Fine dining in the high desert
Somewhere between the gorgeous desert sunset, the cannabis-infused cocktails, the chinese tea time with a guy named 'Snakes', the artisanal weed tastings, the sound telescope, and the rabbit ragu -- it dawned on me: "I am not at another boring weed dinner."
No longer a secret ingredient, cannabis has lately become the guest of honor at private dinners across the state of California. Top chefs now openly talk of elevating stoner cuisine. High-minded gastronomists seek new and inventive ways to infuse the herb into all manner of dishes. And there’s even a hit television series, Viceland’s Bong Appétit, celebrating the endless possibilities of cooking with the Golden State’s most beloved produce (and largest cash crop).
As the author of a best-selling cannabis cookbook, I’ve watched this scene evolve from an underground phenomenon into a hot new trend in the culinary world. And the field is starting to get crowded. A few years ago, simply having the gumption to pull off a weed dinner drew intense interest, not just from pot-friendly foodies, but from the press. But now to stand out, would-be weed impresarios must reach a little—forgive the pun—higher.
And so, to see what the next level in cannabis fine-dining might look like, I signed on to attend “Moonlit Moveable Feast,” the first in a series of three-course dinners held in the heart of the Mojave desert and timed to the full moon. Organized by Barbie Sommars, co-founder of Mary Jane University, and hosted at Furst World—an art gallery, and creative retreat in Joshua Tree—the event promised 'a feast for all senses.' Tickets for the June 10 extravaganja cost $150 and were available to those with a valid medical cannabis recommendation in California.
“I’m going to highlight the incredible beauty of the high desert, and feature the artists and artisans right in my own backyard,” Sommars told me on the phone, a few days before the dinner. “I want people to experience this plant in a truly inspiring setting.”
I first encountered Sommars at one of Mary Jane University’s “Sushi and Doobie” workshops in Orange County, which brought together weed experts and a top-level sushi chef to offer canna-curious students individualized instruction in the fine art of those two related disciplines. More than half of the participants, who were largely female, didn’t know how to roll sushi or a joint, but by night’s end, most of them appeared to leave with at least basic competence in both skills. It was a fun, interactive evening, with a friendly crowd, quality sushi, and enough high-end weed sponsors to provide serious value for the cost of admission.
So when Sommars told me about Moonlit Moveable Feast, I was intrigued, if not a tad skeptical. Would the execution live up to her intentions?
Considered sacred ground by artists, spiritualists, and eccentrics, the Mojave Desert offers wide-open terrain and low cost of living—a perfect combo for those working to manifest strange visions. So while typically I wouldn’t travel five hours round-trip for a cannabis dinner, this particular gathering promised truly cosmic vibes. And a quick perusal of the Furst World website revealed the venue alone might be worth the ride.
As I drove in from Los Angeles, the landscape of suburban sprawl, strip malls, and housing tracts blissfully faded as Route 10 cut east through the San Gorgonio and San Jacinto mountains. Following a few twisting dirt roads, I arrived at my destination, Furst World, the gallery space, during the golden hour, when the desert sky takes on its most luminous quality, and was greeted with a cannabis-infused cocktail.
The cold concoction of seltzer, mint-infused simple syrup, cannabis-infused Bulleit bourbon, and a splash of lime instantly washed the road dust off my tongue and put me in a convivial mood.
“I like to geek out on the alchemy,” said mixologist Levi Strom of Awakened Topicals, explaining that the buds sat in the bourbon for six months as part of a special cold-infusion technique in order to impart flavor but not potency. “So you get the medicinal benefits of THC but very little of the high.”
Drink in hand, I decided to explore Furst Wurld, the workshop and performance space of artist Bobby Furst, which consists of three lofted hangars and several Airstream trailers, plus a wide concrete veranda overlooking a sweeping view of the national park. The space was crowded with objects, including a large iron stove, a wooden Buddha statue, an old wagon, upcycled sculptures, containers full of bottle caps, barrels of mannequin parts, an armada of toy dump trucks, enormous saw blades, and a rusted swing-set frame dangling chains, tools, and hooks.
Tan and wiry, wearing a fur hat and glasses, Furst was one of the event’s roaming educators, along with a teahouse steward going by the handle 'Snakes' who poured out cups of pu’er - a fermented chinese tea; cannabis expert Jeffrey Rabin, who offered advice on all aspects of the plant; and a mystic named Vega of the Valley, who conducted Tarot card readings in a cozy trailer.
