Pot in Pans: A History of Eating Cannabis provides an encyclopedic view of edibles throughout history
In Colorado, California, and Arizona, three of the biggest states with legal cannabis available, edibles dominate as the most popular form of consumption. In some places, nearly half of all legal cannabis purchased is in edible form. If you ask us, there's nothing better than rolling up and lighting a joint full of premium flower, but there's no question that for the mass market (and for most of human history, in fact), edible cannabis has been exceptionally popular.
But how much do you actually know about the history of cannabis, and edible cannabis in particular? If you're a dedicated stoner, you might have heard about Alice B. Toklas' cookbook or Mary Jane Rathbun's brownies, but for most people, cannabis edibles begin and end with the gummies and mints that you buy at the dispensary, or maybe if you're lucky, some pot brownies or cookies that your friend made.
In reality, cannabis has a long, long history of being connected with food, and it's a history that reaches back thousands of years and nearly around the entire globe. Robyn Griggs Lawrence, the author of the Cannabis Kitchen Cookbook, has just published a new book called Pot in Pans: A History of Eating Cannabis, and it's a far-reaching, whirlwind account of edible cannabis, from the first inklings of cannabis agriculture, to the Indian and Arabic traditions of bhang and majoun, up to Western beatnik culture and reefer madness, and the most recent trends of edible production at scale and high-end "cannagastronomy."
Lawrence really covers the subject with enthusiasm here -- the book flings madly around the world, and in just over 200 pages, touches on nearly every instance of edible cannabis ever recorded. There are Hindu legends and stories of Middle Eastern rituals, British accounts of drinking bhang in India, and tales of artists in Paris enjoying the drug in salons. There's a list of slang terms (of course there is), breakdowns of the plant's parts, and a catalog of the types of extracts and how they're made. There's even, suddenly, a list of edible-related films, including the excellent Smiley Face and the barely tangential Jesse Eisenberg-starring Adventureland. Weeds, as a TV show, isn't on that list, but don't worry -- it gets mentioned briefly on its own. Half Baked isn't included, either, presumably because the Abba-zaba and Funions aren't infused.
One page she's covering the history of the hashashin in Arabia and the majoun made and used in rituals there, and a chapter later, she's talking about High Times' mass media coverage of that majoun (and how to use the herb as, well, an herb). She talks about the Rastafarian natural ital diet in Jamaica (which included cannabis-infused tea), and "happy" food in Cambodia, so called, she repeats a few times, "because if you eat it, you will be happy" (a trend which has since made its way to North America, where you can now buy cannabis-infused pizza from a place called the Ganja Gourmet).
Later chapters cover modern cannabis in the same frenetic way, talking both about legalization here in the US (where some high-end chefs cook cannabis dishes behind closed doors, while multi-billion dollar companies are vying to make gummies that anyone can try), and about international movements -- cannabis appearing on the menu in places like Uruguay and Spain, and even the fight for edibles in Canada (where this October, at long last, they'll be legal -- Lawrence's history book is so timely it's almost outdated already).
The takeaway here is that if you've ever wondered about edible cannabis and its place in the world, this book has lots (and lots, and lots) to tell you about. Lawrence never lingers on any one subject too long or too deeply -- instead, she seems to have crammed every mention of edible cannabis in history into just a few chapters. The result is very informative, but almost too frantic -- most of her sources are second-hand, and sometimes even a hand beyond that (she does include a lot on international traditions, but too much of it is from a Western perspective -- there's a lot about what Europeans, for example, wrote and said about bhang, rather than how it actually developed and spread from a more local perspective).
If anything, you wish she'd slow down a bit and smell the brownies baking. Early on in the book's introduction, she talks in the first person about visiting what sounds like a gorgeous farm in Jamaica with "a lush canopy of tree branches and ferns," smoking with a guy named Ziggy who has won the Cannabis Cup with his indica strain. You can almost smell his "200 percent organically grown" sticky through the pages, and the farm sounds luscious enough to eat. That scene stands out, and not just because it's first -- it provides a great sense of place and setting, and we wish that in the rest of the book, Lawrence had taken us to all of the other places with the same immediacy and perspective. There's no doubt that there's a ton of information here, but rarely does the book actually put you in all of these historical periods and places -- it feels more like a fact-packed museum tour than a real trip through history and around the world.
There's also some science included, and a few bits of alternative medicine, and biology, in terms of how the plant evolved with its consumers and why it works the way it does. It's definitely a hearty stew of information, but it's not very precise or selective. And while the back of the book does have a few breakdowns of what each dish entails, they're not really recipes -- presumably, you have to get her cookbook for those. This book isn't about how to cook cannabis; it's about how it's eaten, and unfortunately that means that some of the most useful information about these dishes feels left out.
That's not to say that the book isn't interesting -- if you're curious to know more about edible cannabis, this book will make you an expert by the time you finish it, or at least introduce you to nearly all of the major moments, players, themes, and terminology. It's exhaustive, and also exhausting sometimes. Lawrence throws name after name after name at you, and sometimes even repeats stories and references, presumably in an attempt to create threads through a patchwork quilt of a narrative. Alice B. Toklas is covered at least three different times, once to remind you (correctly) that she didn't begin the tradition of edible cannabis in the US, once to point out how important her mention of edible cannabis in a public text was at the time anyway, and once for Lawrence to catalog, for some reason, the plot and critical reactions to the 1968 Peter Sellers film I Love You, Alice B. Toklas -- just in case that's something you needed to understand the appeal of eating to get high.
That might be too mean -- the book is a fun read at times, and mostly, all of the jumping around at least tells you what to Google if you're interested in learning more about a specific story. Would we appreciate a book that was a bit more selective and went a little deeper on the most relevant stories and traditions? Maybe. But we can say this with confidence: if it's part of the history of edible cannabis, it's probably in here somewhere.
Pot in Pans: A History of Eating Cannabis is available now, on Amazon or at a fine book retailer near you (disclaimer: The Elegant Stoner was provided with a pre-release digital copy for this review). If you've ever wondered about the history of cannabis as food (or if you're surprised to hear that there is one), this is probably the best fact-per-dollar value you'll find on the subject -- it's an excellent broad introduction, and you might be surprised at how detailed the history of edibles can be. But we do hope that next time, Lawrence slows down just a bit, and focuses more on taking her readers out in the world to experience through her eyes where edible cannabis has been, rather than just inundating them with everything that could possibly be learned about it.