The snack that gets you stoned

A brief history of weed brownies

Welcome to Snack Stack, the newsletter that explores the oddly intriguing history, origins, and cultural significance of snacks. If you like it, please subscribe! There’s a free snack every Wednesday and paid subscribers also get snacks on Monday and Wednesday.

Weed Brownies

The basics

Brownies made with marijuana. Will get you high.

The place

Wherever there’s weed and brownies.

The story

If you know anything about the backstory of marijuana brownies, it probably has to do with The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, which was first published in 1954. It was as much a memoir as a cookbook, but there was a particular recipe that helped boost its sales: “Haschich fudge.” This was wasn’t the first time anyone had added weed to food (people in India have been using it for centuries to make a drink called bhang lassi and Victor Hugo put it in his coffee), but it got attention, becoming the most widely-discussed part of the book and sealing its long-term cultural legacy. In fact, while Toklas’s American publisher omitted the recipe from the original printing because it was so scandalous, it was quickly added into the second edition due to the positive response from readers in Britain. The playwright Thornton Wilder, a friend of Toklas’s, called the recipe “the best publicity stunt of the year.”

As it happens—and I’m terribly sorry if this disappoints—that fudge recipe wasn’t written by Toklas and it wasn’t really fudge. The publication of the most famous cannabis cooking recipe of all time was essentially an accident.

Robyn Griggs Lawrence details in her excellently-named book Pot in Pans: A History of Eating Cannabis that Toklas was facing a tight deadline and the financial peril of not finishing her book quickly, so she tried the time-honored tactic of asking her friends to help. She hoped for a lion dish from Ernest Hemingway (!!), which never came through, but a Canadian poet named Brion Gysin offered “Hashish fudge,” mostly as a joke, saying that it “might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies' Bridge Club or chapter meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution.” Gysin’s recipe was basically a variation of the Persian edible majoun, but Toklas included it, keeping the name and the joking preamble, not paying much attention (again, tight deadline, we’ve all been there, no?). In fact, Toklas later admitted, she didn’t recognize cannabis for what it was: “It is my ignorance not to have suspected what the few leaves were,” she said. “Of course I didn’t recognize their Latin name.”

Accident or not, the recipe established a reputation for the book and, by extension, for Toklas herself, including in her obituary in The New York Times, in 1967. A year later, the recipe—or rather, the underlying concept of the recipe—became even more firmly attached to Toklas’s legacy with the release of the movie I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, in which a puritanical character named Harold, played by Peter Sellers, samples some “special” baked goods and, well, life changes. The book is still selling, in updated editions, and continues to inspire other cookbook writers, including at least one recent book with a more official, intentional pot brownie recipe.

Readers loved Toklas’s book, including its tales of her life with Gertrude Stein, and they especially loved that recipe, particularly if they had access to all the necessary ingredients and could try it themselves. But an interesting thing happened: the “fudge” of the recipe soon evolved in to something a bit different, in the collective consciousness, morphing into the farther-reaching trend of weed brownies, a more broadly familiar and beloved version of a chocolatey treat, that’s easy to make from a store-bought box. Indeed, this is what’s featured in I Love You, Alice B. Toklas: brownies from a box mix, with a few shakes of marijuana added into the brownie batter.

That scene is played for laughs—the rube doesn’t know what he’s eating, but it makes him happy. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of the movie, it played on hippie stereotypes:

Hippies wear funny clothes, sleep on the stove, don't wash, read the Los Angeles Free Press, bake pot brownies, put up posters everywhere and operate with a sort of mindless, directionless love ethic.

For decades, this was typically the way that marijuana brownies were portrayed in American popular culture: a goofy thing without as much of the “Reefer Madness” stigma as smoking weed. You can see this portrayal in, for example, a 1976 episode of Barney Miller, two 1982 episodes of Taxi (in which the brownie-eater is none other than Tom Hanks), and a 2003 episode of Frasier called “High Holidays.”

