As we circled the Denver airport, I could see the haze of cannabis smoke floating over the city—and almost smell it. But the Denver haze was certainly not marijuana smoke. As we would soon learn, although Colorado has legalized the recreational use of cannabis—smoking, eating, drinking, and absorbing (sublingually or transdermally)—it has also tightly regulated it. For one thing, you’re not allowed to smoke marijuana or hashish in public. Or in your car. Or use it in the same place where you buy the stuff—which effectively rules out cannabis restaurants and bars.
Our destination was Boulder, Colorado, a scant hour’s drive northwest from the Denver airport. And our goal was to experience, or reexperience, the joy of cooking with cannabis. I had been wary of the entire project because, for one thing, I had not smoked or ingested marijuana or hashish for at least 25 years (although before that, I would have considered myself an experienced user with some personal knowledge of other psychotropic substances), and I didn’t look forward to starting up again. For another, my two experiments with cannabis cooking in those long-lost times had been less than brilliant. We were graduate students in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and we melted a pound of supermarket butter in a saucepan, chopped up a half-ounce of the cheap marijuana typical of that era, stirred it into the butter, and simmered it softly for nearly an hour until the butter turned green. Then we baked brownies and cookies with it and ate a few, having calculated that one marijuana cigarette, also known as a joint, would be equal to one brownie plus one cookie, or three cookies.
The taste and texture were repulsive, but we put up with them in honor of the scientific method and because we hated the idea of wasting an entire half-ounce of cheap marijuana. As we had anticipated, we felt no immediate effect. Most of us resisted the urge to eat more cookies. And then, after less than an hour’s delay, we all gradually became pleasantly high.
People who prefer eating cannabis to smoking it cite several advantages. For one, you can eat cannabis in public or in private, and nobody will know you’re not chewing on a Milky Way bar. Also, most people these days seem to recoil at the thought of inhaling huge gusts of thick smoke, regardless of their source. I suspect that cooking is part of Nature’s Plan for cannabis, which has very little effect until you heat it above 200° F. As for its indelicate taste, that may be ancient history. From what I have read, today’s cannabis growers have bred strains so potent that very little is needed to “medicate,” as the current expression goes, a muffin or a scone.
The drive to Boulder was easy and flat, affording me ample time to worry about five problems: Where would I cook? What would I cook? How would I get marijuana or hashish into it? How would I be able to calculate the correct dose? And how would I react to marijuana after all these years?
Boulder is a small city of about 100,000, built in the mid-1800s right where the Great Plains stop at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. It is home to the main campus of the University of Colorado. My wife, Caron, and I once spent part of several summers using Boulder as a staging area for what was then viewed as extreme backpacking (35 years and 45 pounds ago, speaking just for myself) and to visit a Buddhist study center that interested us. Boulder was a major hippie hub, and people smoked cannabis pretty freely in the streets. As we were to discover, that Boulder is gone.
We reached the St. Julien Hotel and settled into our room. Friends had told us the St. Julien is the best hotel in town (we didn’t inspect all the others, but I wouldn’t be surprised), and it was a handsome place with sophisticated service, a good restaurant, fine bar, and large, airy, comfortable public areas inside and out. Its one flaw is perhaps an excess of what one might call New Boulder Attitude or NBA: No smoking of any kind is permitted anywhere on the property, which I learned when I telephoned the hotel from home. I spoke with a cordial hotel official, explained my project to him, and asked whether I might arrange to borrow the kitchen in occasional off-hours to carry out myVogue assignment—to cook with cannabis, all absolutely perfectly legal under state and local law. “It’s up to the executive chef, Laurent Méchin,” he said.
Chef Méchin told me that it was not up to him. It was up to the hotel management, who wanted nothing to do with cannabis, raw or cooked. (As I explained it to myself, prostitution is legal in parts of Nevada—yet not everybody there is expected to engage in it.) But Chef Méchin (let’s call him Laurent from here on), who trained in France and came to this country when he was 25, which was 25 years ago, and who was neither interested in cannabis cooking nor appalled by it, graciously offered to search for a commercial kitchen near the hotel and to telephone two other chefs who he thought knew much more about marijuana and hashish than he did. One of these was Pieter Dijkstra, chef de cuisine at the Spice of Life catering company. When I telephoned Pieter, he was enthusiastic about the project and said that, depending on his catering schedule, a kitchen might be free for our experiments. With that, one heavy burden had been lifted from my shoulders.
