This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Baked: How Pot Brownies and Pate de Fruits Fueled an Edible Cannabis Revolution, first released on August 3, 2021. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CLIP: CHOPPED 420 TRAILER
NARRATOR: Welcome to an experience like no other.
LAGANJA ESTRANJA: This is a 420 Chopped extrava-ganja.
CONTESTANT 1: We got THC in here baby.
CONTESTANT 2: Listen to that sizzle! SIZZLE
CONTESTANT 3: I am the Martha Stewart of cannabis.
CONTESTANT 4: It’s like a whole new world is open for us chefs.
CONTESTANT 5: I’m comin’ to roll my competition up and smoke ‘em.
CYNTHIA GRABER: I have seen a fair amount of cooking shows, but until recently I didn’t even realize that there’s an entire genre about how to best cook with cannabis.
NICOLA TWILLEY: But, if it’s to do with food, Gastropod is on it. Once more unto the breach for you, dear listeners. This, of course, is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and yes, so many of you have asked for it, including my mom Tamah, and finally we are fulfilling your wishes. This is the Gastropod episode—actually episodes—all about weed.
TWILLEY: Specifically, about edibles. Edibles are red hot right now: sales skyrocketed during the pandemic, at least in the states where they’re legal. The market grew by 60 percent to more than a billion dollars.
GRABER: And nationally, there’s some potentially revolutionary news out of Congress; there’s a new bill that was introduced just last month that would make it so owning, selling, smoking, or eating cannabis is no longer a federal crime. This could change everything: it will not only be transformational for people who’ve been arrested for cannabis use, but also for the entire industry. The whole business of cannabis is poised for a take-off.
TWILLEY: So this episode: what’s up with edibles? Martha Stewart’s into edibles, Willie Nelson’s into edibles, Snoop’s obviously into edibles, and now we’re into them too. But why eat your cannabis when you can smoke it—does digesting rather than inhaling do something different to your high?
GRABER: Or maybe it tastes good? Does cannabis contribute anything to your overall gastronomic experience? And why are pot brownies the most famous edible of all?
TWILLEY: Also, remember, it’s still federally illegal, and anyone who grew up in the 80s will vividly recall hearing that pot will scramble your brain. So, is it dangerous, or not? Plus news you can use: we are going to figure out whether cannabis extracts, which are now in everything from seltzer to yogurt—do they do even one tenth of all the things they claim?
GRABER: Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Network, in partnership with Eater. This episode was made possible thanks to generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, and Economics, as well as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research.
TWILLEY: Turns out we have geology to thank for cannabis. At least for cannabis’ psychoactive properties.
GRABER: The ancient ancestors of the cannabis plant started growing tens of millions of years ago around what’s now central Asia, like Pakistan, northern India, and Nepal. And then something dramatic happened.
TWILLEY: The entire subcontinent that is now India drifted north, crashed into Asia. The crumple zone is what we now call the Himalayas. And the cannabis plants that were growing in that zone got really, really high.
GRABER: And the ones that were stuck down low in the plains near the Himalayas, well, they didn’t get quite so high.
TWILLEY: This difference is both topographical and literal: the cannabis that grew in the mountainous regions started producing THC, which for the uninitiated is the chemical in cannabis that gets you high.
CHRIS DUVALL: We don’t know for certain why the plant produces it. It appears to serve as kind of a sunscreen.
GRABER: Chris Duvall is a professor at the University of New Mexico and author of two books on the topic: The African Roots of Marijuana and Cannabis.
TWILLEY: Chris told us that the cannabis that stayed down low in temperate plains—those plants did not produce THC. They became what we know as hemp: source of cloth, rope, and disgusting health foods.
GRABER: Cannabis grew really easily in a lot of different environments, especially ones we disturbed to build settlements—it was literally a weed. That’s why we call it “weed.” And so there was probably a lot of cannabis just growing in Central and East Asia, both the high mountainous regions and the low parts. And so a really long time ago, as long as maybe 12,000 years ago, people figured out ways to use it.
DUVALL: It appears for both populations, initially, people used it for the seeds, which are edible—you can buy them and eat them nowadays.
TWILLEY: Hemp seeds are often found at natural foods stores today, they’re full of wonderful nutrients, but they taste terrible. And before you all write in and tell me I’m wrong, not only does Cynthia agree with me, the historical record does too.
GRABER: Chris told us that in China, hemp seeds were at one point considered a staple food.
DUVALL: But it was kind of slowly replaced as people in that region and in China, kind of domesticated and started using other plants more commonly. So types of millet and sorghum kind of displaced it.
TWILLEY: This plant—remember, it’s a weed. It spread really rapidly, it made its way to Europe. But that was the lowland variety, so it was mostly used for fiber. It made really strong ropes. And then there were the hemp seeds, of course. But, just like everyone else, Europeans didn’t eat them for pleasure.
DUVALL: There are accounts of people talking about it as just being kind of like: Ah, if there’s nothing else to eat, I guess we’ll eat that, but it doesn’t taste great.
GRABER: But so when did people start using cannabis to get high?
TWILLEY: Well, first of all, there’s the question of where: people in Europe didn’t have the kind of plants that produced THC. Their cannabis was only good for hemp and seeds.
DUVALL: Yeah, so the earliest evidence we have is about 4,000 years ago in South Asia, what’s now Pakistan. And it’s kind of indirect and circumstantial type of evidence, but there was a civilization there that’s called the Indus Valley Civilization. And they had this institution of drinking some sort of liquid that got them drunk, got them high, we don’t know exactly for sure what. But the context and kind of the subsequent history suggests that this was a cannabis-based drink.
