Sativa with fish? Indica with steak? Or is it the other way around? Welcome to the world of pairing strains of marijuana with specific foods to enhance their flavor—the hot trend in states where marijuana is legal.
This is not like eating food cooked with cannabis, which people have been doing at least since Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas served their guests in Paris hashish fudge. “It should be eaten with care,” Toklas wrote in her cookbook. “Two pieces are quite sufficient.”
That’s the problem: with edibles, it’s hard to know how much THC you’re consuming until it’s too late. I went with Jeff Steingarten, the food critic for Vogue, to a dinner in Colorado where everything we put in our mouths—cocktails, gnocchi, trout, chocolate decadence—was infused with cannabis. I wound up prone in the guest bedroom before dessert was served. But with pairing, you’re offered a different strain to smoke with each course, so you know right away how high you’re getting.
I was introduced to grass when I was a student at Berkeley in the Sixties, and since then, it’s always been my drug of choice. When I moved to Colorado in 2002, I had no idea it would be one of the first states to legalize pot. My friends and I thought we’d never see that in our lifetimes. Back in college, you bought whatever batch your dealer was selling, with only a sketchy idea of what it was or where it came from. Now I have three dispensaries in walking distance, with a dizzying array of strains that have been bred and cross-bred for aroma, taste, and effect.
This summer, when I heard about a farm-to-table dinner where every course would be paired with a different strain of marijuana, I knew I had to go. Produced by Mason Jar Events in Denver, it was surreal: a hundred stoned people sitting at two long tables on the grass at the Shupe homestead, a farm established in 1917.
On arriving, we were handed mason jars of Arnold Palmers—lemonade and iced tea that contained 2.5 mg of THC. I’d brought a friend, Ray Keener, a luminary in the bicycle biz, and we’d agreed to pace ourselves on the pot and food. We’re cheap dates—a few tokes and we’re sailing—and in that state, I’ll tear into any food in sight.
I’d thought the dinner would attract rich couples, upscale stoners and foodies, who could afford to pay $170 a person, plus $25 for a goody bag of pot to accompany the food. But we discovered that almost all the guests were insiders in “the cannabis space:” growing the plant, selling it, making edibles, and providing services. Many consume it every day, starting with infused coffee for breakfast. “They’ve built up such a high tolerance,” Ray says. “We can’t keep up with them.”
The first course was salad with beets, goat cheese and pistachios, paired with OG Kush—described on the menu as having “an earthy pine and sour lemon scent with woody undertones,” and the ability to “crush stress under the weight of its heavy euphoria.” I was trying to crumble the Kush with my fingers and stuff it into a narrow, cylindrical pipe from the goody bag, when someone passed us a vaporizer already loaded. Ray and I each took a puff. It seemed light, so we took a second.
After the salad, there was an intermezzo: a lemon lollipop with 10 milligrams of THC. I took a few licks, but it seemed a goofy and time-consuming way to cleanse the pallet.
Kendal Norris, who founded Mason Jar one year earlier, stood up to welcome the crowd. Wearing a chic, flowered dress and gold jewelry, she said her goal was to “break the social stigma that has long prevented cannabis from its real mission of wellness, community, and celebration.” When asked later how she comes up with the menu pairings, she said, “The weed leads everything.” She chooses a few strains and takes them to Hosea Rosenberg, a Top Chef winner, who owns Blackbelly Market in Boulder. After sniffing and sampling the weed, they create the menu from ingredients that are produced locally.
They paired the main course that night, pork roast, with Berkle, described as a sweet blend of “spiced licorice aromas and an earthy peppermint aftertaste.”
I was mystified. I could not detect licorice or peppermint in the Berkle, but I’m equally mystified when I hear a wine described as having, for example, blackberry and cherry flavors with hints of smoke, vanilla and toast.
