Weed Eaters: Stoner Food Isn't Just Blowing Smoke
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Think of the craziest plate of food that might work as an actual dish. Consider the components, the flavors, the interplay among them. A work of art in early spring bounty. And we're not talking some boring variation on beet-ramp-blood orange-lamb shank here: Find the third path, the one that leads to something new. Something never tasted before.
Food Network chef Justin Warner founded his Bed-Stuy restaurant, Do or Dine, on the premise of "Fine Diving" — or in layman's terms, "great, crazy, unabashed food, with little or no pretension."
Or, as many are calling it, stoner food.
Among Warner's offerings: foie gras doughnuts, "E666s" (eggs crowned with baby octopus), and frog's leg "wings" in a Dr Pepper glaze. It's a far cry from the White Castle Harold and Kumar sought a decade ago, when a stoner snack meant fast food, freezer-burned pizza bagels, and something crunchy that came in a bag.
"Thirty years ago," Warner says, "the idea of stoner food sounded terrible. Now, if someone says a restaurant serves 'stoner food,' people are like, 'Cool, let's go!'"
And though Warner says he doesn't smoke and didn't write his menu for stoners, he's fine with the label if it brings people in. "It's definitely the kind of thing you want when you're high," he says of Do or Dine. "I totally understand that."
A neighborhood away, former Do or Dine chef de cuisine Nick Subic serves dishes like kimchi carbonara topped with smashed Doritos at King Noodle, which he opened last summer in Bushwick.
Its interior done up in a neon interstellar Pac-Man theme, King Noodle garnered immediate stoner raves and a solid 420 following. "I love that it has a stoner-food vibe," Subic says. "Even if it's really more about showcasing different flavors from different places that people may not have seen together before, and being able to interact with the food and have fun with it, than it is specifically about cannabis."
See also: High on Home Cooking: Celebrate 4/20 With the High Times Cannabis Cookbook
There's actually some science behind the fact that Warner's and Subic's food sounds better — and perhaps even tastes better — when you're high.
When you smoke, explains taste neuroscientist Chad Samuelsen, pot's main psychoactive compound (tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC) floods your brain with dopamine, which, in addition to making you feel stoned, can enhance the pleasure you normally feel when you eat a food that you like.
"If you really want an apple, and you're high, and you go get and eat an apple, that apple is going to taste really, really good," says Samuelsen, who toils as a postdoctoral associate at Stony Brook University.
There's another neurological layer driving your cravings as well: the so-called endocannabinoid system, which scientists discovered in the 1990s. Named for its similarity to the workings of THC, this group of chemicals and chemical receptors helps maintain homeostasis, modulating everything from appetite and hunger to anxiety and immunity.
The receptors are also what make you feel the pot. "When humans smoke weed," Samuelsen explains, "it basically hijacks the endocannabinoid system by dumping all this cannabinoid into your brain."
I wonder what's in the fridge, whispers your appetite, tempting you with visions of something fatty, something starchy, something sweet.
The urge is made all the stronger, notes Samuelsen, because the human sense of taste "is probably the only sensory system with innate responses to pleasure." We're programmed to covet calories, in other words: born with a taste for sweet mother's milk, for the starchy, fatty foods that sustained us in leaner times.
We grow to love certain flavors for all sorts of reasons, from the physical pleasure we associate them with to the emotional connections they forge within us to a host of unsexy physiological factors. Whatever the apparatus at work, if you like something once, chances are you'll like it next time. "You're going to eat it again," Samuelsen says, "and you'll probably eat more of it next time if you can, to try and get as much of the high value from it as you can."
In today's culinary climate, people also crave food with a story. Increasingly, Warner and his contemporaries are tasked with feeding people something they go home wanting to talk about.
Food & Wine magazine recently launched FWx, a digital publication aimed at the 20-to-35 set. Digital director and editor Alex Vallis says young diners go after strange dishes: "People [get] really excited about these over-the-top foods, like the KFC Double Down and the Cronut — they're kind of mind-blowing in many ways."
This gives chefs room to explore. "I think it's coming from both sides," Vallis says. "Because a lot of these chefs are young, they're curious, and they're experimenting, and they have this consumer base that wants to try their experiments."
Diners are especially willing to eat something bizarre or strange, Vallis says, if they can photograph it and tell their friends about it, and a quick Instagram survey reveals a fondness for doing it high: Various versions of #munchies on Instagram yield nearly 3 million posts, far ahead of #healthyfood (2 million), though well behind the ubiquitous #foodporn (which hovers around 25 million).
Young diner sites like FWx and Complex Media's First We Feast are happy to oblige the angle: For proof, refer to First We Feast's "25 Greatest Stoner Snack Foods of All Time," FWx's "Munchies Flow Chart," or VICE's new food site, simply called Munchies.
Justin Warner says that's fine with chefs like him, who are looking to scale away from the stolid fine dining of yesteryear, to meet a market craving quirky, high-quality, yet inexpensive food they can eat in their own neighborhoods with few frills.
It's also a boon to stoners: As the business of being high goes mainstream — and 75 percent of Americans believe it will, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll — Warner forecasts a wellspring of restaurants like Do or Dine and King Noodle.
"You'll see more little neighborhood places as people start to feel more comfortable [being stoned] out in public," he says. "They'll be more happy to come to restaurants who are doing great things. Weed will stop being a dorm-room drug; it won't be such an excursion to be high."
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