GRABER: And so yeah, the very first use of cannabis to get high was in edibles—and not just edibles, but drinkables!
DUVALL: And there’s evidence of just these huge drinking halls and drinking parties and things like that. And the subsequent industry in South Asia was really initially centered on use of that kind of drunken drug, bhang is what it’s called nowadays, or bhanga.
TWILLEY: This is a drink you can still enjoy in India and Nepal today. It’s usually just dried, crushed up leaves and flowers and stems, mixed with dairy; it’s often sold as a bhang lassi. The ones I sampled in Kathmandu as a teenage backpacker were flavored with rosewater and cardamom and sugar.
GRABER: Bhang uses just dried bits of the plant, but there is another way to make edibles. The plants exude a kind of sticky sap-like substance on the flowers that’s called resin, sometimes it’s called rosin. And it’s got a lot of THC in it, that mind-altering chemical is super concentrated in the rosin. In the Middle East and the Mediterranean, there was a tradition of using the rosin to make hashish edibles.
DUVALL: And basically what people did with that is, THC is fat soluble, and so they would cook it in butter or some other type of oil, and then make what you want with the butter. Most of the time people made sweet foods out of it.
TWILLEY: These were all the traditional sort of Middle Eastern type sweets, with ground nuts and fruits—halvah-type things, just with added cannabis.
GRABER: People in Asia and the Middle East, where the plants produced THC, they were eating all these products because, of course, the drinks and the sweets made them feel good. That’s what cannabis does. But learning this ancient history of the plant was surprising to me—I always knew of pot as something that people smoked. Call me a square, fine—it’s totally true. But I barely even heard of edibles until I was out of my teens.
TWILLEY: There’s a reason that people in Asia consumed their cannabis in food and drink, rather than smoking it. The problem was that they were missing a vital piece of technology. It wasn’t that they were against inhalation—historically, there’s evidence that people in Asia had experimented with a kind of primitive hotboxing—basically burning cannabis in enclosed spaces to try to get high from the smoke.
DUVALL: It’s a really inefficient way of using the plant material, you have to have large amounts to fumigate a whole room. Now the pipes that were first used with cannabis were invented in Africa.
GRABER: Pipes weren’t unique to Africa—Native Americans invented pipes to smoke tobacco. But Africans also invented pipes, and cannabis came to Africa from the Middle East more than a thousand years ago,
DUVALL: People were smoking something else before they were smoking cannabis.
GRABER: Cannabis showed up, they started smoking that, too—
DUVALL: Very efficiently used, very efficient self-titration.
TWILLEY: Self titration! Chris is referring to the well-known fact that when you’re smoking pot, you feel how high you’re getting almost immediately. So you can titrate your dose—you can sort of monitor it in real time and adjust according to how high you want to be.
GRABER: That isn’t the case when you drink cannabis or eat it, it actually takes a long time to work through your body and then get to your brain to make you high, and so you can easily either not eat enough and not have any effect, or eat way too much and get way too high.
DUVALL: And that’s why it’s dominant worldwide using it as a smoked drug.
TWILLEY: Do not worry, we are coming back to all the scientific ins and outs of how the effect of cannabis differs depending on whether you eat it or inhale it. But Chris’s point is, it was when cannabis met the pipe in Africa that it really took off as a drug.
DUVALL: It traveled across the continent with laborers and with enslaved people. It traveled across the Atlantic with enslaved people. And once it got to the Americas, more than just enslaved people found it valuable and it traveled with laborers of all sorts around the world.
GRABER: Chris is focusing on laborers and enslaved people because those are the people who smoked or ate or drank pot the most. It wasn’t just African laborers, it was basically a lot of laborers from all over Asia, too. Many, many people who worked long, grueling hours used cannabis to make their reality a little more bearable.
DUVALL: And so there’s a lot of stories of people, you know, laborers getting up in the morning, having a glass of bhang or having a smoke and that would get them up and get them going for work through the day. It was cheap, it grew easily. It was easy to carry. Europeans didn’t really care anything for it. But definitely a valuable medicine of people who didn’t have a whole lot of other options.
GRABER: Cannabis—at least, the kind that got you high—it got to the new world in a variety of ways. The Portuguese brought it to Brazil, enslaved Africans brought it too, and it moved through Latin America that way. And the British brought it to the Caribbean in the 1800s along with their Indian laborers. This is the origin of the ganja culture in Jamaica. Ganja is actually a Hindi word for cannabis.
TWILLEY: But in the U.S., which had been colonized by Northern Europeans, cannabis was mostly the hemp kind, at least up to the start of the 20th century. In 1850, the THC kind of cannabis was officially added to the U.S. Pharmacopeia, which is the official list of drugs that doctors can prescribe. But it never really caught on as a medical drug, in part because it was so slow to kick in compared to opioids, and anyway, by the late 1800s, fast-acting, accurately dosable painkillers like aspirin were available.
GRABER: There had long been a strong hemp industry in America, the non-psychoactive kind. But it seems like the first major introduction of the drug cannabis, the kind that was smoked or eaten, it happened around the time of the Mexican Revolution in about 1910. Refugees were fleeing the war, and they brought their marijuana with them.
CLIP: LA CUCARACHA
TWILLEY: Apologies for this ear worm, but at least one version of this song was sung by these Mexican revolutionaries. The famous general Pancho Villa—his soldiers regularly smoked cannabis for rest, relaxation, and all round mood improvement, and those soldiers were called cockroaches. Or, in Spanish, cucarachas.
GRABER: This is a folk song, and it’s unclear what any original lyrics might have been or when people started singing it, but in this version of the song, the lyrics go, the cockroach can no longer walk, because he’s missing marijuana to smoke.
