I try to save my internet-provoked outrage for things that matter, like the Trump administration giving psychotropic drugs to imprisoned immigrant children, or the poor streaming quality of certain pirated episodes of Degrassi: The Next Generation that I enjoy watching in bed. But a little while back, among all the usual political turmoil and an obnoxious number of people caring (or pretending to care) about someone practicing surgery on a grape, a few-months-old tweet lit up my timeline that aptly pointed out a “food thing” that seems to come up a lot. I’ve embedded it below.
OK, so what, right? An entrepreneurial lady named her chocolate-covered cracker company in somewhat poor taste. The argument could surely be made that this shouldn’t ruffle anyone’s feathers, that the brand’s name is a cheeky, ignorant joke by a well-meaning but perhaps slightly out-of-touch entrepreneur who wants to get the point across that her toffee crackers are so good that their appeal to consumers is comparable to that of crack cocaine to… people who do crack cocaine.
Obviously, this is nothing new. New York’s celebrated Momofuku Milk Bar has been selling “crack pie” for more than a decade. A 2012 New York magazine piece, which pointed out the burgeoning trend within the city’s food scene (“the mean streets of New York are rife with ‘salted crack caramel’ ice cream, ‘pistachio crack’ brittle, ‘crack steak’ sandwiches, and ‘tuna on crack’") suggested ranking these foods on a scale from "Take it or leave it" to "Hello, rehab!" And in 2013, a Slate piece criticized the growing abundance of “crack” foods as “a despicable trend … extending its tentacles beyond the five boroughs of New York City.” Yet it’s 2018, and here we are.
Describing food as “addictive” is not totally unfair. Anyone who has ever promised themselves that they absolutely, most definitely will not eat 900 calories worth of Buffalo Bleu chips in one sitting, only to shake the crumbs from the bottom of the foil bag minutes later, can attest that there are times when we eat more of things than we know that we should, especially when those things are extremely delicious. For many, overeating is truly compulsive; it’s no secret that millions of people—in America especially—struggle to control their relationship with food.
But let’s be honest: Cookies and cakes and toffee and crackers and chips are not crack. They are not even really like crack.
In enclaves that are not faced with the wreckage of widespread addiction, “crack” has become a cute euphemism for anything ya just can’t get enough of. But it’s no secret that crack has a long history as a tool of systemic racism. In powder form, cocaine has long enjoyed a glamorous image as the little secret of supermodels, hedge fund bros, and pretty much every band that looks back fondly on the glory days of the Sunset Strip. Crack is cocaine, and yet while cocaine is regarded as a casual party drug, crack users are seen as far more erratic, or even pathetic; as out-of-it, homeless, toothless, and desperate. Crackheads are widely mocked in popular media—look no further than Tyrone Biggums from The Chappelle Show. Comparing peanut butter M&Ms to cocaine or weed or even oxycontin would not induce the same giggles of naughtiness as comparing them to crack. The people whose lives have been ravaged by America’s crack epidemic remain part of the punchline.
From 1986, when The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was put in place under the Reagan administration, until 2010, when the Fair Sentencing Act was signed into law under Obama, the penalties for possession of crack were draconian compared to those for cocaine. Possession of five grams of crack cocaine resulted in a mandatory minimum sentence of five years without parole; the same rule only applied to powder cocaine if the perpetrator possessed five hundred grams. In essence, crack was 100 times more illegal than cocaine—and it was no coincidence that the law targeted poor black communities, where crack was far cheaper and more prevalent. Data released in 2002 illuminated this issue, showing that 79 percent of sentenced crack offenders were black; for powder cocaine convictions, just 28 percent were black. The crack epidemic not only devastated communities on a molecular level, where friends and family members were the casualties, but on a larger societal plane, wherein hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people of color were imprisoned for possession and use of a drug that white communities were simultaneously rampantly abusing in a slightly different format, with little consequence.
Crack served as a form of escapism “in a poor neighborhood deprived of options,” in Hart’s words. Its appeal is greater to those with little to lose.
Being addicted to crack also isn’t particularly funny. The numbers regarding addiction in the US, and worldwide, are harrowing. One in seven Americans become addicted to drugs or alcohol during their lifetime, and only 10 percent of those people ever receive help (and of those, even fewer fully recover). But the ugliness of addiction isn’t found in statistics, which are sometimes helpful for arguments’ sake but do very little to describe the real effects of its trauma. Crack is a joke until a friend shares their story of growing up with a crack-addicted mother, or a family member is sent to prison for possession. These things don’t only happen to people in underprivileged communities, but they do occur there with more frequency and greater consequence.
Here’s yet another reason why comparing kettle corn or what have you to crack is not constructive: While it’s definitely not not addictive, crack is actually not as addictive as its image would have you believe, as evidenced by the work of Dr. Carl Hart in the 1990s, who recruited and paid men to smoke crack at Columbia University to study its effects. He found that in high doses, crack is extremely habit-forming, but in lower doses, subjects in the study would often forgo a hit for, say, a $5 voucher. Quoted in a 2013 article in the New York Times, Hart said, “Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don’t get addicted … And the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures.” He even characterized the participants who received lower doses of crack as still capable of making “rational economic decisions.”
