Your Brain on Food

When did naming foods after a powerful narcotic become a thing? Probably not long after Momofuku Milk Bar dealt its first slab of Crack Pie in the fall of 2008. Now the mean streets of New York are rife with “salted crack caramel” ice cream, “pistachio crack” brittle, “crack steak” sandwiches, and “tuna on crack.” Down in the East Village, there’s even something called “crack kale,” which doesn’t seem technically or culinarily possible. A nutritional nitpicker might ask whether we ought to be celebrating foods high in fat, sugar, and salt, substances a recent Scripps Research Institute study found were so addictive that their regular ingestion changed the brain chemistry of lab rats in the same way that cocaine and heroin do. In fact, one nutritional nitpicker has: No less a food-world luminary than Alice Waters takes issue with the practice, as you’d expect of a woman whose higher purpose in life is to get children to eat (and grow) their vegetables. As final-round arbiter of the crowd-sourced website food52’s recent “Piglet” cookbook competition, ­Waters awarded the top prize to the title that went up against Momofuku Milk Bar, going so far as to associate Crack Pie with the larger issue of how highly processed, dietarily ­destructive ingredients are corrupting our youth. Left unsaid, however, was whether Waters ever actually tasted the thing. That, to our minds, is really the only way to assess whether a food truly deserves its crack moniker—both from a subjective taste perspective and in an engineered-specifically-to-trigger-your-basest-instincts way. (Evil junk-food masterminds, as you may know, synthesize flavors that are bold and intense up front but then quickly fade away, which is why it’s so hard to stop despite increasing feelings of self-loathing.) So in the line of duty, and like a pair of Scripps Research rats, we set out on a crack-food binge and rated the contenders according to our own crack-food Cheetometer: One Cheeto represents a barely perceptible buzz, while five indicates something like a complete rewiring of the brain’s dopamine-fueled pleasure center.

Crack Pie
at Momofuku Milk Bar
One sweet, fudgy, buttery, caramelly, powdered-sugar bite of the mother of all crack food and a euphoric sensation sets in. But that’s just it: Like a perfectly matured piece of cheese or a hunk of excellent chocolate, this dessert is so rich and luxurious it provides a sense of satiety that obviates the need (or desire) to house the whole thing.
$5.25 a slice, $44 a pie; multiple locations.

Photographs by Danny Kim

Chipotle “Crack” Sauce
at Calexico
On its own, this spicy aïoli ($1 a cup) tastes like standard-issue Thousand Island dressing with what might be an extra dash or two of Tabasco. But employ it as a dipping sauce for the signature rolled-and-pressed quesadilla ($6 to $9) and then you have something.
Multiple locations.

Crack Kale
at Whitmans
Ninety sizzling seconds in the deep-fryer renders the normally sturdy leaves as light and gossamer as cotton candy, and the spice mix (Old Bay, paprika, and five-spice) gives it a kick. But the oil residue soon overpowers, wearing down your palate and your enthusiasm.
$4; 406 E. 9th St., nr. First Ave.; 212-228-8011.

Crack Melt
at Bravest
Everyone knows that firemen are the gourmets of the public-service sector, and this FDNY-friendly bar does not disappoint its discerning clientele. But a chicken-salad-with-bacon variation on a tuna melt with a sprinkling of paprika”as tasty as it may be”does not a habit-former make.
$10; 700 Second Ave., at 38th St.; 212-683-3766.

Salted Crack Caramel Ice Cream
at Ample Hills Creamery
The microbatch parlor’s most popular flavor contains twice as much sugar as everything else. On the other hand, it’s the lowest in butterfat (but compensates in egg yolks). Its secret weapon, though, is the cache of “crack cookies” (a toffeelike confection of Saltines, butter, sugar, and chocolate) that are crumbled into it. The upshot: salty, sweet, creamy, and utterly lethal”the crackiest crack food in town.
$4.25 a single scoop, $8.45 a pint; 623 Vanderbilt Ave., at St. Marks Ave., Prospect Heights; 347-240-3926.

Tuna on Crack
at Teqa
This Murray Hill watering hole bills itself as a taqueria and tequileria and traffics in pucks of tuna tartare, mingled with avocado and cucumber, festooned with squiggles of chipotle aïoli, and accompanied by smatterings of tortilla chips. Nothing wrong with that. But tuna on crack? Even the lab rats are crying foul.
$14; 447 Third Ave., nr. 31st St.; 212-213-3223.

Davis’ Famous’
Pistachio Crack Brittle
Born of an accident, as most good things are, involving rock-hard brown sugar and leftover pistachios, this brittle got its name whencreator Dave Miss noticed customers getting irrationally angry at him, both for running out of stock and getting them hooked on the stuff. He uses cane syrup, a vestige of living in New Orleans, and espresso powder, which adds a burnt-caramel depth of flavor (not to mention another addictive substance). You likely won’t stop munching until you lose a filling.
$14 at By Brooklyn, 261 Smith St., nr. Degraw St., Carroll Gardens; 718-643-0606.

Your Brain on Food