CLIP: LA CUCARACHA
SINGERS: La cucaracha, la cucaracha / Ya no puede caminar / Porque no tienes, porque me falta / Marihuana que fumar
TWILLEY: And thus it is, my friends, that we call the butt of a joint a roach! Or at least so the story goes.
GRABER: So Mexicans brought pot to Texas and to the West. In the Eastern half of the US, cannabis typically arrived through the ports. Dock workers and other laborers were using it, as we said, the drug has for thousands of years been used by folks with hard lives—
TWILLEY: And in the port of New Orleans in particular, that group also included musicians, mostly Black, who were also experimenting with a new kind of music. Jazz.
CLIP OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG
LOUIS ARMSTRONG: I see skies of blue, clouds of white…
TWILLEY: Like Louis Armstrong, who is one the most famous jazz musicians of all time. He loved cannabis. He said smoking it made him feel good and feel relaxed, and quote it made him “forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro.”
GRABER: Jazz music and jazz musicians spread around the country, and of course cannabis did, too. There were all sorts of songs about cannabis, often with the word “reefer” in the title.
CLIP: REEFER SONG
SINGER: Oh have you ever met that funny reefer man? Have you ever met that funny reefer man?
GRABER: The drug became entrenched in African American urban and jazz culture.
CLIP: WHEN I GET LOW, I GET HIGH
ELLA FITZGERALD: My man walked out, now you know that ain’t right / Well he better watch out, if I meet him tonight / I said when I get low, Oh, I get high.
TWILLEY: With Mexicans and African-Americans as the main users of cannabis, you can probably imagine what happened next. Some good old-fashioned racism. Remember, white European workers didn’t have a tradition of consuming cannabis to help make their lives more bearable, because European cannabis plants weren’t the psychoactive kind. So pot smoking was pretty much a thing that Black and brown people did.
GRABER: The New York Times ran sensationalized stories about crazy Mexicans driven wild by what some people called the locoweed, murdering women and children, etc.
CLIP: TOUCH OF EVIL
SLEAZY MEXICAN: Honey! You! In the next room.
JANET LEIGH: What is it?
SLEAZY MEXICAN: Come to the wall so I can whisper.
JANET LEIGH: Yes?
SLEAZY MEXICAN: You know what the boys are trying to do, don’t you? They are trying to get in there. You know what marijuana is…?
TWILLEY: Yep, Orson Welles, who we last heard of advertising Perrier in our bottled water episode—he made a famous movie, called a “Touch of Evil,” in which Mexicans get high on the dreaded Mary Jane and attack a white woman.
GRABER: This hysteria and racism is why the first American prohibition against cannabis was in Texas—it was an anti-Mexican law. But the anti-marijuana rhetoric in the south and in the east also had some very clearly anti-Black dog whistles in it. In addition to making people violent in general, it would cause overt sexuality and sexual violence. Which is something white people were constantly accusing Black men of and killing them for.
TWILLEY: And, as laws criminalizing cannabis spread around the States, the penalties were harshest in the south, to quote unquote keep Blacks down. In Georgia at one point, a second marijuana offense of any sort, even just possession, was grounds for the death penalty.
GRABER: And then by the 1930s, cannabis was fully banned. It became federally illegal.
ALIA VOLZ: Fast forward to 1968. Nixon is running for president, and he’s running on a law and order platform.
TWILLEY: This is Alia Volz, she’s the author of a new book about growing up as the daughter of the woman who ran what was, at the time, very likely the largest edibles business in the United States.
GRABER: Of course between the 1930s and 1968, pot hadn’t disappeared, it had just gone underground. The Beats, they were writers and artists in the 1950s who explored spirituality and drugs and sexual liberation and so on, they were really into cannabis.
TWILLEY: In fact, one of the first movements to re-legalize marijuana was founded by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, back in 1964. Nineteen people attended their first demonstration in New York, carrying banners that said “Pot is fun.”
GRABER: The hippies in the 1960s, they actually were kind of the children of the Beat movement, and they were obviously a counter-culture movement, too, and they were super into pot. They could even travel on new shiny jets—the ones we discussed in our airplane food episode—and they could go on the hippie trail in South Asia and enjoy some pot in its traditional homeland.
TWILLEY: And then there’s the Vietnam war.
CLIP: GOOD MORNING VIETNAM
ROBIN WILLIAMS: Gooooood morning, Vietnam! Hey, this is not a test. This is rock and roll! Time to rock it from the delta to the DMZ.
GRABER: This of course is Robin Williams playing a real-life U.S. Air Force sergeant and DJ during the Vietnam War.
TWILLEY: U.S. soldiers stationed in East Asia smoked a lot of pot. They weren’t technically allowed to drink, but everyone turned a blind eye to cannabis, and the troops needed an escape from the horrors of that particular war.
CLIP: GOOD MORNING VIETNAM
WILLIAMS: Speaking of things controversial, is it true that there is a marijuana problem here in Vietnam?
WILLIAMS, FUNNY VOICE: No, it’s not a problem. Everybody has it.
GRABER: By 1968, nearly everyone could smoke pot if they wanted to. Middle class kids, guys fighting overseas, writers and artists, everyone.
CLIP: 1968 CBS SPECIAL REPORT
MIKE WALLACE: A few years ago, it was a drug associated in the public mind with crimes of violence, with narcotics addiction—a drug only used by society’s outsiders, the very poor, minority groups, and the big city ghettos. Marijuana has now become an escape for the middle class. In any metropolitan area, it is relatively easy to buy—not openly on street corners, but with the right contacts or a little discreet inquiry, the drug can be found.
