The progenitor of today’s love affair with food sassed his sultry soup with cannabis stems and seeds in the ‘60s, demonstrating an understanding of ingredients and effects.
BY ED MURRIETA
Jeremiah Tower, America’s first and long-lost celebrity chef, is a cannabis-cuisine pioneer.
But you won’t learn that from watching “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,” the fawning documentary film about the life, times, milestones and mysteries of the patrician progenitor of California’s 1970s culinary awakening who reigned over the rebirth of American gastronomy at the peak of the greed-is-good 1980s and retreated from the spotlight before the new millennium.
Raised abroad by wealthy absentee parents and weaned in cruise ships, hotels and boarding schools, Tower enthralled the Bay Area’s foodie elite and social cream with his impeccable palate, worldly glamour and handsome appetites for sex, cocaine and champagne, first at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and then at Stars in San Francisco. Lacking formal culinary training but brimming with brio, Tower splashed fresh, local ingredients with classic elan and dramatic sass. He burst from the kitchen into the dining room, popularizing the American brasserie and charming Americans into a love affair with food.
While America’s foodie cognoscenti — Martha Stewart, Ruth Reichl, Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain — gush about Tower’s theatric rise and fall, his enigmatic exile and his enduring importance in the culinary pantheon, “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” contains nary a mention of the pre-fame cannabis cuisine Tower cooked to entertain friends and stick it to The Man at Harvard University in the 1960s, which Tower himself addressed in his 2004 memoir, “California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution.”
Reviews upon the book’s publication focused largely on Tower’s influence on California Cuisine and American regional cooking; his tempestuous relationship with Alice Waters, Tower’s former boss, lover and rival; and the personal and professional burnout that sent Tower into self-imposed exile in Mexico two decades ago.
But those reviews overlooked Tower’s contribution to cannabis cuisine: an infused consomme whose preparation and serving demonstrated the chef’s respect of his ingredients, including both their preparation and effects, and care for the people who enjoy his food.
Not only did Tower lay out the technique of heat-activating non-psychoactive THCA into psychoactive THC prior to steeping cannabis in fatty chicken stock (a vital step neglected by many, even Batali, who botched pot brownies last year), Tower deliberately front-loaded his infamous 1969 cannabis menu with an infused course whose effects kicked in as dessert was served, enhancing the enjoyment of the meal without debilitating diners.
And Tower did it with stems and seeds in an era before fancy full-flower extracts, fulfilling a chef’s highest calling: turning lowly ingredients into haute creations.
I wanted to interview Tower about cooking with cannabis — which he calls marijuana and grass, common terms for a 73-year-old who smoked his first joint in the early 1960s. I emailed Tower earlier this year before the documentary debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“Thanks for the inquiry,” Tower replied, “but I really said it all in ‘California Dish’ and gave the recipe.”
Of course, “California Dish” is the only place Tower addresses cannabis and food. “California Dish” was revised and re-titled “Start the Fire: How I Began a Food Revolution in America” to coincide with the documentary film’s release in April but the only pot reference in this edition is about Tower’s first toke.
Tower’s infamous 1969 Harvard cannabis menu featured Ukrainian meat buns, prosciutto and figs, cannabis consomme, creamed spinach, potatoes, watercress salad, strawberries and cream, coffee, meringues and Jamaican Churchill cigars. Tower recalled the meal:
The prosciutto and figs. Salty and sweet, dry against the moist fig flesh (not dry against wet, like melon), the complex flavors brought together even further by the fruit young Spatlese.
The consomme cleansed the palate, and this one — from marijuana plants, the stems soaked in a rich chicken stock — provided another level of stimulation. But not stoned: The brew takes 45 minutes to reach the brain, by which time (as the menu planned) we were onto dessert, tasting strawberries and cream as we’d never tasted them before.
… The commercial strawberries were tossed in fresh red currant syrup, a trick that always intensifies their strawberryness. Served with a custard containing white Maraschino, this simple cream has so many layers of flavor that you can’t put your finger on what makes it so mysteriously and magically delicious. And of course the drugs would have just been kicking in …
6 cups rich chicken stock
1 packed cup marijuana stems and seeds
½ cup fresh basil leaves
1 loose cup freshly picked nasturtium flowers (mixed bright colors)
Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.
