Edibles consistently rank as the fastest-growing product segment in today’s rapidly evolving legal cannabis scene. According to Arcview Market Research, sales of cannabis-infused food increased 121% over the last year in Washington, one of the country’s longest-running fully legal states. While Colorado, the first state to allow adult-use stores, has seen edibles sales triple since January 2014. Why the sudden rise in popularity?
For starters, the quality, variety, and sophistication of what’s available has come a long way in a short time, including the emergence of trusted brands that deliver a consistently high caliber product. Savvy shoppers have also discovered that edibles represent the best psychoactive bargain at the dispensary, because when you eat cannabis—instead of smoking it—a chemical process in the liver transforms the THC found in the plant into a much more powerful and longer-lasting molecule.
Most of humanity’s 10,000+ year relationship with cannabis has been all about edibles.
To understand what’s really making edibles so hot right now, you’ve got to remember that back in the day, whether you got your goodies from a close friend or a well-meaning hippie outside a Grateful Dead show, you very often had no idea what to expect in terms of potency. Which led to a lot of bunk brownies and bad outcomes.
Everything started to change, however, when legal cannabis created a market for lab tested, precisely dosed edibles. That’s been a total game changer. Because it turns out people really like to know precisely how potent something is before they put it in their mouth. So they can reasonably gauge its effects in advance and plan accordingly, (Something that would have saved me a lot of trouble that night outside this Dead show.)
While old heads and total newbies alike have been discovering and re-discovering the joys of edibles in droves lately, there’s really nothing new about eating your Weedies instead of smoking them. In fact, most of humanity’s 10,000+ year relationship with cannabis has been all about edibles. And it’s a proud culinary tradition—one that dates back thousands of years, cuts across continents and cultures, and long precedes the first senseless prohibitions imposed upon this plant.
So let’s explore the history of our favorite “secret ingredient” through seven unique edibles that all changed the game.
Technically, the earliest evidence of cannabis seeds used for food dates back to 6,000 B.C., but that had more to do with hemp’s incredible nutritional value than getting high. The earliest records of medicinal cannabis use, meanwhile, come from China (circa 2,727 B.C.), but we don’t have any evidence that those medicating pioneers prepared cannabis into tasty infused food.
Which means to find the first true edible in recorded history, we’ll only have to go back around 3,000 years.
Bhang (circa 1,000 B.C.)
Long associated with the springtime Hindu festival Holi, bhang is a cannabis edible preparation that’s been in steady rotation in India since at least 1,000 B.C. Shiva—the Hindu god of transformation—is well-known for being particularly fond of bhang, which is lovingly praised in the ancient holy book Atharvaveda for its ability to “release anxiety.” Bhang is also a recognized part of Ayurvedic medicine as a treatment for fever, digestive problems, immune support, and even a flagging libido.
With both its spiritual and medicinal traditions well-documented, bhang offers some of the earliest detailed accounts of cannabis use in the ancient world. And it’s a tradition that continues today in parts of India, where government-run shops sell bhang, and consumption is extremely widespread during certain festivals honoring Shiva.
Bhang itself is made in a mortar and pestle, by grinding cannabis into a paste. A common (and delicious!) preparation is the bhang lassi, an intensely flavorful milkshake-like beverage redolent with spices and an earthy hint of cannabis. Leafly recommends a recipe that includes almonds, pistachios, rose petals, mint leaves, garam masala, ginger, fennel, anise, cardamom, rosewater, and honey.
Mahjoun (circa 1,000 A.D.)
Morocco boasts an uninterrupted hashish-making culture as old as any wine region, particularly in and around the Rif Mountains, where Berber villages have been cultivating cannabis and dry-sifting it into potent concentrates using traditional methods for countless generations. The Berbers are also credited with creating and popularizing mahjoun (sometimes mahjoum or mazhoum), a 1,000-year old recipe for a hashish-powered edible that’s the spiritual and psychoactive heir of the modern goo-ball.
Much as every Italian grandmother holds fast to the family’s secret recipe for tomato gravy, a Moroccan family would have their own unique way to prepare mahjoun.