TWILLEY: That’s from a 1968 CBS special report—Mike Wallace did a deep dive on how marijuana was sweeping America’s cities.
VOLZ: So the main enemies of the Nixon administration were anti-war protesters, and people of color, who were becoming more powerful. And they realized that by focusing on drugs, by demonizing drugs night after night, in the news, and legislating them heavily, they could disrupt these activist groups, they could lock people up. And they did.
TWILLEY: Cannabis was still federally illegal, that’s how Nixon was using it to put people in jail. But, by 1968, a lot of the country felt as though those super harsh penalties for dealing, let alone possession—they were maybe kind of over the top.
CLIP: 1968 CBS SPECIAL REPORT
WALLACE: One of those advocates is this young lady. She is in her mid-twenties, college-educated, works for a national magazine.
WOMAN: I don’t want to over… I don’t want to rave about pot, because I don’t think it’s such a big deal. The only thing that makes it a big deal is that it’s illegal. It’s that people can go to jail for it. And that, to me, is immoral. That makes it a big deal.
GRABER: There had been lots of sensationalized headlines and political rhetoric around how dangerous cannabis was, but there wasn’t a lot of actual scientific evidence to back it up. Nixon decided to change that.
VOLZ: And one of the first things that happened was a Blue Ribbon Commission, the Shafer Commission, was appointed with the sole purpose of proving once and for all that cannabis was dangerous to humans. And Nixon packed this commission with his drug hawk cronies, and expected a certain result. But the lead of the commission, Raymond Shafer, took his job very seriously. And ended up consulting with dozens of scientists and doctors to try and get to the bottom of it. And much to his surprise, there was no medical evidence that cannabis was dangerous or in any way deadly. And there was considerable evidence to suggest that it might be medicinally valuable. So the Shafer report was, I think, 1200 pages, if I’m not mistaken, that said all the stuff Nixon didn’t want to hear. And he was furious. He read the first two pages and buried it.
GRABER: Meanwhile, as Nixon was waiting for the results of the Shafer report, the government had passed a new Controlled Substances Act with new categories that defined just how dangerous a given drug was. And cannabis got stuck—temporarily, in theory—in category one, which is the very most dangerous type. The point of category one is that these drugs are super addictive and harmful and there is no benefit to using them at all.
VOLZ: Cannabis was temporarily put in that category while the Shafer Commission did its work. And when the report came out, and Nixon basically threw it out the window, cannabis remained a schedule one drug despite all evidence to the contrary—ongoing, all these years later, it’s still a schedule one narcotic. More restricted than opioids, more restricted than cocaine. It has never been scientific. It has always been political.
TWILLEY: There cannabis was, stuck in schedule one. Until a baked good busted it out of hard drug jail. Enter the humble brownie. Coming up, after this break.
VOLZ: My folks, and primarily my mom, operated the first high-volume cannabis edibles business in San Francisco. So back in the 1970s, Sticky Fingers Brownies was distributing more than 10,000 super potent edibles per month all over San Francisco through all the different subcultures.
GRABER: As we said, Alia wrote a really fascinating new book about her mom and her experience, it’s called Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco.
TWILLEY: This is the next big twist in the story of cannabis. Ever since pot met pipes in Africa, smoking had been the main way to consume cannabis. But in this next part of the story, cannabis gets back to its edible roots.
GRABER: Alia told us her mom got into the pot brownie business kind of by accident. A friend of hers sold homemade baked goods on the streets in the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood.
VOLZ: She was trying to earn a little extra money to move to Findhorn, which is a commune in Scotland. And one of her customers talked her into carrying some cannabis brownies.
TWILLEY: The cannabis brownies were a huge hit. This is not super surprising, for at least a couple of reasons. One, San Francisco in the 1970s was the epicenter of everything counterculture and hippie and flower child. So there was what the marketing folks call a target audience.
GRABER: Also San Francisco was one of the country’s hotspots for street performance culture. Comedians and musicians and dancers would perform outdoors for free, for tips, literally all day.
VOLZ: This is where Robin Williams got his start. This is where Penn and Teller got their start. So people went on to have more mainstream careers. But this was kind of the cradle and the epicenter for a lot of performers back in those days. But, of course, performing on the street is not easy work. You know, you’re tap dancing on concrete, and hoping people are going to put money in your hat. So there were people who told me in interviews that the cannabis helped them, you know, get through this period.
TWILLEY: As it always had. And the long and short is, Alia’s mum’s friend made bank. She quickly reached her goal of enough money to go to this commune in Scotland, and she packed up and left town—but not before handing over her fledgling business to Alia’s mum.
GRABER: There was just one slight problem.
VOLZ: My mom cannot bake. I mean, an absolute disaster in the kitchen. So it wasn’t the most natural fit, but it turned out that she had a knack for selling contraband. And she really enjoyed the risk. So she made it a cannabis-only business very quickly.
TWILLEY: Someone still had to bake the brownies, of course. But Alia’s mum outsourced that to a friend, Barb Hartman.
VOLZ: My mom’s best friend, my godmother, she had just a wonderful touch in the kitchen. So my mom quickly recruited her. Another thing my mom is really good at doing is getting other people involved in her crazy plans. So she brought on Barb, and Barb refined the recipe.
GRABER: Barb did the cooking, and Alia’s mom was super charming and chatty and a great businesswoman, and she very quickly did very well in her new business. Her business was helped by the fact that they were using new varieties of weed grown nearby in northern California that were super strong.
VOLZ: So they were able to get it very inexpensively, that was part of the success of the business, and achieve greater potency than edibles that were made with more expensive Mexican bud or other other smuggled-in cannabis.
