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Beyond Pot Brownies

Published in Gourmet Live 10.05.11
Matthew Kronsberg looks at marijuana’s culinary trip from wacky weed to haute herb

In her forward to the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, M.F.K Fisher claims to have never eaten one of the pot brownies that made the book a countercultural touchstone. She writes that she is told that the brownies (or “Haschich Fudge,” as the recipe calls it) can taste, “slightly bitter, depending on how much pot is put into them, and that (1) they are absolutely without effect and (2) they are potentially lethal.” Her description pretty neatly sums up the common expectation of eating marijuana: a bit of psychoactive Russian roulette with a strange aftertaste.

Marijuana’s use in food and drink, of course, didn’t start with the Toklas cookbook’s publication in 1954, nor did it stop there. In the United States, medicinal use of marijuana is now permitted in 16 states, and that permission has spawned the rise of “medibles,” or medical marijuana in edible or drinkable form. Variants on the Toklas brownie abound, but visitors to cannabis dispensaries can also expect to find a near limitless variety of cutely named goods ranging from “High Mountain Trail Mix” to “RedEye Pies” to “LaGanga” (lasagna), all designed to swiftly deliver a dose of THC with none of the smoke or taste typically associated with pot.

Should marijuana ever become completely legalized, however, this strong dose/weak taste approach to ingestion may prove to be the exception, rather than the rule. Examples from the traditional cuisines of Southeast Asia and the vanguard of New American cooking point intriguingly to possibilities of a culinary style that embraces the plant’s grassy, herbal flavor profile while moderating its psychoactive effects. And even more than at the table, the future of marijuana ingestion may be found at the bar; liquid extracts allow nearly any drink to be infused with cannabis, and beer and winemakers have already begun to embrace the possibilities of fusion.

Beer probably has the most natural affinity with marijuana; after all, hops and marijuana are botanically speaking, kissing cousins. Boutique brewers in Europe and home brewers in the U.S. have been known to use cannabis tincture and plant matter to create THC-infused beer. Within the bounds of American law, Nectar Ales in Paso Robles, California, makes Humboldt Brown Ale with denatured hemp seeds (containing no measurable THC). The toastier, nuttier quality of the seed is highlighted rather than the herbal, funky character one would get from the plant itself. It is an interesting, unexpected expression of hemp, enjoyable even without its famous effects.

Jeremiah Tower, seminal in the creation of New American cuisine, first during his time as a chef/owner at Chez Panisse (1972–78) and later at Stars, knows a thing or two about letting ingredients speak for themselves, and letting them kick, if that’s what they want. He gives cannabis a clear, though not overpowering, voice in his Consommé Marijuana, recalled (with recipe!) in his 2004 memoir California Dish. The consommé was created in the spring of 1969 as the third course of a “self-consciously decadent” 11-course meal he prepared in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Made with 1 cup of marijuana stems steeped in 6 cups of rich chicken stock, it was strained and served over a chiffonade of nasturtium flowers and basil. As Tower recalls, the dish: “provided another level of stimulation. But not stoned. The brew takes forty-five minutes to reach the brain, by which time (as the menu planned) we were on to dessert, tasting strawberries and cream as we’d never tasted them before.”

Marijuana stems also make an appearance in Cradle of Flavor, James Oseland’s entertaining and authoritative cookbook focused on the cuisines of the Spice Islands. Oseland notes that marijuana grows wild in the jungles of Indonesia and its stems are sometimes gathered and employed in the cooking of the Aceh region. The use of the marijuana in dishes like Masam Jing (Hot and Sour Fish Stew with Bamboo Shoots) provides “an earthy, green taste” as well as a cannaboid buzz, though stinging nettles may be used if you want the taste only.”

“’Did you use stems?’ is usually the first thing they’ll ask me,” said “Henry,” a winemaker from California’s central coast who asked not to be named. In Pinot Noir country, this question does not, generally, refer to pot. Whole-cluster vinification—leaving the grapes attached to their stems through fermentation and/or pressing—is a well-known method for preserving and even enhancing some of the delicate aromatics of the grape, as well as imparting some of the spice and earth of the stem. So, yes, there is the stem. But in his “special” wine (or “green wine” or “tree wine”; the names are legion) this winemaker does happen to include that certain something else.

In wine country, pot-infused wines are the open secrets that present themselves in unmarked bottles at the end of winemaker dinners and very VIP tours (it bears mentioning that most winemakers are cagey enough to keep the manufacture of such wines far from winery grounds). The wines range in style and intensity as broadly as “normal” wines and winemakers do. Some practitioners of the fruit-forward, higher-alcohol, New World style take a similarly aggressive approach to infusing wine. “I know a winemaker that takes a couple of barrels a year and puts a ton of weed in it and lets it steep, and that wine is just superpotent,” says a James Beard Award–winning chef, who also asked not to be named. Henry, though, makes more classically styled wines, and with that reserve comes a more subtle hand with the cannabis. Adjusted for volume, “special” wines can range from under a pound of marijuana per 59-gallon barrel to over 4 pounds per barrel. The result is a spectrum ranging from a gentle, almost absinthe-like effect to something verging on oenological anesthetic. Henry views his wine as a digestif, “like a fernet.” Recently he made a Riesling (unusual, in that most pot-infused wines are reds), mixing about an ounce of fairly dry (as opposed to fresh) marijuana (“I wanted less of a piney-oily texture”) with the wine in a 5-gallon carboy. After about five months, he bottled the wine, unfiltered, in 375-milliliter splits marked only with a hand-drawn skull and crossbones on the cap.

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