My Dinner with Marijuana: chemo, cannabis, and haute cuisine

Photo: Xeni Jardin

I went to a "cannabis dinner" in a loft in downtown Los Angeles on a day of great significance for potheads: 4/20. I first heard about these speakeasy gatherings from an LA Times article by Jonathan Gold. They're hosted by a zany, playful computer science major turned Hollywood film sales rep turned restauranteur, Nguyen Tran. He runs a restaurant called Starry Kitchen with his wife and foodie partner, chef Thi Tran. Together with LA-based French chef Laurent Quenioux, they put on this now-not-so-secret cannabis dinner. There were about 100 people in attendance, plus a few news crews who shot video.

The food was beautiful. And yes: I got a little high.

Photo: Karen Marcelo

Photo: Chad Scira

The menu was adventurous. Chinese herbs, with the other herb, were put to imaginative use. Mostly, cannabis appeared in the form of a raw garnish, or infused into accompaniments like a sweet, melt-in-your-mouth coconut oil based "soil" snuggled up next to a creamy panna cotta for dessert. A cannabis-epazote pesto was memorable with monkfish. Pot has a strong flavor and aroma. But it didn't overpower here, either because of the modest quantities used, or because of how the chefs worked with it.

Photo: Chad Scira

Mr. Tran (above) was in character as alter-ego "Commodore Booty McHooters." He walked around the kitchen before dinner was served, singing songs as "Chef" from South Park. He has been known to dress up as a tauntaun from The Empire Strikes Back, or walk around wearing sandwich boards urging people to eat his balls (crispy fried green tofu balls, and well worth eating).

Photo: Xeni Jardin

"If you get high, it's just the tarragon talking," he said.

The organizers weren't too keen on answering questions about the legalities of serving cannabis dinners. Marijuana laws are a tangled, fuzzy mess in Los Angeles anyway; as confused and contradictory as a Cheech and Chong monologue. But the fact that your ticket for the evening bought you a "Lionel Richie Walking Tour (* followed by a totally optional dinner afterwards)" was telling. And funny.

Photo: Xeni Jardin

As I've been reading in Elise McDonough's The High Times Cookbook, you really can do a lot with cannabis in cooking. You can prepare dishes using cannabis flowers, leaves, or hash; some like to extract juice from the raw plant.

Stems and leaves slow-cooked in ghee for hours yield that magical and coveted golden oil with which one prepares the more psychoactive and medically potent edibles: brownies, cookies, caramels. You can even brew cocktails with pot. They served hemp beer with dinner. People seemed to enjoy it a lot. I don't drink, but it smelled lovely.

Photo: Xeni Jardin

It's such a pretty little plant. I love how certain strains smell like alpine forests, and others smell like exotic spices. Why is it illegal? So dumb. Tran told me they obtained the fresh leaves from a nearby grower.

Photo: Xeni Jardin

My feelings about marijuana have changed a lot since I was diagnosed with cancer. And specifically, since I started chemotherapy in January. For me, medical cannabis has been an important part of getting through chemo. My oncologist wrote a recommendation letter for me, and I have a card that makes it legal for me to purchase pot.

It helps me more than many of the pharmaceuticals my cancer docs prescribe for chemo side effects. It eases nausea and stops vomiting, it helps me sleep when the steroids accompanying chemo keep me up, it acts as a gentle analgesic against the excruciating bone pain that certain chemo drugs bring, and it stimulates appetite in those awful days after infusions when food is repulsive.

These things are important. If you can't eat or sleep, your body can't heal in time to be strong enough for the next infusion.

Photo: Karen Marcelo

Earlier on the same day of the cannabis dinner, I'd gone in for an MRI to see how the chemo had progressed in shrinking my tumor. Medical imaging is a stressful thing when you have cancer, because of the ever-present fear that a scan may reveal very bad news. MRIs in particular are loud and claustrophobia-triggering for many people, including me.

I prepared an by taking a nice big bite of a chocolate-chip pot cookie hour before the scan. So I wouldn't panic inside, and so the technician could capture a good image of my insides.

That's me, in the photo: I'm high in an MRI.

Photo: Xeni Jardin

Pot really is a cancer patient's best friend. Edibles are often best for us, because of how the liver metabolizes the active compounds, and how long they tend to last with this ingestion method. The idea of cannabis being connected to the enjoyment of food meant something to me that it probably did not for anyone else at the dinner table that night. I was happy to be there. But one week after my 8th chemo infusion, I was overjoyed just to be able to taste food again, and to be able to keep it down.

Photo: Karen Marcelo

Chemo wrecks your sense of taste. Some flavors become invisible, others taste weird or disgusting. Everything became metallic and dulled for me at various points in the treatment cycles. But this was a night of celebration. At last! My taste buds were working, and the buds were working on my taste, if you know what I mean.

Photo: Xeni Jardin

My San Francisco-based friend Karen Marcelo from SRL was my date that day for both the medical imaging and the dinner.

"They should have these in San Francisco," she said of the evening, and thought it "uniquely subversive."

This, from a woman who knows an awful lot about being subversive. Nguyen's exuberant high weirdness reminded her of Chicken John. Karen's snapshots of the evening are here.

Tran hinted that this may be the last cannabis dinner for a while. He and his co-conspirators do not want to be typecast as "the pot chefs." Whatever their next pop-up gathering ends up being, even if it's not weed-themed, I'm sure it will be yummy and fun. And I hope what they've done inspires others to explore.

Photo: Karen Marcelo

[Special thanks to Alex Williams, and to Karen, AJ, and Theresa.]

Photo: Xeni Jardin

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