TWILLEY: Price and potency are clearly important ingredients for brownie success. But there’s also the brownies themselves.
VOLZ: One of the key things that happened was a little bit ridiculous. Barb, who was the baker was—oh god, they just took off, they were so popular so quickly—and so she would have to pull all nighters to produce enough for my mom to sell. And one night it was very late. And she forgot to put in the flour, which is such a key ingredient. So she realized it about halfway through the process, pulled out the pans, and it’s just goop. It’s just chocolatey goop with no flour. Well, it was ruined and it was a waste of cannabis. But she started swiping it idly with her fingers, and just kind of tasting it and she got so high, so quickly, that she realized she was onto something. As it turned out, it wasn’t so much the absence of flour that did it. It was undercooking the brownies—something that cannabis chefs know these days, but did not back then, was that you want to heat cannabis to a particular temperature to get it to release the THC. But if you cook it for too long, right, to too high of a temperature, the THC burns off. So it was about finding this sweet spot and leaving the brownies just slightly undercooked so that they were molten in the center—turned out to be part of the key to Sticky Fingers. And also where the name came from. Because handling them would just tar your fingers in dark brown goo.
GRABER: I do love brownies, particularly the sticky gooey variety—I mean, who doesn’t love brownies—but I don’t love the smell of pot. So, did those pot brownies actually taste good?
TWILLEY: Alia is biased, but even she admits they weren’t the pinnacle of brownie perfection.
VOLZ: Rather than using techniques that would be used today to extract the cannabis into fat or butter, and then cook with the butter, it was a little bit more crude than that. They would literally dump ground, powdered cannabis into the butter and just cook it together and melt chocolate into that and throw all of it into the brownie. So they were a little bit mulchy. There it was kind of a cow pie texture that you would not find today. So it’s kind of funny, people ask me for the recipe all the time, and I am happy to share it. But I also say, you know, go to your local dispensary because cannabis cooking has come a long way since 1976.
GRABER: Mulchy is not a texture I’m looking for in my brownies. Which leads into my next question: Why ruin perfectly good brownies by making them mulchy? Why were brownies thought to be the perfect vehicle for a cannabis high?
VOLZ: Brownies was where they started. And it was popular, it was easy. So it was an easy model, and an easy model to reproduce. And once they got going and it was so popular—you know, why mess with a good thing? They didn’t see the need to diversify.
TWILLEY: Alia’s mum quickly expanded the business beyond Fisherman’s Wharf. She roped in Barb and the man who became Alia’s dad and a few others, and they all worked their own sales routes in the city.
VOLZ: And so what they would do is they would sell exclusively to people who were on the job, which is to say: bartenders, waiters, real estate offices, sometimes medical offices, florists, just any kind of mom and pop business you could imagine, they would go in, they would sell to the person behind the register. That person would then buy a higher volume of brownies to then distribute them through their own social circles. And what was so clever about this was not only that it spread exponentially, but it made it almost impossible for the police to figure out where they were coming from.
TWILLEY: Yet another key to their business success. Or at least longevity.
GRABER: So Alia was born in ‘78, and she grew up in this not-legal family business that managed to evade police attention. Honestly, to us, it sounded kind of bizarre to grow up surrounded by so much pot all the time. But Alia told us it was just kind of her normal life.
VOLZ: I always knew to keep my hands out of the cannabis as a kid. It was like adult stuff. But it also wasn’t kept a secret from me, ever. I understood that it was illegal, but not immoral. And that was a really important distinction in my family growing up.
TWILLEY: The way Alia describes it, her family’s food business was like a super wholesome mom and pop set up. The baking eventually got too much for Barb, so they brought another guy, Carmen Vigil, but it all took place in the family home.
VOLZ: We lived in a 4,000 square foot warehouse and then Carmen would come in once a week and bake for two days straight. And a group of women, Carmen’s wife and a couple of friends, who everyone called the wrapettes, would come over and spend a solid day and night, sitting in the kitchen and wrapping these brownies individually in cellophane, and they had kids. And so the kids would come over and I would play with the other kids. It really was a family operation.
GRABER: So that was home, but then at school Alia got a slightly different message. She was in elementary school and middle school in the ‘80s, same as me, and her mom’s business was still going strong. But I know exactly what she heard on TV and in her public schools. I can particularly picture the public service announcement, or PSA, that compared your brain to fried eggs.
CLIPS FROM ‘JUST SAY NO’ CAMPAIGNS
VO: This is your brain. This is drugs. SIZZLE This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?
NANCY REAGAN: Say yes to your life. And when it comes to drugs, alcohol, just say no.
VOLZ: And this was the Reagan era of the war on drugs. And Nancy Reagan had taken on anti-drug campaigning as her FLOTUS pet project, with the Just Say No campaign. And they founded a program called D.A.R.E. to keep kids off drugs: Drug Awareness Resistance Education.
CLIP: DARE COMMERCIAL
MR. T: I get angry, just thinking about it makes me mad. Little kids doing drugs. It turns my stomach. CRUSHES A GLASS OF MILK WITH HIS HAND I just want to shake some sense into you kids that are using drugs and thinking about using. So remember: Don’t, or else!
TWILLEY: It’s Mr. T! A legend, at least if you grew up in the 80s. He starred in a TV show called “The A-Team,” but he also made this memorable PSA for the D.A.R.E. program.
VOLZ: So I go to school. I come from this incredibly, incredibly alternative upbringing. And my house is full of cannabis. And I come to school. And I remember the first time we went to a D.A.R.E. assembly, and there was a uniformed cop there. And I was sure he was there for me. I mean, my heart was just pounding out of my chest.