The word cannabis comes from the Greek for hemp. For thousands of years, the fibers of the hemp plant have been made into rope, fabric, and paper, or burned as fuel; its seeds have been eaten as a highly nutritious food or pressed to expel an oil for lighting and cooking. These useful products of the hemp plant must be imported into the U.S. because it is a violation of federal law to grow any kind of hemp here without a permit from the DEA. The flowers of the female hemp plant contain psychoactive substances, resins, and are classified as a dangerous drug—more dangerous than cocaine or methamphetamine.
People who enjoy smoking or eating cannabis report a range of sensations, going from a mellow mood all the way to a sense of exaltation. It is common to hear a happy user report that he or she has heard the inner voices of music for the first time. J. S. Bach is often mentioned.
Eating cannabis in excessive doses, especially when one is anxious or depressed, can result in an agonizing period of fear, paranoia, self-deprecation, and frightening hallucinations—what used to be known as a bad trip, a “bum trip,” or a “bummer,” lasting between one and several hours. That’s why when you cook or eat cannabis, you pay lots of attention to the size of the dose. A star columnist atThe New York Times, Maureen Dowd, wrote a piece at the beginning of June about a trip to Denver, where she bought a legal chocolate-caramel cannabis candy bar that reminded her of the Sky Bars she had loved as a child. Alone in her hotel room, she ate the whole thing, even though it contained sixteen moderate doses of cannabis. Not surprisingly, she had a harrowing, terrifying experience. For some reason, she wrote about it, and for some reason, the paper published what she wrote. Even to some of Dowd’s longtime fans, this did not seem fundamentally different from drinking a quart of bourbon, getting behind the wheel of an unfamiliar sports car, and totaling it.
It is true that 23 states, and D.C., have legalized the cultivation, sale, and use of cannabis for medical purposes, and two states—Colorado and Washington—have legalized it for recreational use, but all these activities are still violations of federal law. A federal marshal can arrest medical marijuana patients or recreational users, lock them up, and throw away the key. The U.S. Department of Justice has never given a free pass to cannabis fanciers—medical or recreational—but in 2013, the U.S. deputy attorney general, in an exercise of prosecutorial discretion, issued what came to be known as the Cole Memorandum, which relegated strict enforcement of the federal law against possession, sale, and so forth, to the bottom of the department’s drug-enforcement priorities. You can read and interpret the Cole Memorandum for yourself; the Web address is so long that it will be easier for you to Google it.
The following day we slept in, trying to recover from three domestic flights, which had required each of us to stand in 30 lines in four days. (In prehistory, our natural state, did humans ever stand in line?)
This would be a grueling day of exploration and research. I had brought four cannabis cookbooks with me and read them throughout the late morning, trying to figure out whether a cannabis cuisine exists and what the term could possibly mean. Then we drove to the Farm.
The Farm is probably the best-known and best-stocked cannabis shop in Boulder. The one-story building with a little clock tower on the roof and a huge, well-executed mural of a farm covering one wall, stands by itself in the corner of a parking lot that serves a small shopping area. There are two sizable public rooms inside, one with easy chairs and a couch, on which you can browse through local alternative newspapers and cannabis magazines and books while you wait to be admitted to the “flower room.”
The “flower room” is where everything for sale that can get you high is on display. There are the buds themselves, straight (75 percent) THC oil, hash oil, and various extracts and tinctures. (For hashish itself, we were directed to another excellent shop called Terrapin Care Station.) Before venturing into the more mysterious world of buds, we chose: (1) a long, elegant clear plastic tube containing ⅓ gram of liquid hash oil; (2) a small brown glass bottle labeled Dixie Elixirs Dew Drops Vanilla 100 mg; (3) Canyon Cultivation Vanilla Mint Liquid; (4) Dixie Elixirs Pain Relief Salve 1 oz. (for Caron’s fractured thumb); (5) two perfectly packed marijuana cigarettes; and (6) a few “edibles,” as they are universally known—medicated candies and candy bars, cookies, and brownies.
