From the counterculture to pop culture, how pot brownies came to reign as "the OG edible"

In the early 1960s, Alice B. Toklas published a "Moroccan hashish fudge." American culture did the rest

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published August 10, 2022 6:15PM (EDT)

Pot Brownies (Getty Images/Maren Caruso)
Pot Brownies (Getty Images/Maren Caruso)

The drinks at Chicago's Wake-N-Bakery can be prepared in four styles: the "keep it basic," the "f**k it," the "hell yeah" and the "double f**k it." Each selection represents a hemp-derived THC dosage, ranging from 30 to 120 milligrams.

From Pink Crush Kush lattes to scoops of edible cookie dough, this cannabis café offers a variety of ways to get customers baked. Amid the neon-colored infused lemonades and "Fruity AF" Rice Krispies treats, a seemingly simple dessert stands out in the pastry display case. It's not a basic brownie, but rather "the OG edible." 

As medicinal and recreational cannabis legalization continues to spread across the country, the market for unique edibles has grown along with it. Consumers can purchase THC-infused versions of their favorite junk foods, such as Flamin' Hot Cheetos knock-offs, as well as gourmet options like single-varietal dark chocolate bars made with cabernet sea salt and premium full-spectrum cannabis. 

But even in the non-stoner segments of mainstream American culture, the pot brownie is regarded as something singular. It's an elemental recipe in cannabis cookery, a pop culture obsession, plus a symbol of the covert activism that helped kickstart the proliferation of the range of edibles sold today. 

In 1954, Alice B. Toklas' eponymous cookbook was published in the U.S., save for one recipe. Nearly a decade later, in an interview with Pacifica Radio, Toklas recounted how Harper's had excluded the instructions for making Moroccan hashish fudge. "The recipe was innocently included without my realizing that the hashish was the accented part of the recipe," she said. "I was shocked to find that America wouldn't accept it because it was too dangerous."

In reality, Toklas' hashish fudge wasn't so much fudge as it was a DIY-version of spiced candy. The recipe, which had been given to Toklas by the avant-garde artist Brion Gysin, contained no chocolate. Instead, it began with a punchy mix of black peppercorn, nutmeg, cinnamon and coriander. It read as follows:

These should all be pulverised in a mortar. About a handful each of stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts: chop these and mix them together. A bunch of Cannabis sativa can be pulverised. 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," Toklas cautioned. "Two pieces are quite sufficient . . . Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one's personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected." 

When Toklas' cookbook was rereleased in the early 1960s, the recipe returned to the page. It was acclaimed by members of the burgeoning counterculture movement who had begun to experiment with the recipe until the Moroccan fudge was quickly Americanized into a fudge brownie

The pot brownie made its big picture debut in the 1968 madcap film "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas," which stars Peter Sellers as Harold Fine, a restless attorney who is lured into the counterculture (and away from the altar where he is set to marry his secretary-turned-fiancée) by a young hippie named Nancy, played by Leigh Taylor-Young.

After spending a wild night together, Nancy makes Harold a batch of pot brownies, though she neglects to tell him about the "secret ingredient." Harold unknowingly serves them to his family and fiancée, prompting an evening of laughter, some light paranoia and a trip that sends Harold's life barreling in a whole new direction. The trailer for the film even teases audiences with a recipe. 

"Hi there, swinging homemakers, this is your kitchen guru," a voice announces. "Loop on your love beads, and we'll pass on a few hints from the grooviest cookbook ever. First, pick around in the shelves there until you find something with a picture on it." 

The camera pans to show a box emblazoned with the words "Fudge Brownie." 

"Now, pour it in the pot," the narrator says, emphasizing the word "pot." "Any old pot will do. Lay on an egg and a little 'moo.' Now comes the magic moment. Stop and think, 'Have we got a secret ingredient?' Oh, have we got a secret ingredient."

Next, Taylor-Young, as Nancy, sprinkles the contents of a spice container into the batter, much like a cook would add oregano to a pot of pasta sauce. 

The dessert, the narrator promised, could add a "psychedelic aspect to any occasion."

The dessert, the narrator promises, could add a "psychedelic aspect to any occasion." Even still, when pot brownies appear in film and TV, they tend to tee up a now-cliché plot: an uptight or otherwise socially inhibited houseguest or partygoer accidentally indulges, leading them to become more loose and carefree. This inevitably changes their life, at least in some small way, even if it's only in how they're perceived by others.

