It’s like crack. In her episode of Chef’s Table: Pastry, that’s how pastry chef Christina Tosi recalls coming up with the name for her signature dessert, the Crack Pie. Tosi’s dramatic retelling chronicles how she stumbled upon her own version of a classic southern American chess pie while preparing Sunday family meal at wd~50. Her goal was to create “this buttery, sugary, gooey filling,” but the recipe never quite set, and she feared it would disappoint her coworkers. After a quick trip to the freezer, Tosi left the dessert with staff in the kitchen. Later, she returned to a room full of employees savoring every bite. “This Australian cook was like, ‘I don’t know what you just did, but this pie is like crack. It’s Crack Pie,’” Tosi says.
That pie became a wd~50 underground special on Sundays, and eventually, a trademarked feature of Tosi’s now-huge, still-growing Milk Bar empire, which launched in 2008. Anderson Cooper famously shilled for the Crack Pie on Regis and Kelly; it would became a mainstay on baking blogs and food websites. But this week, Tosi announced that after more than 11 years of calling her signature item Crack Pie, she would be changing its name to Milk Bar Pie.
The food industry appears to have reached a turning point in its indulgent history of using the term “crack” to sell food. Milk Bar renaming the Crack Pie — perhaps the most recognizable “crack” food product in America — is a major win for critics who rightly complained that people were profiting off a joke about a serious drug epidemic that disproportionately impacted poor, primarily black communities.
As many observers pointed out, Tosi’s statement about Crack Pie’s name left something to be desired. Nowhere in the statement, for instance, does Tosi directly address the word “crack,” or why Milk Bar is now implementing the change. She merely states, “Our mission, after all, is to spread joy and inspire celebration,” and that “the name Crack Pie falls short of this mission.” There’s little ownership for the pain that profiting off the word “crack” may have caused, or acknowledgement that the pie’s edgy, drug-referencing name was made more palatable when attached to the face of a Midwest-born white woman.
Rather than embracing its mistake and becoming an example for fans who may have mimicked its marketing, Milk Bar may instead go down among a class of businesses who’ve recently changed the names of their products while trying to draw as little attention as possible: In recent months, it appears many have ditched the offensive branding. In 2018, Ample Hills Creamery quietly added a ’d to its popular salted crack caramel ice cream, to change the “crack” in its name to “crack’d.” Last July, Legally Addictive, a packaged snack food company whose identity plays into the food-as-drugs trope, changed the name of its “O.G. Crack Cookies” to “the O.G.” cookie. And just a few months ago, Michigan-based beer bar chain HopCat announced it was changing the name of its most well-known and controversial item, Crack Fries.
It wasn’t uncommon in the 1990s and 2000s to see food equated with crack. Posters in online message boards and prominent food writers such as Melissa Clark at the New York Times casually used “crack” to describe everything from barbecue sauce to granola. The phrase “like crack” easily rolled off the tongue and painted a vivid picture of something irresistibly addictive and binge-able, but also illicit or, in the case of food, unhealthy. It was lazy slang for “habit forming.” (Eater was also certainly not totally immune to using the trope.)
Like any popular phrase, marketers also became infatuated with “like crack” as an onomatopoeically catchy and hyperbolically clever — in an entirely overused, cliche sort of way — strategy to sell products. Based on Google Trends data, which only goes back to January 2004, the phrase “like crack” peaked around July 2007 and slowly declined to a leveling off point in 2010. But by 2012, New York Magazine had firmly established that there was a trend in so-called “crack foods,” which the authors rated with a Cheetometer ranging from “Take it or leave it” to “Hello, rehab!” The list of eight items included the Crack Pie and the Ample Hills ice cream, but also things like “crack kale” at Whitmans, a “crack” steak sandwich at Halcyon Gourmet, and Tuna on Crack at Teqa.
Pinterest, which launched in 2010, also became a bastion for all manner of posts called “crack foods.” The online pin board site was unable to provide Eater with data for pins referencing “crack,” but a simple search of the site uncovers hundreds of recipes with alliterative names like crack chicken, crack cookies, Keto crack coffee, and lots of Christmas crack. The dual meaning is typically clarified in the actual leads to recipes, where bloggers describe the food at had as “addictive.” A search for “crack cookies” on Google returns 298,000,000 results. Google Trends shows that while the use of the word “crack” dropped off after the early 2000s, instances of people using the phrase “crack cookies” spiked around the holiday season in 2011, at roughly the same time that references to “crack pie” increased. From there, references to crack cookies gradually increased year over year — even surpassing use of crack pie at points in 2016 in 2017. The play on words was particularly common in the case of candies, because “crack point” is a term used to describe stages in candy making during which sugar syrups form pliable threads and then become brittle.
Food addiction is a real thing, but whether certain types of food are more associated with addictive behaviors is less understood. Still, scientific studies of fatty and sugary junk foods often draw comparisons with how narcotics affect the human brain and helped reinforce the “food as crack” idea. Many of these studies, however, were focused on rodents rather than humans, in some cases, experts strongly criticized the research methods. Either way, though, the virulent use of “crack” to sell products is a poor comparison.