Everybody seems to agree that a mild or starting dose would contain five to ten milligrams of THC, short for “tetrahydrocannabinol.” And the labels on most edibles let you know the precise amount of THC in each portion, or at the very least, how much you’d have to eat to ingest one dose. Caron shared a love of hard-candy lemon drops with her late mother, Marjorie, and so we bought several packages of medicated lemon drops. Each one, the label told us, contained one dose of 10 mg of THC. When a label is not so explicit and precise as this, then you should just say no. After all, in a place like Boulder or in a shop like the Farm there are so many ways to get high that there’s no reason to risk having a bad trip, a bummer.
And now it was time to select our buds. These were kept in clear little pill bottles in a locked case. (Buds are priced at $300 or more an ounce, the most costly cannabis item for sale.) They were a medium dusty green with highlights of gold or red or lavender. How could we possibly choose? First off, each bottle of buds was labeled as an eighth or a quarter or a half, which refers to the fractions of an ounce that the buds inside weighed. Some of their names were Mad Cow, Sunset Haze, Silver Crown, Blue Dream, Buddha’s Sister, Blackberry Kush, and Alpha Blue. There were 21 separate strains the day we were shopping; The Farm’s daily menu can always be found on its Web site. Each one was classified as Cannabis Sativa or Indica (the two species), or as a hybrid of the two. The Farm grows its own plants and has the buds analyzed in a laboratory, and its menus and labels list the percentage by weight in each strain made up by the three most common active ingredients, or cannabinoids.
Our bill came to $225, and everything we bought was loaded into a heavy, zippered, white plastic envelope, whose purpose was to avoid public display of cannabis. Back at the hotel, I needed to maintain a precise and sober mental state because I had lots of reading to do. Caron didn’t, because she had just finished planning an exhibition back in New York. I wondered whether performing amateur medical experiments on one’s wife violates any moral, ethical, social, legal, patriarchal, or aesthetic principles. Caron’s response was “When will we finally stop beating around the bush and actually get high?”
So I proposed to undertake my first act of cannabis cooking—really, cannabis food preparation. I would take one of the yogurt packages that Caron incessantly buys, squirt in the proper amount of THC extract, and stir until well-combined. I knew that Caron would finish all the yogurt, because she always does, and so I needed to add one dose containing between five and ten milligrams of THC to the entire cup.
The label on the little brown glass bottle said that it contained ten doses of ten milligrams each, all dissolved in three ounces of alcohol. If only I had brought my finely calibrated scale, accurate to within one hundredth of a gram—this is my wife we’re talking about!—or even a set of kitchen measuring spoons. I would use the eyedropper. But how many drops? Caron was growing impatient. I looked up the size of an official drop. Problem is, there are several official drops. I chose 20 drops to one milliliter and ended up squeezing 90 of them into Caron’s yogurt. This was the most convoluted dose calculation I had to make, and it was the fault of whoever labeled the bottle. Why include an eyedropper if you don’t tell people how many drops to use?
As expected, Caron quickly finished her cup of medicated yogurt. Forty minutes later, she began to feel its effects, which mounted pleasantly for the following 90 minutes and then faded away. The regrettable part is that Caron has now remembered all too clearly how much she had enjoyed cannabis 25 years ago. Have I inadvertently aroused a slumbering demon? In every other respect, my first bit of cannabis food preparation was a rousing success, and I can announce that no wives were harmed in the making of this article.
I immediately put aside my concern for Caron’s welfare and turned to something more pressing. I had spent the previous two hours combing through my cannabis cookbooks and ended up with a serious intellectual dilemma that could torpedo my entire assignment for Vogue.