Bring the chicken stock to boil in a 4-quart sauce pan.
Meanwhile, spread the marijuana out on a metal cookie sheet or tray and put in the oven for 10 minutes. After the stems and seeds are “roasted,” put all of them in the chicken stock and turn off the heat. Step for 1 hour.
Put the stock through a very fine strainer, and return to the cleaned-out pot.
Chop the basil leaves coarsely (⅛ inch), and shred the nasturtium flowers. Heat the consomme to boiling. Put the basil and nasturtium warmed soup plates, and pour the consomme over. Pass the sea salt and pepper mill separately.
Tower reminisced about the first time he smoked pot, in the early 1960s. Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder were in the room at Harvard University.
After smoking marijuana for the first time I said I preferred a good champagne any day, Lafite-Rothschild or Otard, and offered some to that evening’s guests. But we still needed to cook for whoever had the munchies.
Tower doesn’t mention what he cooked for Ginsberg and the others but writes about setting up a hot plate in a closet and rattles off a few easy recipes he carried in his head that sound totally stoner, including one for romaine lettuce dressed with sour cream, mayonnaise and Parmesan cheese.
Later, a professor challenged Tower to improve his academic focus. Tower’s response was an epicure’s student revolution.
So I decided on a multimedia effort: cooking, film, music, and drugs. My presentation was called “Champagne While the World Crumbles,” and consisted of a film loop of the atom bomb going off amid footage of the world public housing projects and urban sprawl I could find. The music was Lou Reed and a huge plate of marijuana cookies — the recipe adapted from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook.
All the cookies were consumed, most by people who didn’t know what they were — despite a sign that said eating more than two was at the eater’s risk. At least five were gobbled up by a juror, who was found three days later in some louche sink in Boston. He told me later I was lucky not to be kicked out of school, and that I would have been had there not been a student revolution going on. In my senior year, he said, I would have to work on socially responsible projects — and over the summer think long and hard about myself.
And I realized food was a more powerful weapon than architecture.
Tower’s cannabis butter recipe is a straightforward, classic infusion. Given his era and what people knew about pot then compared to what what we know about pot today, Tower can be forgiven for not addressing potency and dosing.
Mary Jane Butter
The quality of the grass you use to make this butter is up to you and your budget. We used whatever sticks and seeds there were after harvesting the leaves. Obviously, fresh is better. As for quantity, anything from two to six handfuls.
The butter is very good under the skin of a turkey to be roasted for Thanksgiving.
Handfuls of cannabis
2 pounds butter
Put the cannabis in a 4-quart sauce pan and fill ⅔ with water. Add the butter and bring to a boil. Simmer over very low heat for 1 hour, adding more water if necessary.
Drain through a fine sieve, discarding the plant material.
Put the water with the butter floating on top in the refrigerator until the butter is hard. Discard the water, unless you have a penchant for it, and use the butter for cooking.
Makes about 20
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
½ cup powdered sugar, sifted
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup Mary Jane butter (see above) cut in 1-inch cubes
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Mix the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl, and then mix in the butter. Form the mix into a ball, and roll out on a very lightly floured surface into ½ inch thick.
Cut out into your favorite shape with a cutter, place the pieces on a cookie-baking sheet, and bake for 30 minutes.
Cool on a rack and eat while still just warm.
By the time he staged a 1974 dinner tribute to early 20th century poet Gertrude B. Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, author of an eponymous cookbook famous a powerful hashish confection, Tower had learned restraint and learned his lesson.
I didn’t have the nerve to put hashish in the after-dinner cookies. Although not for lack of supply. I had learned to steer clear of it. The problem with smoking marijuana is that all food tastes just wonderful and that cooking to schedule becomes meaningless. We learned that lesson during the Moroccan Regional Dinner, when for atmosphere we burned some marijuana stems in braziers under kitchen tables and got so stoned that instead of the smoke our burned best efforts went up the flue.
Documentary on CNN
Produced by chef-turned-media star Anthony Bourdain for CNN Films, “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” was released theatrically in April and debuted on television Sunday night. It’s streaming on CNN’s web platforms and mobile apps starting Monday.