The History of Weed Brownies

Photo by Sarah Remington

Eating cannabis is a tradition as old as time, and the history of how these functional foods evolved and changed is fascinating.

Ancient Chinese emperors brewed cannabis tea. Hindus drank bhang, a intoxicating blend of warm milk, garam masala, gunjah and ginger. Nomadic tribes wandering Morocco ate a heady hash jam, thick with dried fruits, chopped nuts and prized spices, known colloquially as mahjoun. Hashish eating even figured prominently in 1001 Nights, as a favorite treat of mystics, artists and healers.

In the 1840s, in Paris, intellectual heavyweights including Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas crumbled hashish into their coffee, with the stimulating psychoactivity fueling late-night discussions on ideas and ideologies at their Club des Hachichins (“Club of the Hashish-Eaters”). Then in 1857, a young New York state resident named Fitz Hugh Ludlow published The Hasheesh Eater, documenting his experiences imbibing a hash tincture from a local apothecary.

So there’s nothing new about marijuana edibles except their legal status.

During the Dark Ages of Prohibition, the black market trade in marijuana prevented society from developing models of socially responsible THC ingestion. The wisdom we needed to know about how much to eat, when to eat it and what to expect had been driven deep underground. And so, the much hyped hysteria surrounding newly legal cannabis-infused foodstuffs in the media today is due to ignorance of basic safety precautions and a lack of shared understanding about eating pot.

Gertrude Stein (left) with her life partner Alice B. Toklas, who introduced the concept of pot brownies to pop culture in the 1950s.
Gertrude Stein (left) with her life partner Alice B. Toklas, who introduced the concept of pot brownies to pop culture in the 1950s.

This modern marijuana edibles era, so to speak, began in 1954, when an elderly lesbian, Alice B. Toklas, the life partner of Gertrude Stein, (the famous poet, art collector and influencer of Hemingway, Picasso and Matisse), published her infamous cookbook. Containing a recipe for “Haschich Fudge,” [sic] which was really more like a mahjoun or parking-lot goo ball, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook re-introduced the notion of cooking with cannabis to mainstream Americans, and the idea of “pot brownies” stuck in the popular consciousness. The recipe had been gifted by a painter friend named Brion Gysin, whose notes on sourcing the cannabis make it clear he knew exactly what he was dealing with!

“Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverized in a mortar. About a handful each of stone dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts: chop these and mix them together. A bunch of canibus sativa [sic] can be pulverized. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut, it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient. Obtaining the canibus may present certain difficulties…. It should be picked and dried as soon as it has gone to seed and while the plant is still green.”

Readers of this very magazine first received essential illicit knowledge about imbibing ganja way back in 1978, when writer J.F. Burke contributed a brilliant article simply entitled “Eat It!” This scribe worked as a sailor on cross-Atlantic journeys and had made a habit of eating hash, adopting the customs of exotic cultures such as the Hindus, Arabs and Africans. Burke offered tips on eating ground dried flowers, along with strangely prophetic predictions, stating “…the next step after decriminalization may be brought about by the reintroduction of cannabis into the modern materia medica,” describing how cannabis has anti-tumor properties, as well as the ability to lower blood pressure and relieve stress.

Originally published in 1978, this story included High Times' first coverage of edible cannabis.
Originally published in 1978, this story included HIGH TIMES’ first coverage of edible cannabis.

While ’70s era heads knew more about the medical uses of cannabis than we imagine, Burke and his sailor buddies didn’t understand how infusing the herb into a chosen fat increased potency and bioavailability, recommending instead that people just crumble up flowers and add it to their food. But Burke did offer a piece of advice that might have helped New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd navigate her recent bad trip:

What if you eat too much? You’ll be drunk. You may barf. You might trip. But you won’t die. The ratio of effective-to-lethal dose of THC is 1 to 40,000… the lethal dose of THC would be 4,000,000 milligrams, an unwieldy mass to get into one’s stomach, much less keep there.”

Chef Ra was High Times' resident ganja gourmet until his untimely passing in 2006.
Chef Ra was HIGH TIMES’ resident ganja gourmet until his untimely passing in 2006.

Then, starting in 1988, HIGH TIMES editor Steve Hager contracted his high school friend, Jim Wilson a.k.a Chef Ra, to write an infused foods column called “Psychedelic Kitchen,” which taught countless heads how to sauté their pot in butter or oil and add it to healthy I-tal style meals. Chef Ra’s column continued for 15 years, and his best recipes were included in The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook in 2012.

Brownie Mary defiantly baked pot brownies for AIDS patients in San Francisco.
Brownie Mary defiantly baked pot brownies for AIDS patients in San Francisco.

Notorious in the San Francisco Bay Area for her outlaw kitchen throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Mary Jane Rathbun created weed-laced brownies for AIDS patients. Working with Dennis Peron, “Brownie Mary” became a leader of the medical marijuana movement, taking a stance of compassionate civil disobedience that resulted in several arrests. Each time, Brownie Mary called bullshit and would appear in court bedecked in pro-pot buttons, basically daring prosecutors in the most liberal city in the nation to find a jury that would convict a little old lady for gifting pot food to severely ill patients. Her activism helped pave the way for a watershed event, the 1996 passage of Prop 215, which made California the first state to legalize medical marijuana.

Today, enterprising edibles makers have revived both mahjoun and bhang, claiming these ancient words as brands for new businesses aimed at marketing cannabis-infused foods to the masses. Lab testing has revolutionized the industry, making consistent, predictable experiences possible for the first time in human history. Cannabis has been infused into a wide variety of foods, including drinks, gummies, baked goods and chocolate, and the humble brownie has endured as a staple of the counterculture.

As cannabis prohibition is repealed in states like Colorado and Washington, more people are experimenting with infused foods, leading to some growing pains as dosage and packaging requirements are established. Until we develop our own customs and rituals and until effective public safety campaigns are executed, we’ll have to keep repeating: “Go low and slow. Start with a low dose of 10 – 20 milligrams and wait two hours before consuming any more pot food.”

And look forward to a future where cannabis is just another ingredient in your pantry.

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