When Tangiers became a popular destination for American literary ex-pats in the 1950s, writers including William Burroughs and Paul Bowles popularized mahjoun among fellow travelers by extolling its many splendors in their writing. But don’t think of mahjoun as a single recipe, so much as a basic set of techniques and ingredients upon which to build a unique take. Much as every Italian grandmother holds fast to the family’s secret recipe for tomato gravy, a Moroccan family would have their own unique way to prepare mahjoun.
This version begins with the traditional thick paste of figs, dates, hashish butter, and ground nuts, then coats them in savory-sweet-spicy flavorings like honey, rosewater, sea salt, turmeric, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, and lavender.
Club Des Hashischins
In 1840, Dr Jacques-Joseph Moreau, a leading French psychiatrist, read a scientific article that claimed Egyptians were impervious to diseases that plagued Europeans because they consumed hashish. His curiosity piqued, Dr. Moreau acquired a sample. After trying it himself a couple of times, he decided to devise a grand experiment.
He put out invitations to Paris’s leading writers and artists. Soon the Club des Hashischins (Hashish Club) would meet for the first time, eventually drawing in Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, and many other members of the French intelligentsia. They were served a carefully-dosed blend of strong coffee, hashish, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, pistachio, orange juice, cantharides, sugar, and butter that they called dawameska, in honor of the concoction’s Middle Eastern origins.
As one attendee described the experience:
“The doctor stood by a buffet on which lay a platter filled with small Japanese saucers. He spooned a morsel of paste or greenish jam about as large as a thumb from a crystal vase, and placed it next to the silver spoon on each saucer. The doctor’s face radiated enthusiasm; his eyes glittered, his purple cheeks were aglow, the veins in his temples stood out strongly, and he breathed heavily through dilated nostrils. ‘This will be deducted from your share in Paradise,’ he said as he handed me my portion…”
The doctor was of course Jacques-Joseph Moreau, whose personal experiments with hashish would eventually lead him to pioneer the study of how drugs affect the central nervous system, and write a 439-page book called Hashish and Mental Illness. The Club des Hashischins basically served as his stoned guinea pigs.
Alice B. Toklas Brownies
The most famous cannabis edible recipe in history started as a prank!
During the 1920s, Alice B. Toklas and her lifelong partner Gertrude Stein played host to one of Paris’s most famed salons, a gathering place for painters, writers, and intellectuals, including soon-to-be world-renown names like Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Henri Matisse and Ezra Pound. But when Stein—an accomplished novelist, poet, playwright and art collector in her own right—died in 1946, French law prevented her estate from going to Toklas, despite the women’s long-term committed relationship over many decades.
As Toklas stared down an impending deadline for the cookbook, Gysin slipped her a recipe for “Hashish Fudge,” made from spices, nuts, fruit, and “canibus.”
And so originally, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook was conceived as a kind of crowdsourced fundraising project. By peppering in her memoirs and remembrances from the salon, and soliciting recipes from many of the couple’s famous friends, Toklas hoped to produce a culinary reference that would appeal to those seeking a taste of Parisian café society for themselves, while providing herself a little nest egg to live on.
Avant-garde artist Brion Gysin, however, who’d traveled extensively in Morocco and no doubt tasted his share of mahjoun (see above), decided to kick things up a notch. As Toklas stared down an impending deadline for the cookbook, Gysin slipped her a recipe for “Hashish Fudge,” made from spices, nuts, fruit, and “canibus,” very much in the style of mahjoun.
Totally unaware of the fudge’s higher implications, Toklas added the recipe to her cookbook, an inclusion which sparked a media scandal upon its original publication in France (1954) and led to its bestseller status. The first American edition of the book prudishly omitted the offending recipe, but a later edition was published in the early 1960s with the Hashish Fudge restored. Beatniks and later hippies naturally passed the recipe around like so many doobies, popularizing the “pot brownie” forever after. It also led to the highly underrated 1968 film I Love You Alice B. Toklas, starring the inimitable Peter Sellers.In the late 1970s, Mary Jane Rathbun’s daughter died, and the 57-year-old single mother suddenly found herself alone and bereft in San Francisco, without any surviving family to call her own. She often struggled to make ends meet until one fateful day, when she at last perfected her recipe for the “magically delicious” cannabis-infused brownies that would make her first locally famous, then an international cannabis celebrity.
