The Northwest Flavor Issue
You Put Your Weed in It
Meet three people pushing the limits of Seattle’s new, tasty, and legally dubious frontier of marijuana edibles.
You can get this whole thing over with in the time it takes to watch your favorite sitcom and not have to read another word. It’s called a firecracker1 —Ritz crackers, peanut butter, and an indiscriminate amount of cannabis baked in tin foil—and it will get you high. You simply pull the treat out of the oven, unfoil, and wolf it down with a glass of water.
You can do it, but if you’re new to marijuana use or your tolerance is low, you probably shouldn’t. If you did, 40 minutes after ingestion half your body would mutiny, your normal gait reduced to a strokey, zombie slog. Pretty much every sound would turn in your mind into a cop or a heart attack. And all you’d want to do is curl into a question mark on the couch, which, almost involuntarily, you would. But more egregious than the inevitable overdose? The taste. Dry with the pungent taste of dry grass, a firecracker isn’t so much eaten as endured.
No, the pot-peanut-butter-and-cracker sandwich hardly cuts it in a city like Seattle, where our expectations for ingredients and taste are stratospheric. But as the state enters its next phase of experimentation after the passage of Initiative 502—with retail stores expected to open later this year—the world of marijuana edibles is still in its infancy. (By early June, only five processor licenses, required to legally produce edibles for the recreational marijuana market, had been issued in King County.)
And yet when it comes to flavor and proper dosage, activists and chefs—thanks in part to a 16-year legal medical marijuana market—are way ahead of the bureaucracy. Here, three people advancing the way cannabis is prepared and consumed.
Not that Alison Draisin knew what she was doing. Not really. Not at first. In 2009, three years before the passage of I-502, she tried to comfort the dying. Prostate cancer had left a neighbor bedridden, and stage IV liver cancer was claiming a close friend.
To alleviate their pain, Draisin, then working as counselor at an alternative school for adolescents in Tacoma, mixed marijuana into some old family recipes (gingersnap cookies, pumpkin muffins). But the dosage was off. Her friends would get too high and become withdrawn.2 Draisin kept experimenting, and with each batch she came closer and closer to a muffin or a cookie that eased the patients’ suffering without laying them out flat. But the thing her friends commented on the most was just how amazing the treats tasted.
Draisin knew whom to thank.
She had plucked the recipes from a book, parts of which had been passed along for five generations, starting with her great-great-grandmother, Ethel Goldstein, who emigrated from Poland and settled in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1870s. Goldstein passed the recipes on to her daughter Dora, who then bequeathed them to her daughter Ethel. The younger Ethel married Louis Draisin, a Russian immigrant. Ethel Draisin—Alison’s grandmother—cooked the family recipes every Sunday, when Alison and her brother and sister would visit. Those long Charleston Sundays in the 1970s and ’80s were like something out of a Roald Dahl story.
Red velvet cupcakes with pink frosting blazed brighter than Willy Wonka’s ascot. Not to mention the cookies and muffins and bars. Oh the bars. The snickerdoodle bar, the strawberry oatmeal bar, and Grandma’s signature confection, the seven-layer bar—the gooey sugar-rich shock of which sent Draisin and her siblings into afternoon crashes on the couch.
Draisin grew up, moved to Philadelphia, and studied psychotherapy. Then, in 2002, came the real crash. T-boned by a drunk driver, Draisin underwent back surgery and was laid up for months, fighting the pain with prescribed opiates (Percocet, Oxytocin). A doctor friend suggested cannabis. “I felt I could easily slip away into the narcotic world. So I started using pot, replacing the pills with the pot. And through my recovery, after the surgery, I used cannabis exclusively.” The transformation was instant. She’d smoke and the pain fell away.
She moved to Seattle later that year. Here she found a place far more open to her method of pain management. “Then”—in 2009—“I went on a date with a gentleman I met online, and he showed up at my house with the biggest marijuana bud I had probably ever seen. And it turns out he was a farmer.” After the farmer taught her how to make pot butter she began baking for her next door neighbor and her friend straight from her grandmother’s recipe book, making tweaks to account for the cannabis.
The baked goods helped increase the cancer patients’ appetites and assuaged the pain and nausea caused by chemotherapy. She eventually perfected the recipes “to the point where you couldn’t taste the cannabis.” The trick was to stick to strong flavors like cinnamon, cloves, peanut butter. “It is also in how you extract the material and the quality of the material you’re using. You know that old Benjamin Franklin statement: garbage in, garbage out. If you put good-quality cannabis into the products, you’re going to get a lovely taste.”
She knew she wasn’t going to save lives, that the patients were up against the clock. Her neighbor “got to the point where he couldn’t eat anymore, so he was drinking liquid food out of a straw.” Draisin showed the neighbor’s wife how to use a marijuana vapor box and blow the smoke into his face because he had lost all capacity to move. “He laid there and he said to me, ‘Promise me you’ll do something with this,’ meaning the edibles. And I was like, ‘I will.’ ”
Draisin joined the local cannabis rights community, attending forums and fundraisers and testing recipes in the kitchen of her home, with the idea that she would eventually sell them to medical marijuana dispensaries. But she needed a hook.