Interestingly, according to cannabis writer Jackie Bryant, those “Hey, why do I feel weird after eating that brownie?” pop-culture moments don’t really reflect the reality of who was actually consuming those THC-laden treats. Bryant, who runs the newsletter Cannabitch, told me that historically, brownies and other edibles were “the domain of more hardcore users who could tolerate the sometimes unknown territory of dosing,” whereas today they’re “super dosed and dialed in”—the processing and production are more sophisticated and there’s a better understanding of exactly what you’re getting, and the ability to manage the level of high, giving them a broader appeal for more casual users.

Marijuana brownies’ most important cultural moment, though, came off the screen, in the form of a woman who Bryant says was “considered one of the inspirations and architects of medical marijuana and the eventual laws that followed.” Her name was Mary Jane Rathbun, but most people knew her as Brownie Mary because, well, she made pot brownies—a lot of them, sometimes 50 dozen per day, by her own account.

Brownie Mary lived in San Francisco and started selling her baked goods in the Castro in 1974, sometimes “brazenly” from a basket in a grocery store. She was short, with “curly gray hair … granny specs, and a sweater vest covered in pins,” and, by all accounts, endless vivacity and dedication to helping others. By the early 1980s, having noticed the effects the brownies had on people with severe illnesses, she started making them for friends with cancer, and then for people with AIDS, as that epidemic tore through San Francisco’s gay community. She was arrested for possession on multiple occasions, but each time, it merely boosted her dedication to her cause and also her profile, winning over new fans, customers, and donors. “If the narcs think I'm gonna stop baking brownies for my kids with AIDS, they can go fuck themselves in Macy's window,” she proclaimed, fists in the air, at a rally after being arrested in 1992.

Brownie Mary’s efforts inspired others in San Francisco to start baking and to understand her brownies, and marijuana itself, as something that could also have a specific medical purpose. By 1996, when The New York Times profiled Brownie Mary, San Francisco had a Cannabis Buyers’ Club with 11,000 members, which was “tolerated by the police because it is condoned by city officials,” largely because of its mission “to supply marijuana to people with AIDS, cancer and other conditions that a doctor has certified would be helped by the drug.” Momentum was also building for an even greater, more widespread change: to legalize marijuana for medical purposes throughout California, a cause for which Mary actively lobbied.

Legalization of medical marijuana in California was put to a referendum, which passed in November 1996. Today, thirty-six states have followed suit and allowed use of medical marijuana, and eighteen states plus the District of Columbia have legalized it more broadly. Along the way, weed brownies have lost their status as a hippie thing or as the main edible depicted in pop culture, becoming just one part of a broad ecosystem of artisanal THC-filled foods. This shift is best embodied by a New Yorker profile, in 2017 of “The Martha Stewart of Marijuana Edibles,” the subhead of which began: “It’s a category that used to begin and end with the bone-dry pot brownie, served in a college dorm room.” The brownie had been surpassed by competitors, the end result of the overlap between the foodie revolution and the legalization efforts fueled in part by Brownie Mary. A generation after I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, here was the same food functioning as a punchline, but this time the joke was not that it was new and strange but that had become old and boring.

And now

Here’s the pot brownie scene from the 1968 movie I Love You, Alice B. Toklas:

Get it here

Available in cannabis bakeries and dispensaries wherever weed is legal, including:

You can also, of course, make your own. Here is the original Alice B. Toklas recipe.

Read more

Pot in Pans: A History of Eating Cannabis, by Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Vice: “Old Ladies Have Dominated the History of Weed Brownies

High Times: “The History of Weed Brownies

Food 52: “How One Woman’s ‘Magically Delicious’ Pot Brownies Changed History

Also check out Jackie Bryant’s story on cannabis cookbooks for the cookbook newsletter Stained Page News.

If you liked this, please share it! And don’t forget to check out the check out the pantry (er, archives) here. Sign up for a paid subscription to support this newsletter and get three posts about the history, origins, and cultural meaning of snacks every week (if you’re already a paid subscriber, thank you). Happy snacking!