Soon business was booming, with “Brownie Mary” baking several dozen treats every day to keep up with demand. A grandmotherly figure with curly gray hair, a kind-hearted disposition, and a sailor’s-vocabulary, she quickly became a beloved figure in the Castro (San Francisco’s famed predominantly gay neighborhood), one who visited with many people daily while making her delivery rounds.
Even before the AIDS crisis hit, with San Francisco’s first case identified in 1980, she served as a kind of mother figure to countless young people who’d left their birth families behind in pursuit of a community that accepted them and celebrated their lifestyle. As the epidemic grew deadly and widespread, this unique position allowed her to recognize two facts more quickly than many other people: the then little-understood disease vastly disproportionately affected the young gay men she’d taken to thinking of as her children, and cannabis proved incredibly effective in combating their symptoms and restoring their appetites.
Along with longtime friend and colleague Dennis Peron and many others, Brownie Mary helped pass California’s Prop 215 in 1996.
So she began volunteering as a nurse’s assistant. While making the rounds in local AIDS and cancer wards, she discreetly made her brownies available to patients for free.
At first, Rathbun dipped into her Social Security checks to cover the cost, but as word spread of “Brownie Mary’s” kindness and compassion, she began to get regular donations from altruistic local cannabis growers.
Three times she was arrested for this vital public service and act of humanitarian kindness, and each time she used the resulting media attention to call attention to cannabis’s healing powers and the need to end prohibition. Eventually, along with longtime friend and colleague Dennis Peron and many others, Brownie Mary helped pass California’s Prop 215 in 1996, the first statewide medical cannabis law.
Along the way, her namesake brownies brought relief and renewed quality of life to countless terribly ill people. Her work also caught the eye of Dr. Donald Abrams at San Francisco General Hospital, where she volunteered. Inspired by her example, Abrams, who’d lost a partner to AIDS, published a study that showed cannabis “did not hurt the immune system, did not increase viral load, did not negatively interact with the protease inhibitors, and actually did facilitate increased caloric intake as well as weight gain.”
Before a DEA raid shut down their operations in 2007, Tainted Inc. changed the edibles game by creating the first “branded” cannabis products on the market. They came at a time when California’s medical cannabis system was still emerging, and few in the industry dared to put so public a stamp on their operations. While most edibles available at dispensaries were just anonymous homemade cookies or brownies wrapped in a thin sheet of cellophane, Tainted became a word-of-mouth sensation for their parodies of popular candy bars (like Reefers Peanut Butter Cups and Kif Kat Bars). Along the way, Tainted pointed to a future of professionally produced and packaged edibles, while remaining deeply rooted in underground cannabis culture.
The DEA was successful in shutting down Tainted (they’re still bragging about it on their website), but not in shutting up Executive Director Mickey Martin, who remained an outspoken and often controversial medical cannabis advocate until his death in 2017.
Scott Van Rixel was already a master chocolatier with an established mainstream chocolate brand and retail shop in 2010 when he founded Bhang, a separate company dedicated to cannabis-infused chocolate. That made him among the first pedigreed businesspeople from outside the cannabis world to enter the market, at a time when federal and even state law enforcement remained a major risk for producers.
The result was the first packaged good edible with the look, taste, quality, and consistency of something you’d find on the shelves at Whole Foods, including childproof packaging and labeling that met all FDA standards for food and herbal supplement products, plus the peace of mind of knowing it’s been lab tested to ensure accurate dosing. Bhang’s flagship dark chocolate bar was 73.5% cacao, and under “other ingredients” listed 60 milligrams of THC and less than 2 milligrams each of of CBD and CBN. Easily broken into four separate segments, the bars delivered reasonably sized 15 milligram doses at a time when most edibles on the shelves either provided no real information on THC content, or promised to deliver far more THC than most people want, need, or can handle.
Today, many of these practices are not only standard in the industry, they’re often required by state law, but at the time, this was all truly game changing. As one small example, the first edible I ate after that fateful Dead show (with a couple of small exceptions, including a few Tainted treats) was a Bhang bar. After touring their production facility and talking at length with Van Rixel, I finally felt confident that I could eat a delicious edible and not get too high. Game changed!
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