“I started talking to my parents’ friends because I felt that baby-boomer age was where my target audience was. I wanted to create gourmet, tasty edibles that were potent, that didn’t taste like weed, and weren’t brownies or Rice Krispies treats. I wanted to really raise the bar.” She asked her parents’ friends, What do you want? How do you want it packaged and what should it taste like? Their answers led her to the organic aisles of PCC Natural Markets and Whole Foods, where she studied the food labels and came up with her own.
On the package of each cookie, cupcake, and muffin she printed her brand name, chosen in honor of her grandmother Ethel and her grandfather Louis: Ettalew’s Medibles. And, though she wasn’t required by law to do so, she took a step few marijuana edible producers ever had: She included nutrition facts and ingredients on the label.
Ettalew’s calling card: Grandma’s seven-layer bar. Cut into perfect 3-by-3-inch squares, the graham cracker, coconut, butterscotch, chocolate, and pecan treat that Draisin and her siblings used to Hoover on those long, hot Charleston Sundays was now packed with so much THC that its maker was compelled to publish something else unprecedented on the label: “This is strong medicine! Start with ¼ of the treat and wait 45 minutes. If necessary, add a little more until desired result is achieved.” Grandma’s seven-layer bar and other treats are now sold in more than 30 dispensaries throughout the state. Since the launch of Ettalew’s in 2010, Draisin has garnered the attention of the worldwide cannabis community, including two medals from High Times magazine’s Cannabis Cup.
“The joke in my family,” says Draisin, “is that I’ve taken grandma’s food to another level. My brother’s like, ‘Man, I wish Grandma used to put this stuff in.’”
The Home Cook
Just how bad does raw marijuana taste? Mary White puckers her lips and gnaws on an invisible handful of cut dry grass. “It’s got that”—mouth opens—“grassy, pungent, grassy, grassy”—nose wrinkles—“flavor.”
The pastry perfections of Alison Draisin represent an exciting direction for the bold new world of pot comestibles. But what about those who aren’t masters in the kitchen, who don’t want to smoke, yet don’t want to be left out of the I-502 party? White hopes to host you with her second act.
Her first act was a 25-year career in radio. She was the morning talent, the perky disembodied voice that coaxed you through an Interstate 5 traffic jam. “I worked for 12 years at KUBE FM. I worked for five years at KMPS, and six years at 100.7 the Wolf, with Fitz in the Morning.” White has the mien of, well, an early-morning shock jock. Her voice carries across a city block, as it did one recent morning on Capitol Hill while she walked and talked about her career. Her hair: a pixie-punkish cut streaked with pink.
“In November of 2011 [the Wolf] did the thing where, ‘We’re going to go in a different direction. See ya!’ I’m like, ‘Oh fuck, I’m fired.’ Radio is a dying industry, and you get to a certain age and they can’t afford you. And they can’t say you’re too old. But you’re too old. But you’re not too old.”
White turned to her second love, cooking. She filmed some demos hoping to land a local cooking show and sent pilots to the four Seattle network affiliates. No one bit. But she kept filming segments and posting them to her website, pantryraid.com.
Meanwhile she cooked recipes she didn’t film for the demos. “I’d smoked pot for years, but I quit a long time ago because it was so strong. It wasn’t my drug.” A hip replacement made her reconsider. Doctors had prescribed Tylenol 4, which contains codeine. She was taking up to six pills a day and feared she was destroying her liver. “So I got a medical marijuana card because I wanted to try the new strains. I wanted to try the medibles.” She started with just a quarter of a chocolate chip cookie she bought from a dispensary—two to a pack for $5. “And it really helped.”
She experimented with recipes and it dawned on her: Edibles had changed her life—and she could cook and teach people how. By the time I-502 passed she had the city’s attention. She became a regular on local TV segments and talked about cannabis on Tom Douglas’s Seattle Kitchen on KIRO Radio.
White now hosts students in her West Seattle kitchen, where for one class, Cooking with Cannabis, they learn to make dishes like pan-roasted salmon with nectarine salsa, coconut chicken curry, asparagus and prosciutto rolls, raspberry cobbler—all with the special, newly legal ingredient.
The key to cooking with cannabis, says White, is to choose recipes already known for their powerful flavors. “I make a damn fine lemon bar. I got to tell you. And that’s a really good example of when you magnify the flavor to hide the pot. Because with something like a lemon bar, you can do lemon juice, lemon zest, lemon extract, lemon for days.”
And dosage? How does one avoid turning into frightened question mark on the sofa? It takes experimentation to get the measurements just right, White says. Then she offers advice as sound as anything about citrus offered by Alison Draisin or the British Journal of Pharmacology. “Everyone who eats pot at one point or another will eat too much. It’s just what you do. But you just have to go, ‘I’m not going to die.’”
Flashy Jeremy Cooper appears in front of a former lumber warehouse in the shadow of the Starbucks world headquarters in SoDo on a hot May afternoon.