"Barney Miller," Degrassi," "Eurotrip," "Frasier," "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," "Shameless," "That 70's Show," "This is 40" and "Yerba Buena" — to name only some of the many examples — all contain variations of that narrative formula. 

Pot brownies (and this trope) hit the small screen in a particularly memorable way when home audiences were introduced to Christopher Lloyd as Jim Ignatowski in "Taxi." As Marc Freeman wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, "Television had never seen a stoned '60s relic like Jim before." The character was a street minister who tended to space out, ostensibly because of his heavy drug use.

Viewers would eventually learn that Ignatowski had been something of a genius earlier in life. He was attending Harvard when a fellow student offered him some of her "funny brownies," and his life forever changed following that fateful first bite. It was as if his brain was broken, and he went from writing term papers analyzing Plutarch's "Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans" to finger-painting. "The typewriter seemed so impersonal," he explained. 

This episode, a two-parter called "The Road Not Taken," was critically lauded. It aired in 1982, only a few months before pot brownies would be in the headlines again, albeit it for a very different reason. That December, Mary Jane Rathbun, perhaps better known as Brownie Mary, was arrested for the second time in as many years. 

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According to the New York Times bestseller "Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer's Guide," Rathbun had already been arrested once after San Francisco police got wind of her side business of selling edibles out of her kitchen. At 57, "she already had a sweet, elderly appearance and reporters thrilled at the idea of a grass-slinging granny . . . Her arrest made national headlines." 

Instead of sending Rathbun to jail, a judge sentenced her to community service at San Francisco General Hospital, where she saw the early ravages of the AIDS epidemic with her own eyes. Prior to being arrested anew in 1982, Rathbun had begun baking hundreds of pot brownies a day for AIDS patients, whom she referred to as her "kids," to aid with appetite maintenance and pain management. 

Though Rathbun would go on to be instrumental in advocating for the passage of Proposition 215, which made California the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, she never did reveal her brownie recipe. "When and if they legalize it, I'll sell my brownie recipe to Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines," she once told a reporter. "Take the profits and buy an old Victorian for my kids with AIDS." 

While Rathbun's own recipe died with her in 1999, the pot brownie has managed to have tremendous cultural staying power. Christina Wong, the founder of the culinary cannabis brand Fruit + Flower, believes there are several reasons for this phenomenon. First, even for the most novice of home bakers, brownies are relatively simple to make.

"You have to remember, for the longest time, there were no real 'instructions,'" Wong told Salon Food in a phone interview. "The brownies became part of oral history, they were passed down . . . Brownies are accessible. Even if you mess them up, they still taste good. It's hard to see any flaws." 

"The brownies became part of oral history, they were passed down."

To that end, Wong said, the popularity of pot brownies can also at least be partially attributed to chocolate's ability to disguise the flavor of strong cannabis. 

"In the past, you had people taking higher doses for medical reasons, which can result in a powerful, strong flavor," Wong said. "Chocolate is really good for masking some of that weedy taste." 

The idea that one could totally hide cannabis in brownies, which was depicted in both "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas" and "Taxi," continued to prove to be a popular device for film and TV directors, despite the work of activists like Rathbun to more publicly demystify the potential health benefits of cannabis. 

However, according to Wong, there's a growing movement within the cannabis edibles community to find more inventive ways to cook with cannabis that doesn't involve completely masking its flavor. "I love a good pot brownie," Wong said with a laugh. "But we can sometimes do better." 

Wong started with cannabis-infused chocolate chip cookies a few years ago. Since then, she's expanded her culinary horizons with infused deviled eggs, cannabis leaf-pressed pasta and an award-winning pineapple meringue tart

"Why would you want to cover the flavor of something so beautiful, wonderful and delicious?"

"It's funny, someone else had recently asked me the best way — or like tips and tricks — for covering up the flavor of weed," Wong said. "But why would you want to cover the flavor of something so beautiful, wonderful and delicious?" 

Edible makers are increasingly looking for ways to accentuate the various notes of different types of cannabis, a process that Wong refers to as "strain pairing." Evidence of this can be seen on unscripted cooking competitions like "Bong Appétit" and "Chopped 420," as well as at cannabis supper clubs in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Portland.

It's also apparent at places like Wake-N-Bakery, where customers can order a "Double Dream Mocha, f**k it-strength, with oat milk" or a THC-infused raspberry white chocolate scone. The choices are seemingly endless, and it's all thanks — at least in part — to the humble pot brownie. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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