But it received plenty of pushback as it spread. As early as 2013, Slate published a story calling out the insensitive trend in crack foods. In the piece, reporter L.V. Anderson convincingly argued that instead of “emphasizing how instantly gratifying” an item is, calling it “crack” instead demonstrated “how out of touch and callously classist foodie culture has become.” It’s safe to assume, she pointed out, that most people selling crack foods probably had never met a person addicted to crack.
Calling something crack is, at its heart, an exercise in making fun of topics that are inherently unfunny: addiction, poverty, and institutional racism. The winking reference glosses over the fact that because of the war on drugs, the U.S. incarcerated poor, primarily black crack cocaine users at higher rates with harsher sentences than their white, powdered cocaine-using counterparts. That resulted in a generational issue that still impacts black communities. Mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine separated parents from their children “for minor possession crimes,” according to a 2006 report by the ACLU. People with a conviction record for a crack-related crime were also barred from receiving “some social services for the betterment of their families.”
Change moving away from “crack” has come about rather slowly over the past few years, paralleling growing public concern over the opioid crisis, a general cultural shift towards more inclusive language, and the emergence of more diverse and powerful food industry voices. (That mirrors the increasing acknowledgment of the racist connotations of the word “ghetto,” which is often used as a way to denigrate something by employing a reference to black or working-class communities.) Those shifting feelings around how words are used led some brands to quietly abandon or alter their use of the term “crack” in advertising.
Ample Hills Creamery’s salted crack caramel ice cream received the highest rating on New York Magazine’s Cheetometer seven years ago. It was occasionally advertised with slogans like “Crack is whack.” “We renamed the flavor over a year ago to more accurately reflect the ingredients in the recipe,” Ample Hills wrote in a statement to Eater. “We also acknowledge it had connotations we were not comfortable with, which contributed to our decision to change it.” Representatives for the company added that the company had not received requests to change the name. Rather, “the decision was made internally.”
Laura Shafferman, who founded Legally Addictive in 2015, says she originally called her product “crack cookies” as a reference to the crackers in the recipe. “It’s called ‘crack cookies’ basically by grandmas all across the country,” she says, pointing to recipes on Pinterest and elsewhere. But Shafferman had a change of heart and decided to quit using the “crack” name in July after pressure from consumers. “A lot of people expressed themselves in a very thoughtful and meaningful way,” she says.
Shaffer adds that while the name Legally Addictive has brand recognition value, she characterized the “crack” cookies as “low-hanging fruit.” The process took between eight to 12 weeks between changing the packaging design to getting approval from Legally Addictive’s biggest clients to finally shipping out the new product. “It’s an emotional decision changing part of your brand,” she says, “but it was a very easy decision for us to come to.”
Several months later in December 2018, Midwest chain HopCat also confirmed it was giving its beer-battered “Crack Fries” a new name. “We chose the name more than 11 years ago as a reference to the addictive quality of the fries and their cracked pepper seasoning, without consideration for those the drug negatively affected,” parent company Barfly Ventures CEO Mark Gray said in a statement. “We were wrong.” The crack fry announcement lit up the internet, with pickups on national outlets around the same time a fresh think piece decrying “crack foods” published on Munchies. Milk Bar’s Crack Pie was referenced in many of the reports; earlier this week, it declined Eater’s requests for further comment.
In 2019, pressure against Milk Bar’s Crack Pie continued to mount. “Some people still find the term Crack Pie more offensive than cute, or at least inappropriate,” New York Times food reporter Kim Severson wrote in a profile of Tosi’s growing empire in February. “To sell a packaged version at Target, she had to rename it Milk Bar Pie Mix.” (Severson tweeted this week that when she interviewed Tosi for the story, “she shrugged off questions about whether crack pie was an insensitive or offensive name for the dessert that put her on the map.” ) Several weeks later in a list outlining her personal banned words like “crack” and “addictive,” incoming San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho also called out Tosi’s Crack Pie. “Honestly, the company should have done the right thing and changed [the name] by now,” Ho wrote. That story was followed by yet another article, from the Boston Globe’s Devra First, titled, “There’s nothing cute about Crack Pie.”
While Tosi’s decision to change the name of her prized, trademarked pie is a big step — likely fueled by goals to expand to new cities and secure major investments to take its products to grocery shelves — some companies are still devoted to their problematic double entendres. Cali-Mexican chain Calexico continues to dress its Baja fish burritos and black bean tacos with chipotle “crack” sauce. The company did not respond to a request for comment. Five unit San Diego-based chain the Crack Shack, which seasons its fried chicken with proprietary “crack spice,” is also staying the course with its branding.
CEO Michael Rosen says the Crack Shack has only received two complaints about the name in its history. “We’re a very family-friendly concept, so it’s not been an issue for us,” he says, noting that the company’s logo emphasizes a chicken emerging from a cracked egg. Rosen adds that the nearby Seaside Market in the affluent beach city of Cardiff, California, is known for its marinated Tri-Tip steaks called Cardiff Crack (they even sell T-shirts). “I don’t know, has the world become so politically correct?” Rosen wonders of the backlash against crack foods.
“If you call something crack and it’s not about an egg, maybe then it’s more troublesome because you’re talking about the addictive nature,” he says. “We’re not condoning that somebody become addicted to something unhealthy... Hey, if you’re going to get addicted to something, hopefully it’s something like chicken and eggs.”
Brenna Houck is editor of Eater Detroit and an Eater.com reporter.
Editor: Erin DeJesus