TWILLEY: But then the cop’s presentation starts, and it’s all about the evils of cannabis and the terrible people who sell it and the awful things that happen if you take it.
VOLZ: And it was all baloney. I mean, I could see that. Anybody could see that, who had actually been around cannabis culture, at least in California. In my experience, California cannabis culture was largely driven by women. It was very wholesome. These were family businesses.
GRABER: So this whole Nancy Reagan, D.A.R.E. time in the ‘80s was trying to convince you that marijuana would kill you. But Nancy’s husband’s government was ignoring the pandemic that was really killing people that decade, and that’s AIDS.
VOLZ: It began to emerge in 1981. My mom’s business had always been very deeply connected with the LGBTQ+ community in San Francisco. That was her strongest client base, those were our friends. And people who I’d known my whole life began to get sick. And it was such a visible illness with the wasting and the lesions that would appear on people’s skin, people would just be physically transformed. Sometimes in the space of a few weeks. It was so drastic.
TWILLEY: It’s hard to remember this now, when there are drugs that make it possible to live with HIV for years without any signs of the disease. But back then, it was a death sentence, and it was everywhere in this tight knit community—suddenly everyone was dying.
VOLZ: The obituaries at times in the gay newspapers would be a dozen pages long. And these are all young people, people in their 30s and 40s. It was just immensely tragic. So you have these whole swaths of the population who have no recourse and are dying horrible, horrible deaths. And cannabis emerged really early on as palliative care, right. It wasn’t going to cure anybody. But it helped with some of the worst and most common symptoms—the wasting syndrome, which destroyed people’s appetites, nausea, pain, insomnia. Cannabis was helpful with all of that. And so it happened very quickly, that it went from being a party drug, to something that people were turning to for medicinal relief.
TWILLEY: And brownies were the best vehicle for this kind of cannabis consumption. Better than a joint or a pipe.
VOLZ: Because a lot of those guys, there was a terrible and deadly pneumonia. Pneumocystis Carinii pneumonia was raging through the community. And so a lot of those guys couldn’t smoke. And edibles were a very gentle alternative.
GRABER: Alia’s mom was operating in the shadows, trying to help her friends. She kept the prices super low, basically at cost, for people who were suffering and she stayed out of the news. But there was another woman at the time in San Francisco who also started using brownies to help AIDS sufferers: she was called Brownie Mary.
VOLZ: Brownie Mary was this little old lady who wore polyester slacks and Hawaiian shirts and glasses. And she baked brownies and cookies at her home in the Castro. And she had kind of overlapped with my mom, my mom’s business was first, and I should say that my mom’s name is Mer—Meridy. And she went by the moniker The Brownie Lady. So you had Mer the Brownie Lady and you had Brownie Mary. And they were both operating in the same neighborhood, and kind of overlapping and kind of taking turns. And so people had them confused all the time. But the main difference is that poor Brownie Mary kept getting busted.
GRABER: And she used the publicity to fight for the rights of the AIDS patients to consume those brownies. Now, people had been fighting to legalize marijuana for a while. Remember Allen Ginsburg and the Beats. But Mary was a new face of the legalization movement.
VOLZ: Because you had this adorable little old lady. I mean, you couldn’t paint her as a villain. It was impossible. And here she is baking brownies and cookies and taking them to the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital. And she’s like, you know, go ahead, bust me. She was really important in getting the message out and fighting for legal access to cannabis, which came about in part because of her activities.
TWILLEY: Brownie Mary was one of many vocal AIDS activists at the time. And they were vocal because they were desperate.
VOLZ: Basically, HIV/AIDS activists who were fighting for anything that would help also took on cannabis, medical marijuana as a cause. And people were fighting for their lives. So it was the kind of push, the kind of drama, the kind of determination that had never been seen before in cannabis activist circles. And we really do have that to thank.
GRABER: Deaths from AIDS peaked in 1995, right as drugs became more widely available to treat the disease. And California legalized medical marijuana in 1996. Pot brownies, and the AIDS patients who depended on them, they were the ones who really made that change happen. They brought medical use to California.
VOLZ: So the first legal dispensary opened in San Francisco in 1996, first in the nation. And once that started happening, and although it was still complicated, there were still busts, nothing was easy or smooth. But once people who were ill began to be able to get their cannabis legally, my mom felt that her job was done in a way. And so she stepped out and she’s always been a visual artist, and she has lived on her art ever since. Never looked back.
TWILLEY: And neither has the edibles industry! Which has grown from those first medical edibles to being legal for any adult to enjoy in more than a dozen states. It’s now big business. And that’s where we’re going next, after this break.
GRABER: Pot brownies might have been the most famous edible of the 1970s and onward, and they helped make pot legal, but even though their creation was kind of an accident, in a lot of ways, brownies just actually made sense.
MEGON DEE: My first introduction to it was I heard about a pot brownie, and I’m like, Oh, okay. You know, I’d never really considered combining the two and then I actually did it. And that changed my life completely.
TWILLEY: This is Megon Dee, she’s the founder of Oracle Wellness Company. She was a baker and private chef, cooking both with and without cannabis, and now she’s a cannabis entrepreneur. Like she says, her introduction to the marriage of cannabis and food was, surprise, surprise, a brownie. Again with the brownies—why is it always brownies?
COREEN CARROLL: Chocolate. Chocolate is one of those things that covers up that taste so much. And I think before people realized how to do infusions, or were educated on how to do infusions, they were just throwing it all in. And let’s be honest, that’s not very tasty. I don’t like just chewing on just buds.
GRABER: Coreen Carroll is a chef and founder of the Cannaisseur Series, which is a monthly pop-up of cannabis dinners.