In fact, Hart witnessed crack addiction within his own family during his childhood, but he saw the widespread presence of crack within his community to be more of an effect than a cause when it came to the destitution of his friends, parents, and cousins. Crack served as a form of escapism “in a poor neighborhood deprived of options,” in Hart’s words. Its appeal is greater to those with little to lose.
So crack has always been subject to inaccurate stereotypes of both its effects and its users, and its place in society is one that has always been complicated. But those issues are rarely seen or understood firsthand by people outside of the low-income areas where it's most endemic, many of which are primarily populated by people of color. And it certainly seems to be the people most removed from those experiences that are serving up gourmet "crack caramels" and “crack sauce”-drenched tacos with a wink.
I reached out to Laura Shafferman, the founder and owner of Legally Addictive Foods (shown in the tweet above), for insight on the name of her products. She pointed out, and understandably so, that the term “crack cookies” is all over Pinterest, and is clearly not her own invention. “Since [this snack] is widely referred to by that name in the home-recipe world, we did not have concerns when we initially launched,” she told me over email.
Shafferman also argued that the origin of some “crack”-named baked goods comes not necessarily from comparisons to the street drug, but from the process by which they’re made.
“Not only is it made from a cracker, it's made with toffee. When the toffee reaches a certain temperature while boiling, the water in the syrup has been completely removed and it will crack if you try and mold it after it cools,” she explained. “This is called the ‘hard-crack stage’ of candy making and we felt the Crack Cookie name gave a nod to that process.”
So… a nod. But that doesn’t necessarily explain the company name—Legally Addictive Foods. Shafferman said that until recently, she had never received any negative feedback. However, the company has been planning a change to the product name.
“We are in the process of changing the name of the product to something that still reflects that the treat is made from a cracker, but is not perceived as being insensitive or inflammatory. As a small brand starting out, we were reaching a small number of people,” she said. “But as the company grew and we started getting more feedback from our customers, we listened, engaged, took it seriously and decided to make a change.”
And in a later email, Shafferman confirmed that the name change is, indeed, underway.
"We changed our packaging design and it will no longer say 'Crack Cookies' on it," she wrote to me this week. "The brand and variant name will both remain the same but we've decided to keep a description of the product on the front, similar to the one that's already on there. This will roll out next month and we are very excited about it."
Maybe the era of the crack snack is waning, but there continues to be plenty of new examples of this dessert-naming phenomenon. When San Francisco-based cookie dough kiosk Doughp opened in fall of 2017, it also faced some eye-rolls for its clunky use of a term widely used in reference to heroin. Justin Phillips of the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed founder Kelsey Witherow about what influenced her to start the kiosk, and the ensuing article was… awkward. An excerpt:
“So you want to know how I became a ‘Doughp’ dealer,” Witherow jokingly asked when we spoke last week. When asked about the shop’s theme, she responded with: “I was the white girl at my high school who was going through the Hyphy movement. I was obsessed with Mac Dre.”
As an African American, journalist, hip hop junkie and connoisseur of sweets, I’m torn. Cookie dough is amazing. Witherow seems charming and well intentioned. And I loved Mac Dre, too. But I can’t help but tilt my head at this.
Cookie dough counter-service shops weren’t a normal black community dining experience for most growing up. So, to faintly dress it as such seems a little … disingenuous, maybe?
Setting aside Phillips’ own use of the word “junkie,” it seems pretty clear that cookie dough, while very delicious, has little in common with heroin, as anyone who has ever been affected by heroin addiction firsthand can easily attest. But, plot twist: Witherow is a recovering alcoholic who channeled her new life of sobriety into a love of baking. (Ah, life is full of surprises, caveats, and gray areas.) However, the very concept of Doughp still plays into the issue of lifting and recontextualizing slang from within marginalized communities and cheekily using it to market high-end foods that, in Phillips’ words, “weren’t a normal black community dining experience.”
With that in mind, should we try to be more conscientious that, to many, addiction is not sticking your hand in a bag of chips a few times too many, but nodding off in the bathroom, or watching your cousin get sent to prison for dealing? This may seem hyperbolic, but watch someone close to you become an addict, and it won’t. There are many groups of people that our society has collectively decided deserve our compassion and sympathy—an understanding of the complicated nature of their lives, and some sensitivity over our need, or right, to be glib. I think it’s a fair assumption that the people who name these dishes and products feel fine making fun of drug addicts because they have few meaningful encounters with them.
There are no hard and fast rules are for this stuff. I’m not here to make a case for forbidding people from saying they’re addicted to Hot Cheetos. I don't think that Momofuku needs to change the longstanding name of its famous crack pie, and it would be futile to suggest that we can no longer ever liken slightly naughty things to Very Bad Things.
But if you’ve never even seen crack, and you’re trying to decide what to name your forthcoming line of gourmet coconut squares, it probably wouldn’t hurt to be a little more… creative.
Follow Hilary Pollack on Twitter.