April 20 has a special significance in America. It is known among pot smokers as Weed Day, with the date having been chosen for the same hazy reason 4:20 p.m. is widely regarded as a good time to light up (although no one can quite remember how the tradition got started). Weed Day is hardly a secret. In fact, it’s a celebration, just as cooking with weed is ceasing to be a novelty. Someday we may look back to the publication of The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook this spring as a turning point.
This is not to say the cookbook is all that impressive. No one is going to confuse it with The Essentials of Italian Cooking. But the recipes are serious ones that attempt to do something more with marijuana than just bake it into cookies or brownies. Most of them fall into the general category of party treats, from pico de ganja nachos to sativa-shrimp spring rolls. These dishes may not sound that great, but they’re an enormous improvement on what aspiring stoners have choked down over the years. Alice B. Toklas’ 1954 cookbook famously (and inadvertently, thanks to her wiseass friend, who slipped in the recipe) introduced the world to “hashish fudge,” an unspeakably nasty recipe that doesn’t even call for cooking the weed! You just crumble it up with fruits and nuts and add some sugar and butter. Eventually, civilization developed the art of steeping marijuana in gently simmering butter, once it was found that the drug’s active ingredient, THC, was fat-soluble. But the baked goods produced were never as good as regular brownies, nor were they as convenient THC delivery systems as, say, skull-shaped water pipes or Zig-Zag cigarette papers.
That’s changing, thanks to a generation of cooks in their 20s and 30s who grew up professionally in a cloud of smoke. It’s well known that some of the best chefs in the country use pot as a new version of the “green muse” favored by the absinthe-soaked poets of 19th century Paris; the appearance of ubiquitous “stoner cuisine” dishes like poutine and candied pork belly speaks to the trend. But sophisticated cooking with weed has, until recently, been a well-kept secret.
It’s still not really out; the High Times cookbook is still pretty amateur stuff. The real cutting-edge weed cookery is generally done at home, or at invite-only dinners like the one Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold attended a couple of weeks ago. There are two approaches, which correspond predictably to the two main strands of contemporary cooking. One involves treating pot like the herb it is and either infusing it into butter or olive oil, and adding its unmistakable taste to dishes where it would be welcome — like an herbaceous pesto risotto one chef I knew used to do, using only the very best kief or fine powder, or the ethereal olive oil, garlic and pot emulsion I was once offered binding a microgreen salad. The other method, straight out of modernist cuisine, reduces the active ingredients in marijuana to a tasteless elixir of pure THC oil, administered by eyedropper and added to dishes in which it is barely discernible. Gold was disappointed by this approach. For example, in one complicated prawn dish, “[pot] appeared as a flavor really only as part of an epazote puree dotting a shallow bowl of rice porridge with nettles and monkfish,” the Pulitzer-winning critic noted. His companion, the High Times staffer who wrote the new cookbook, agreed: “It’s funny, you hardly tasted the cannabis at all. Usually the problem is the opposite — it has such a strong, sweet-nutty flavor that the trick is covering it up, often with chocolate. Either he’s a really good chef, or I’m missing something.”
It sounds like the latter to me. But I like the fact that chefs are trying at all. There’s no reason why pot dispensaries like the ones on the West Coast should limit their production to sweet snacks like brownies, cookies and Rice Krispies treats. The point about marijuana that the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and other groups have made for years is that it’s not a destructive vice indulged in by deviants, but a pleasure and a relief for a lot of Americans — sick and well — who continue, amazingly, to hold down jobs and raise healthy families. Therefore, it shouldn’t just come in the form of childish treats, or be huffed out of a turkey bag, as is the current medium of choice for high-end potheads.
I’m not going to declare my support for pot legalization — not because I don’t support it, but because the arguments in its favor are so well known that it would be pointless to reiterate them. But I can say that I am strongly in favor of mixing pleasure with nutrition, of humanizing even bad habits and of trying to cook as well as possible with the ingredients that matter most to you. For better or for worse, marijuana is becoming an accepted part of mainstream American culture. Maybe it’s time for pot brownies to go the way of bathtub gin.