Neither Ray nor any of the guests I spoke with could discern any connection between the taste of the marijuana and the food it was paired with. By the time dessert came, it didn’t matter. People had grown happier and happier, and were wandering about the grass, while the sky turned a deep black that it never does in the city. Soon, however, it was illumined, as if by fireflies, from the tiny lights of people checking cellphones.
I could feel my body letting go, dropping into a state of relaxation so deep it surprised me. There was a release of low-level tension I hadn’t even been aware of. It was like discovering a gear you’d never used. A gear in which there’s a calm, expansive cheer and all’s right with the world. None of us wanted to leave.
People are experimenting with cannabis pairing in other states besides Colorado. In San Francisco, chefs have been staging pop-up dinners where they serve four courses paired with curated cannabis strains. Because recreational pot is not legal yet, guests are required to show their California medical marijuana ID cards, and are not told the location of the dinner until an hour before it begins.
In Washington D.C., when rec pot was legalized in 2015, Arianne and Scott Bennett created a pairing menu for their Amsterdam FalafelShop, a chain of seven stores. Arianne realized that “more and more people are walking around stoned, because they can. And they’re hungry.”
The store is modeled after falafel shops in Amsterdam, where, Arianne says, “They’re as common as McDonalds and Subway here.” In her Washington shop, you get a pita pocket and balls of falafel, then go down a buffet line and add whichever of 22 toppings appeal, from crunchy onions to pickled beets.
The menu recommends what strains would enhance the experience of five different falafel combinations. Customers have to consume the pot elsewhere, then come to the shop to eat. Arianna says that if they get the right combination of cannabis and falafel toppings, “you see their eyes roll back a little and they get blissful.” She did her own research, and found that Lemon Haze works well with a citrusy Turkish salad, while O.G. Kush, with its “woodsy undertones,” works with baba ganoush, pickled beets and coleslaw.
Is this a gimmick, I wondered, or is there a sound basis to pairing? On a recent plane trip, I sat next to David Zilewicz, a sommelier at Le Cirque in New York. He’s a fan of pot but thinks pairing is a joke. “When I’m stoned, I think peanut butter and pickles are a good combination,” he said. “And smoking anything impairs your taste buds.”
But in Oregon, Ginger and Brigham Edwards, who run a pot-friendly bed ‘n breakfast called North Fork 53, are convinced pot pairing has a scientific basis and will soon be as popular as wine pairing. Ginger, an organic farmer, and her husband, an herbalist, acquired a river-front property in Nehalem, a small town on the Oregon Coast. They opened for business nine days after rec pot was legalized in 2015. In the kitchen, they use only food from local farmers and fishermen, and for pairing, only cannabis from nearby growers.
“This is not like wine, which has a long history of pairing from different regions and a large repertoire to draw from,” Ginger said. “This is a new field, and we had a blank slate. We’re the ones making some of the first pairings.”
For New Year’s Eve this year, they held a Moroccan dinner, honoring a culture where people have been smoking hashish in hookahs for centuries. Ginger met with growers and a chef who’d trained in Morocco. They identified a range of flavors in the local strains—spicy, lemony, earthy, and musky—and began experimenting with dishes that would amplify those flavors.
They created a ritual for the dinner, which costs $100 a person, plus the cost of the weed, which guests buy at a nearby dispensary. After people are seated, Ginger and Brigham bring out plates of fresh organic buds, artfully displayed with local flowers. “We have people smell it, feel it, study it,” Ginger says. “We tell them about the terpenes the strain contains, where it was grown, and by whom. We grind it at the table, like grinding fresh pepper, and put it in vaporizers for them to smoke. We invite the growers to dinner, and some bring a jar of the soil in which they grew the pot.
“Sounds like an episode of Portlandia,” I said.
“Yep,” Ginger said. “It’s the joke about everything being so high quality, so local, and everything’s a craft. Cannabis is definitely a craft here. You’re going to have a craft cannabis experience.”