CARROLL: And that’s what people used to do, they would just throw it into the brownies. I did it, I was just as guilty. Just throw it into your brownie mix, and you’ve got this chunky, chocolatey mix, and it kind of covers the taste stuff and you could get it down.
TWILLEY: I guess even a mulchy brownie is a chocolate brownie. But these days, cannabis cuisine has moved on and moved up.
CLIP: BONG APPETIT
VO: Welcome to Bong Appetit cookoff: the contest that challenges the chef’s ability to utilize the ultimate ingredient—cannabis.
B-REAL: I’m your host, B-Real. Let’s get it crackin’.
KELIS: There is a revolution taking the cooking world by storm. And it’s all because of this star ingredient.
JUDGE: Bring on the weed!
TWILLEY: All of a sudden, in just the past few years, there’s been a rush of cannabis cooking shows—”Cooking on High,” “Cooked with Cannabis,” “Bong Appetit,” and, of course “Chopped 420,” where 420 is slang for weed.
GRABER: Coreen has been a chef for a long time, even without the weed, and she says that weed is also just part of kitchen culture. This is like what Chris told us about who used to smoke pot hundreds of years ago—people who were on their feet doing hard physical labor—and that’s what it’s like in a restaurant too.
CARROLL: I mean a lot of chefs smoke weed. We work these long, long hours. And a lot of times that ended up with an after shift drink or something. And for those of us that don’t like to drink a lot and still have work the next day, we’d prefer the joints so a lot of us smoked joints. So it was a natural thing to start seeing, you know, chefs, people that were really educated and badasses in the kitchen, starting to experiment with cannabis and elevating the whole edible game.
TWILLEY: I’m not a chef, but I like to cook, I love delicious food, and I’m certainly not against getting high. So I’m curious, how do you cook with cannabis plants and not have it turn out mulchy? Even the bhang lassis I had in Nepal as a teenager had bits of ground up flowers and leaves in them.
GRABER: Coreen says there are much more elegant ways to use the actual plant in a dish than just grinding it up.
CARROLL: The cannabis leaves themselves come in a huge variety of flavor and sizes and textures. I like to compare them to like grape leaves. So you can wrap something around it or you can deep fry them. Sugar them, candy them. There’s so many varieties on cannabis leaves.
TWILLEY: That said, Coreen, and Megon, like most cannabis chefs—they’re not usually throwing bits of leaf or bud into their culinary creations. They’re using infusions.
CARROLL: Okay, so there’s a wide variety of ways of different infusing methods. Fats are the big popular one. So using things like butter, or coconut oil. Then you can go into mixing it into honeys and maples, any kinds of sauces at that point.
GRABER: As Chris told us earlier, THC is fat soluble. When you heat up cannabis in a fat like butter or coconut oil or olive oil, the THC binds to the fats, and then you can just strain out the plant matter. This was new: in the past people did know that fat was important, but nobody had known just the right process to get the THC attached to the fat so that you could then get rid of the plant matter. Of course we knew how to infuse for centuries, but it’s just much more refined now, in part because we can actually measure the results, and in part because people have had the time and leisure over the past few decades to experiment.
TWILLEY: Fat is the most common thing to be infused these days, but it’s not the only thing you can infuse—alcohol is another big one.
GRABER: Okay, infused fats, infused alcohols, candied cannabis leaves, that sounds good, but what does cannabis actually taste like?
CARROLL: That changes from plant to plant to plant.
TWILLEY: Most of the flavor profile of cannabis comes from chemicals called terpenes, which are found in all sorts of plants, not just pot. And different cannabis varieties contain different flavor terpenes.
DEE: So one of my favorite flavor profiles is limonene. But that’s found in our citrus fruits as well. And then you have, you know, maybe a linalool terpene that’s found in lavender, so then you may consider how that would pair well with, say, chocolate or blueberries, right?
CARROLL: Another good one is beta caryophyllene, which is one of my favorites actually. It has this cinnamon, nutmeg, clove smell to it. So it always reminds me of the holidays.
GRABER: These are all flavors that both chefs consider when they’re creating their cannabis-based menus. So we wondered if there was anything that pot doesn’t go with.
DEE: I haven’t come across anything yet. Not in my experience. Not yet. I’ll let you know if I do.
TWILLEY: So it sounds as though the sky is the limit for culinary cannabis, but, when you go into your local dispensary, that’s not what you see. You see row after row of gummies, maybe some other candies and chocolate, but everything is sweet.
DEE: The market’s flooded with the sugary base edibles. I think, again, we’re still in a mindset where getting high is fun, and fun is associated with sugar. Right? So it’s like, let me eat a gummy and, you know, I’ll live my best life. I think that’s where people are.
GRABER: Part of the overwhelming plethora of sweet edibles available is, like Megon says, that it’s just the right vibe. But there are more practical concerns, too.
CARROLL: I think that has a lot to do with regulation. Like we can’t infuse fresh dairy products, for example. Can’t infuse fresh jams, fresh fruits—fresh foods, just on-demand food can’t be infused, it has to go through a system, it has to go through a track-and-trace, it has to be tested and then approved and then get all kinds of specialty stickers and then it goes on the shelf and it has to be shelf stable.
TWILLEY: Of course, there are savory snack foods that are super shelf stable—jerky, potato chips, pretzels. But sugar is a preservative. And, also, sugar makes the medicine go down. But chefs like Megon and Coreen certainly don’t limit themselves to dessert when they’re cooking for clients, in contests, or at events.