The yogurt experiment had taught me that: (1) adding a psychoactive ingredient into any food is child’s play; (2) figuring out the proper dose usually requires only middle school math, or even less than that, or nothing at all; (3) I had discovered nothing of gastronomic interest in cannabis cuisine; and (4) I would have nothing to write about.
Cannabis recipes seem to fall into four types. By far the most common involves simply adding one form of cannabis or another to a standard dish: a pan of lasagna, a sheet of brownies, a loaf of banana bread. Whether a cannabis-lasagna recipe is worth cooking depends entirely on the gastronomic virtues of the lasagna itself. The second type of recipe is just like the first except it boasts that it’s a “healthy” recipe. These belong in the same circle of hell crowded with many self-consciously “healthy” cookbooks.
The third type represents the central idea of Jessica Catalano’s The Ganja Kitchen Revolution—that marijuana is an herb, that each strain has its own aroma and taste, and that in cooking it should play its part in creating the flavor of the dish, just like sage or tarragon. Catalano’s recipes endeavor to do this, and she has compiled a chart that lists 57 strains and their personalities. I was unable to test out her theory, because I had not yet sniffed a cannabis bud that I found pleasant enough to enhance a dish. Second and even more crucial, I wasn’t rich enough to purchase a wide enough variety of buds. Still, there’s no doubt that if Catalano’s theory works, it would lead to a true cannabis cuisine.
The High Times cookbook is in a category of its own—intelligent, savvy, and knowledgeable about food, with excellent general information about cannabis and cooking with it. Yes, some of the recipes are of the getting-high-on-apple-pie variety. But the folks at High Times magazine know something about the role cannabis has played in the world’s history and culture, and my favorite recipes are those for iconic dishes, such as hash brownies, or those that cannot exist without cannabis, such as bhang. The original recipe for hash brownies is often attributed to Alice B. Toklas and her famous cookbook of 1954; but Toklas’s recipe is for “Haschich Fudge,” less a fudge than a dried-fruit-and-nut ball with chopped marijuana mixed in. As it involves no cooking, no heat, its cannabis does not get activated. I love Alice B. Toklas, but her fudge tastes unpleasant and won’t do anything for you.
The High Times recipe for bhang got me thinking. Bhang is a widely known medicated beverage from the Hindu scriptures and a great favorite of Lord Shiva. Although it is probably 3,000 years old, I had never tasted bhang. I was eager to try it.
That evening I outlined plans on my yellow legal pad, after which we visited an old friend, a native Californian whom we knew in New York several decades prior. (She later moved to L.A. and wrote for Hollywood, and twelve years ago moved to Boulder, to teach.) She had bought a house perched over a valley fifteen minutes from the center of Boulder and our hotel. Her name is Sara, and in the way it sometimes is with old friends, we picked up our conversation of 40 years just where we had left off.
Sara had become troubled by a severe pain in both knees, and then became afflicted with undiagnosable vertigo. She experienced some relief when she smoked cannabis and was granted a medical-marijuana card, which gave her the right to grow six plants of her own. She offered us a commercially rolled cigarette of Alpha Blue, the really high THC strain we had encountered that afternoon. Working myself to the bone over the previous few days in Boulder, I had still not smoked or eaten any cannabis, and so after 25 abstemious years, I took two deep puffs. A full five seconds later I became incomprehensibly high, then higher, and by the time another minute had passed, anxious, paranoid, self-critical, harshly negative about everything I could think of, including myself and my pets. As it would have been extremely uncool to share my internal state with others, I tried to remember how to smile and then attempted to, with apparent success.
We drove back into Boulder, where we had a restaurant reservation. We ordered a nice meal. For just a moment, I felt great sympathy for what Maureen Dowd had gone through, but only for a moment, because I knew that if you’re anxious about work, fretful that your plans will fall apart, you understand that these thoughts are caused by cannabis but simultaneously that they may be true and you wonder why you would ever smoke cannabis. . . . And then, as suddenly as it had begun, this maze of paranoia completely dissipated, and I was left with an extreme, enjoyable high, bubbling over with hilarious, irrational thoughts and intimations of actual happiness.