At the end of the evening, they often build a bonfire on a nearby beach. Ginger asks the guests for feedback about what terpene pairings worked best. “It’s trial and error. We’re at the forefront of this new exploration,” she tells them. “You’re engaged in research in an unknown field—of taste and euphoric pleasure.”
I wanted in, and felt the impulse to jump on a plane to Portland, but I did not have to go that far. Philip Wolf, 31, who lives in the ski town of Frisco, CO, and founded a pot tour company, Cultivating Spirits, offered to make a house call to teach me “the right way to smell, taste and consume cannabis.”
He said he created the concept of pairing in 2014. He’d been growing, curing, selling, and introducing people to the plant for five years, but after attending a wine pairing in Barcelona, he decided to pair cannabis with food.
Tall and slim, with long blond hair caught up in a bun and prayer beads around his neck, he arrived at my home with six strains of marijuana and ground coffee to “cleanse the nose palate.” Setting them on a table, he explained that terpenes determine the aroma, taste and kind of high the strain will give you. “THC powers the ship, and the terpenes steer it,” he says.
Like Paul Giamatti sniffing wine in Sideways, Wolf stuck his nose deep into the first container of pot.
He had me do the same and tell him what I could smell. I inhaled once, twice, considered it, and said, “Lemony? Maybe… pine?” He smiled. “That’s Kandy Kush. It smells of candied lemon with a juniper undertone.” I was shocked. I’d never identified a specific smell in pot before. But then, I’d never taken the time to try.
He had me sniff the coffee, then the grass in a second container. It was more subtle and I tried to find words for it. “Mud?” I said. He nodded. “It’s Trainwreck, and the dominant terpene is myrcene, which smells like dirt and moss. If you can smell it, you can predict what kind of high you’ll have.” He said that myrcene has “the couch-lock effect.” Trainwreck is a sativa, so people expect it to be energizing. “But if you smell myrcene, you’ll know it will be sedating.”
After I’d smelled all six strains and nailed four, we went on to tasting. He started breaking up the nugs with his fingers. “I have a grinder, but I like people to crumble and smell the weed as the aroma gets released.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “Oh, that smells so good!”
He packed it into a pipe, and told me to notice how it tastes coming in and going out, which will be different. “Then smack your tongue around your mouth to get the saliva going. That amps up the flavor.” I did as told, but all I could taste, coming in and going out, was burned plant. He had me try another strain. More burned plant. With the third strain, I thought I actually tasted something: grapes. Wonder of wonder, it was Grape Ape. That turned out to be the only flavor I could pick up. He thought this was because I usually smoke joints, so what I’m accustomed to tasting is burning paper.
For pairing, Wolf identifies the terpenes by sniffing and tasting the strain, rather than having it analyzed in a lab, which is expensive and mostly done by researchers. Then he gives the terpene profiles of the strains he wants to use to the chef, so he can create the same flavors in the meal. “If the chef nails it, so what you’re eating tastes exactly like what you’re tasting in the cannabis…whoa!” Wolf said. An example he gave was prepared by chef Chris Lanter at Cache Cache in Aspen: Alaskan king crab with cantaloup, sweet avocado, cilantro, and brown butter lemon vinaigrette. It was paired with Flo, a sativa with a sweet tangerine flavor. “The citrus tone in the sativa works best with white fish and crab,” Wolf says. “It’s a profound experience.”
His first big event was a gala dinner for the opening of the X Games in Aspen in 2015, featuring five courses, five strains of pot, and five wines. He began the evening, as he always does, by explaining how terpenes work and how to appreciate them.
“Do people enjoy it?” I asked.
“Are they more enlightened about cannabis?”
“Do they retain all that information?”
“No,” he said, “But they get the basics. This is for the mature cannabis consumer, and it takes practice.”
That was my conclusion. At a wine pairing, I doubt that I could detect any of the high notes and undertones that connoisseurs love to taste and talk about. Same with cannabis. The “mature consumer” may appreciate the terpenes in the pairing, while the rest of us will just have an exceptionally good time.
Bring it on.