He is—from top to bottom—fedora, blue eyes, wide face, neon green tie, gray three-piece suit. Cooper, a former magician and event planner, is the lead chef of Magical Butter, a startup whose high-tech food processor is quickly becoming the must-have gadget for both professional and home cooks experimenting with edible marijuana recipes. The warehouse is the Magical Butter studio, where Cooper and his team film cooking segments and plot the domination of the new frontier of marijuana.
Inside the two-level storehouse is cavernous and creaky. Sawdust floats in the overbaked air. “I’ve got to show you something,” he says. He points to an empty bookshelf at the back of the warehouse’s second floor and reaches into his pants pocket. The bookshelf slides open at the click of some unseen remote control, revealing a spacious air-conditioned office. “I’m Batman,” Cooper jokes. The place does look a lot like Bruce Wayne’s lair: leather couches, multiple coffee tables, a throne made of redwood. A statue of Don Quixote stands at attention in the corner along with dozens of collectibles that comprise a sort of rare antique head shop. On a shelf sits a glass pipe rumored to have been made by one of Dale Chihuly’s assistants; on another, a Native American peace pipe made of oak, jade, and gold with an opal inlay. Cooper, playing tour guide, gestures to an icy blue, football-size blob that looks like something cooked in Walter White’s lab (“a piece of glass from the first atomic bomb blast”) and a jagged hunk of concrete (“a piece of the Berlin Wall”). The items, he explains, are a combination of family heirlooms and personal collecting over a career that includes stints as a private chef and professional magician.
Cooper became fascinated with marijuana edibles in 2013 while caring for a friend with cervical cancer. Like Alison Draisin, he began testing recipes, searching for that right dosage. That same year, while working security at the gate for Hempfest—the first Hempfest in the post I-502 passage era—he met an associate of Garyn Angel, an erstwhile Florida financial planner who was making the rounds with a food processor he sold online. (Angel, too, got into edibles while trying to help a friend who had Crohn’s disease.)
Angel had sought a way to extract the maximum amount of THC from the plant and, through trial and error, zeroed in on the perfect temperature and mixing speed, one he claims cannot be matched by any other food processor. The result, the Magical Butter, is a chrome silo about the size of a coffee maker. You place the marijuana and all ingredients, be it for butter, soup, tinctures (or alcohol extracts), into the device, press a button, and walk away. The timing depends on the particular recipe, but when you return, you have a perfectly blended concoction without the slightest hint of marijuana taste.
Cooper was familiar with Angel’s gadget and had used it in some of his recipes. The two men struck up a conversation, then a friendship, and last fall Angel hired Cooper as his lead chef and director of West Coast operations. By May 2014, Magical Butter had sold more than 20,000 units.
Cooper, who holds a medical marijuana card to treat neck and shoulder pain, was initially skeptical about the passage of Initiative 502. “I hope that people still stay consistent with the medicine. I hope that people stay consistent with education…. I hope that we’re pushing the understanding of cannabis, where it came from and where it should go.” He fears a big corporate take over of what is, for now, an artisan enterprise. “I don’t want to lose it to a Marlboro.”
And yet, he says, his whole throwback haberdashery and wide face seemingly balanced atop that neon green tie, “I think [I-502] is going to greatly improve business…. How many wives are going to come out of the closet going: ‘Oh my god, I saw this guy on TV the other day and he was cooking [with marijuana].’ ”
Magical Butter has already established a food truck, which serves cannabis-infused edibles at events for those with medical marijuana cards. Cooper, standing feet from the effigy of the gentleman from La Mancha, says they have a bigger plan, one he says he’s not ready to reveal yet—but to anyone listening sounds an awful lot like a restaurant.
“We’re probably going to stick with something a little flashier, a little more up class. We’re definitely going to do food, but I think what Seattle’s going to see is what they want….” He pauses.
In that rare gap in Cooper’s pitch it’s tempting to fill the hole his words won’t.
Imagine it: The firecracker is little more than a footnote in our city’s early flirtation with marijuana edibles. In its place, the requisite Seattle farm-to-table situation, with reclaimed wood and inked servers conveying plates of Wagyu beef tartare to your table. Only somewhere between the duck liver mousse and peach cobbler, an ancient, giddy calm takes over. The sick find relief, the curious are full and edified.
Then Cooper adds, “I mean, Seattleites are foodies.”
- Take two ritz crackers, slather them with peanut butter, sprinkle ground-up cannabis on the peanut butter, and press the crackers together to form a sandwich. Wrap the mini sandwich in tin foil. Place it on a cookie sheet and into a 450-degree preheated oven. Bake for 21 minutes, and you have a firecracker. ↩
- Pro-tip from Draisin: If you do overdose, drink citrus fruit juices such as lemonade or orange juice, which have been found to reduce the effects of THC -- a point supported by a 2011 British Journal of Pharmacology article titled "Taming THC: Potential Cannabis Synergy and Phytocannabinoid-Terpenoid Entourage Effects." ↩