Had I made an important medical discovery—that the cure for a bad trip is a plateful of French fries? Maybe they weren’t French fries. Maybe they were oven-crisped kale sticks. Who can possibly remember?
Late on the following afternoon, our entire team met on the terrace of the St. Julien Hotel. Chef Laurent had arranged for an evening cooking session in the kitchen of a small restaurant ten minutes’ drive away. Chef Pieter told us that we could use an ample modern kitchen in a friend’s house 45 minutes into the mountains for our second cooking session. Caron (a curator of Asian art) had assembled a variety of ancient instructions for making bhang. It was a lovely evening, and the hotel’s terrace was popular and crowded. I kidded Laurent that he seemed embarrassed to be seen with us; in reality, he was afraid that the people around us would hear us talking so openly about marijuana. “But it’s perfectly legal,” I said. He Gallically shrugged.
In no time at all, we were ranging through a huge supermarket, then getting lost in the parking lot that served our little restaurant. The kitchen was all stainless steel, small and battered but quite serviceable. Chef Laurent and Chef Pieter immediately got down to work. Following my plan, we baked two packages of medicated cookie dough we had bought at Terrapin, peanut butter and snickerdoodle. The twelve or sixteen cookies had been preformed and needed simply to be peeled off their shiny backing, laid on a cookie sheet, baked until brown, cooled, tasted, and judged awful. Just because a cookie dough contains THC is no excuse for making bad cookies.
Next we turned to oil and butter. The idea is that the psychoactive oils in marijuana and hashish are soluble in fats. We needed to dissolve the THC from our cannabis buds into our butter and oil. At the supermarket, I had bought many pounds of good butter.
And then came the bhang. I chopped very finely a half-ounce of buds and made a tea with it in hot water. We poured the tea into the food processor that Laurent had brought from home and added a quart of warm whole milk, and a quarter-cup of chopped almonds. Now we added a cup of sugar, a good chunk of fresh ginger, and generous pinches of cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon, and let the processor run for a minute or two. We strained the liquid, stirred in a teaspoon of rosewater, and tasted the completed bhang. It was incredibly, wonderfully delicious! Now we knew why Lord Shiva loved it so.
It was time to go home. Pieter and Laurent went into action, washing the pots and pans and cleaning the kitchen in ten minutes. Each of us took either one pound of butter or a quart-and-a-half of bhang. It was after midnight. Pieter, who had abstained from ingesting anything but a little sip of the bhang, drove us all back to the heart of Boulder. Caron and I squeezed plastic bags of medicated butter and the bhang into our minibar, and so to bed.
On the next evening—our last in greater Boulder—I had no plans to cook anything new, but when we returned to the huge supermarket, each chef seemed to have something in mind. Again Pieter was the designated driver. It was 45 minutes to his friend Kip’s striking modern house. On the way, as the road deteriorated with each mile, we passed the funky bars and stores that reminded us of the old ungentrified Boulder. As we drove through the town of Nederland, Pieter or Laurent told us that the music scene here regularly attracted thousands of people. Our host, Kip, and a few of his friends greeted us. The kitchen was enviable, lacking nothing. There were even two stone mortars and two stone pestles for the cannabis. More friends drifted in for the next few hours while, using the medicated oil and butter we had brought, Pieter prepared a hundred or so savory gnocchi with rosemary, and Laurent pan-fried fresh local trout and made a sabayon for dessert. One friend of Kip’s who makes cannabis edibles for sale in Boulder, brought a tray of scrumptious medicated chocolate fudge. Kip supplied bottles of good wine. Somebody suggested that the bhang would make a lighter, more delicious substitute for eggnog at New Year’s. A few guests smoked joints. Unlike the folks in downtown Boulder, nobody recoiled from the smoke.
The 50 guests thus had a wide choice of intoxicants, and nearly everybody seemed mellow and happy and chill. Nobody fell asleep or acted out or had a bad trip. The newly legalized cannabis was simply another option. For all the ambivalence we had found on the gentrified streets of Boulder, I remembered that years ago the Colorado legislature added a new coequal state song to the classic, “Where the Columbines Grow.” It was John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.”