the English language over time.”
Baltimore-speak includes: Bawlamer, Merlin (Baltimore, Maryland), bleef (believe), ax (ask), wuder (water), gubmint (government), quarr (choir), calf lick (Catholic) and much more.
Whiting is also the creator of HonFest, which is a celebration of women that takes place in June every year. In 1994, it started as a small local pageant. Now it receives national and international recognition.
Whiting herself is not without controversy though. She trademarked the word “Hon” in 2010 but received a lot of negative feedback, there was even a Facebook page titled “Boycott Café Hon”. While Whiting felt that she was protecting her business many people felt that she was trying to take ownership of a word and the essence of a culture that belongs to an entire city.
In 2011, Gordon Ramsey came to Café Hon for his reality TV show Kitchen Nightmares. After much criticism from Chef Ramsey, Whiting decided to relinquish her trademark rights.
“You get to express yourself in a way that you don’t get to express yourself everyday,” Whiting said. “You put on a feathered boa, glasses and big hair and boom you’re having a good time. You get to be somebody else for a moment.”
Covering the front of Cafe Hon is a large pink flamingo, which is also associated with Baltimore Hons but there is no real significance. Baltimoreans were known for decorating their lawns with pink flamingos.
Whiting originally meant for the flamingo to just be a Christmas decoration but it stuck. She considers it to be a way of expressing who they are in a larger than life form.