“Our focus on education makes these events different,” Sommars told me as we strolled the grounds. A wisp of a woman with long dark hair, clad in a flowing white dress, she said she discovered cannabis after a serious medical diagnosis, and has since ditched the corporate life to set down roots in Joshua Tree. She sees organizing cannabis events as an extension of her activism, aiming to “seduce people into education, not just about cannabis, but on multiple levels.”
First, though, we needed to get high.
Gathered around a small table tended by Amanda Grace from the Emerald Exchange, a co-op of Northern California growers and producers, guests sat together and tasted several different strains of cannabis, making notes on the aroma, flavor, finish and cerebral effects of each, considering if the smoke was sweet or astringent, fruity or savory. The blind tasting of samples provided by Redwood Roots, Hummingbird Medicinals and Humboldt Brothers encouraged a certain mindfulness, all while priming our appetites for the meal to follow.
I spoke with Kyle Simon, a local inventor who created an amazing “sound telescope” that turns light from the moon and stars into audible vibrations as it pans through the night sky. Each new position resulted in a distinctly different sound. Often these were discordant or downright annoying, but occasionally we tapped into some hidden symphony sent down by the heavens.
From there, I was ushered to our dinner at a long communal table. Keiko Beatie of Edibles List magazine explained the menu, which included THC infusions staggered throughout the meal for a total of about 10 milligrams, a dosage that typically allows for a pleasant, present high.
The first course was an arugula salad with dates, pickled shallots, goat cheese, hemp seeds and a lemon-hibiscus vinaigrette, passed around family-style. To start things off light, Le Cordon Bleu-trained Eduardo Pineda infused the vinaigrette with raw cannabis oil that, similar to the infused bourbon, offered a large dose of cannabinoids in their non-psychoactive forms.
“The biggest challenge for any chef cooking with cannabis, and certainly for me as someone experimenting with it for the first time, is properly dosing,” Pineda told me a few days after making his cannabis cuisine debut. “Luckily, I got a lot of advice from all the experts involved in this event. They took time to explain each product, and really made me aware of not having a heavy hand.”
Previous to the dinner, Sommars explained that she wants to work with “great chefs who are inspired by cannabis.” Pineda caught Sommars' attention after his recent stint at Workshop, a Palm Springs restaurant popular with the hipster set.
Inspired by the many rabbits common in the desert, Pineda created a main course of rabbit ragu with cipollini onions, carrots, ghee, thyme and cannabis leaves. Integrated directly into the pasta dough in carefully measured amounts, the cannabis ghee (from Canobutter) delivered a solid seven milligrams of THC per serving in a tasty, earthy plate where the flavor of the weed melded nicely with complementary herbs.
“To me, the flavor profile of high-quality cannabis is fairly floral, and depending on the strain can also have pine or citrus notes, so I tried to work with those flavors as much as possible,” Pineda said.
Both courses were delicious and offered enough unusual flavor combinations to make the meal feel adventurous. I was left wanting more, not just in terms of portion size, but having the scope and ambition of the meal match the splendor of the ambience.
On the other hand, I had plenty of room for dessert.
Served in the main hangar at a walk-up station, the final course began with a refreshing prickly pear granita with candied Buddha’s hands and pickled tamarind, infused with a CBD tincture that imbued a balanced and relaxing high by tempering the effects of all the THC ingested during dinner. There were also low-dose chocolate truffles from To Whom It May and an adorable mini “Desert Sands” parfait composed of cookie crumbles, green aloe gelee, hemp coconut pudding, cantaloupe candy, and prickly pear caviar dosed at just two milligrams of THC.
Inside the performance space, guests were treated to ethereal, ambient sounds from Eva Sonic and an impromptu, one-of-a-kind performance from guitarist Matt Adams. Relaxing outside with a granita, watching guests flit from teahouse to trailer, from telescope to theater, laughing and smoking as the full moon lit up the desert proved the perfect end to a fun and flavorful adventure.
“We want guests to experience a sufficient amount of euphoria to feel like they’re having a magical time, but not be so out of it that they can’t leave under their own power,” Sommars said, as things wound down.
By the night's end, a certain euphoria did take hold, sparked not just by the cannabis, but by the experience in total. As I left the grounds — yes, very much under my own power — I had the sensation of leaving an oasis and back into the vast desert of day-to-day life, far better off for having made the journey.