DEE: I think for me as far as savory goes, I started with, of course, butter, and then ghee, right, clarified butter, and then moving into olive oil as well. So with those bases, the possibilities are endless when you want to put a little spin, a high spin, on a savory entree, you know. So it makes it simple. If you have an infused olive oil to then put that into, say, a soup, you know, a salad dressing, a chicken dinner. I love doing a paella. I feel like there’s something in there for everybody. I also love a good crab boil, just infuse the butter. Dip your seafood in there, have a great time. Yeah. So you know, food is communal. Cannabis is communal.
GRABER: That’s how Coreen sees it, too. And she was actually a competitor on “Cooked with Cannabis.” For her contest menu, she started off with a spring pea soup with some crispy shallots on it. And then Coreen moved on to the main course.
CLIP: COOKED WITH CANNABIS
KELIS: Alright, what do we got here?
CARROLL: Okay, so you have a CBD-infused Swiss chard puree. And the spaetzle is actually infused with canna leaves, topped off with a crispy duck breast.
TWILLEY: For dessert, Correen pulled out all the stops, she made an olive oil cake layered with Greek yogurt and then she finished it with an infused blueberry sauce and a candied cannabis leaf.
GRABER: Then the judges huddled.
CLIP: COOKED WITH CANNABIS
MICHAEL VOLTAGGIO: Technically, she did a lot of really good stuff. That spaetzle was like perfect. Coreen’s dessert for me is one of my favorite things I tasted today.
TWILLEY: And… guess what?
CLIP: COOKED WITH CANNABIS
KELIS: The winner was the chef who married cannabis and food in the most interesting, elegant, and delicious way. The winner of $10,000 is… Chef Coreen! CHEERING, CLAPPING
TWILLEY: So with all this flavor pairing and terroir and cooking shows and candied leaves, culinary cannabis has become pretty fancy these days. And Coreen says that rebrand is important.
CARROLL: It’s giving people another way to look at cannabis and not just seeing it as this prohibition drug that’s just been, you know, laid on us for decades and decades and decades telling us that this is a bad thing.
GRABER: Another reason Coreen thinks edibles are so hot right now is that not everyone wants to smoke. Plus, you know, you can sneak some edibles without anyone in your household, and, let’s be serious, even your neighbors, knowing you’re getting high.
TWILLEY: Coreen and Megon are not alone in the edibles space these days. Like we said at the start, sales have boomed, especially during the pandemic. And now it seems as though everyone and their famous aunt is getting in on the game. One of the early celebrities to get into the market was someone I sang along to back in the ‘90s, when he was still Snoop Doggy Dogg.
CLIP: GIN & JUICE
SNOOP DOGGY DOGG: Rollin’ down the street, smokin’ indo / Sippin’ on gin and juice, laid back / With my mind on my money / And my money on my mind
CLIP: SNOOP EDIBLES COMMERCIAL
VO: The Leafs by Snoop edibles include handmade, fair-trade premium couverture chocolate bars made with activated cannabis oil. In addition to the chocolate bars, the edibles line will also feature peanut butter gems, gummies, drops, and fruit juice.
GRABER: On the other end of the musical spectrum, but perhaps similar in his love of drugs, you’ve got Willie Nelson, who has a line of infused chocolates and fruit lozenges.
CLIP: IT’S ALL GOING TO POT
WILLIE NELSON: Well, it’s all going to pot / Whether we like it or not / The best I can tell / The world’s gone to hell…
TWILLEY: Everyone’s in the business: Chelsea Handler, Seth Rogen, even the queen of homemaking and securities fraud, Martha Stewart herself.
CLIP: MARTHA EDIBLES COMMERCIAL
MARTHA STEWART: Hi, everyone, I’m Martha Stewart and I have some very exciting news. I was delighted to establish a partnership with Canopy Growth after being introduced to them by my friend and co-star Snoop Dogg. And now I am launching a new line of CBD products.
GRABER: The products she’s selling are pâte de fruits, which are these super delicious concentrated real fruit jellies, which I adore. But you might have noticed that she said CBD. Which brings me to an entirely new set of questions: that’s also an extract of cannabis, isn’t it? So why can I find CBD-infused honey, tea, and even breakfast cereal at my local health food store, and not at a controlled dispensary? Why are they legal everywhere? And what does CBD do for you if it’s not getting you high?
TWILLEY: Alia told us that that report that Nixon buried had uncovered evidence that cannabis had some medical benefits, and of course AIDS sufferers used it to help ease their symptoms—but what evidence do we have nowadays to support all the medical claims you see about cannabis—that cannabis can ease your pain, treat PTSD, make you less anxious, and about a million other things? Or did Nancy Reagan have a point, and pot is actually bad for your brain?
GRABER: Science aside, how does it work to run an edibles business if they’re not legal everywhere, and in fact they’re still illegal federally? Can you ship them across state lines? How do you file your federal income taxes?
TWILLEY: So many questions! And also my stomach is rumbling. All those edibles sound good. I think we need to try some.
NATHAN COZZOLINO: Yeah, there’s Lisbon lemon. This is a grenache grape juice from Phil Coturri in Sonoma County. This strawberry’s from Chino Farms. There’s Hachiya persimmon from the Enrique Olvera recipe that we did not too long ago. So that’s like, when you open this, you get a sense of what the month is going to look like.
GRABER: That sounds absolutely delicious. All of this and more—next episode! Thanks so much this episode to Sonja Swanson, our superstar producer, she worked so hard on this episode and we couldn’t have done it without her. Also thanks to Saima Sidik, who joined us from MIT this summer, for all her help, too.
TWILLEY: Thanks also to Chris Duvall, Alia Volz, Coreen Carroll, and Megon Dee—we have links to their books and their products on our website, gastropod.com.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with part two, and I can tell you, you will not want to miss it.