Pot on Television: A Break from Election Anxiety

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

It needed to be done. After an election day [week] spent trying to avoid the inane punditry on cable news (by endlessly refreshing news sites and counting the number of different ways CNN.com tried to headline Joe Biden’s impending electoral victory), I decided to take a break and binge-watch a few recently released cannabis-themed shows I had planned on reviewing for Points in the coming months.

As someone who isn’t a culinary expert (but has 12 years’ of foodservice background), isn’t a particularly avid watcher of food shows (though I’m still obsessed with Alton Brown’s Good Eats), nor is a television critic (though an avid fan of the small-screen), what follows is my review of Vice TV’s Bong Appétit (2016-2017) and its third season re-boot Bong Appétit: Cook-Off (2019), alongside a brief introduction to the Netflix shows Cooked on High (2018) and Netflix’s Cooked with Cannabis (2020).

Bong Appétit first aired on Vice TV on December 14, 2016. The first two seasons were hosted by Abdullah Saeed alongside cohosts and guests. In the premiere episode, Saeed promises to throw ten “epic dinner parties” (he doubles that number in season 2) by marrying the culinary edge of Los Angeles’s locally-sourced food culture with the series’s main ingredient, cannabis. Each episode features a guest chef who prepares the dinner portion based on their specific culinary expertise across an impressive range of cuisines during the run of the show.

Some guest-chefs have experience working with cannabis and some do not, but they all work with Saeed’s co-hosts to add cannabis elements to their dishes from the show’s extensive “pantry” of cannabis preparations. From the first episode, in which the guest chef expresses concerns about the potential of overdosing his guests, accurate and consistent dosing is overseen by “cannabis expert” Ry Pritchard and applied to recipes by “culinary expert” Vanessa Lavorato, and you can see that there is clear communication from preparation to service about the psychoactive contents of each serving of each dish, in milligrams. That said, the show doesn’t do much to inform viewers how to apply this to their own cooking, not to mention how to go about obtaining the funds necessary to stock a cannabis pantry at home.

Season 1’s cannabis pantry, season 2’s pantry was twice this size

The Bong Appétit pantry is loaded with different strains of cannabis flower, tinctures, extracts, terpines (the non-active aromatic components), and concentrates, as well as medicated cooking oils and other cannabis-infused cooking staples. The goal of the show was to promote cannabis’s full culinary potential, and while the party-goers get their fair share of precisely dosed psychoactive THC during each episode (alongside plenty of side-smokes along the way), the show attempts to emphasize both the flavor qualities and medicinal qualities of the plant.

The show gives a clever nod to the local producers of the cannabis preparations, food ingredients, and other party fare who are often featured in one of the episode’s segments (the maker of pure THC distillate, a hashmaker, a cannabis-apiarist). These folks are often invited to take part in the dinner party, which adds to the cooperative and communal feel to each episode. The dinner portion of the show is designed as the climax of each episode as the attendees enjoy themselves to the degree that they choose, but we kind of feel left out of all the fun.

The charm of the series comes from Saeed, who injects levity into just about every scene he’s in. His cannabis boosterism can be a little bit of a turn-off, especially to those who question the headlong haphazard embrace of “Big Pot” and their cannabis and CBD products as cure-alls in the age of legalization. He tends to lead his guests into conversations about their personal experience with recreational cannabis (usually in youth) and how the growing acceptance of cannabis vindicates youthful indulgence. His guests also relate personal accounts (as surviving cancer patients, PTSD patients, and retired NFL players) of discovering cannabis as medicine and share how their experiences forced them to rethink their relationship with the plant, and to spread the message to others to end the stigma of use. While some of these goals are truly laudable, it was quite jarring to hear multiple show guests (and dinner guests) over two seasons refer to their meals as “health-food” simply due to the infusions of cannabis therein.

In 2019, the show saw the departure of host Abdullah Saeed (over his objections to Vice’s handling of a sexual assault investigation at the network) and the revamping of its format into a cooking competition. Vanessa Lavorato returned alongside co-hosts B-Real (Cypress Hill) and Season 1, Episode 9 guest-chef Miguel Trinidad who is a celebrated NYC chef and co-founder of 99th Floor, a Los Angeles-based company that hosts private cannabis-based dinner parties. The third season doesn’t have the charm or intimacy of the first two, but it adds an interesting twist to the cooking competition format.

For one, there is no significant prize. The winner of the show gets a joint and foot-massage, while being waved with palm fronds and fed grapes. The lack of a valuable prize eases the pressure usually found on cooking competition shows. Instead of the usual tensions among competitors, and the pressure to win challenges to gain immunity or an advantage, the “competitors” regularly ignore the advantages that they win and even help each other out while enjoying the loose atmosphere of the show (and occasionally enjoying a smoke or two while they compete). B-Real is an excellent host, and his pro-pot boosterism echoes Saeed’s from the previous season. He presses the chefs to share personal stories about the medical benefits of cannabis in their lives and on their careers. The third season of Bong Appétit is fun, but it is nowhere near as interesting as the first two seasons.

The Hosts of Bong Appétit Cookoff, (from right) B-Real, Vanessa Lavorato, and Miguel Trinidad

But it was a lot better than Netflix’s versions of the cannabis cook-off. On the heels of the success of the first two seasons of Bong Appétit, Netflix debuted its first cannabis cooking show, Cooking on High, on June 22, 2018. Hosted by YouTuber Josh Leyva, the show pits two cannabis chefs against each other. Fifteen minutes later, the show is over before you really figure out what’s going on. The Washington Post considers the show Netflix’s worst food show. I tend to agree (though I’d like to see more of guest-host Ngaio Bealum, who’s insight and presence was underused by the show’s producers).

Following Bong Appétit’s cook-off, Netflix followed up with a much tighter format and a more consequential prize ($10,000), with Cooked with Cannabis on April 20, 2020. Hosted by vocal artist and chef Kelis and Portland Oregon chef Leather Stoors, the show pits three chefs against each other, each preparing a three-course meal infused with no more than 20mg of THC (per dinner). The dishes are judged by the hosts and a table of celebrity guest judges, who evaluate the food on the standard criteria, with an emphasis on how well and balanced their use of cannabis flavors are throughout their dishes. Though much better produced than its predecessor (over a much more leisurely 45 minute timeframe), it still leaves much to be desired.

Those who have professionally reviewed these shows have been generally critical of the emerging genre’s first attempts. Some critics have stressed that the pervasive use of cannabis on the show makes for a haphazard and meandering focus which can be unappealing to viewers. Given the subject of these shows, I’m not sure it’s a relevant critique. More relevant are critiques of the superficial coverage these shows place on actually showing people how to cook with cannabis. Though all three shows (to varyingdegrees) stress the importance of careful, accurate, and reliable dosing, there’s little information on how to actually do it. I would like to see a show (calling on Alton Brown’s Twitter) that could teach viewers how to safely dose with the products the average cannabis user might have on hand.

And that brings me to the biggest critique. Despite the inclusive communal atmosphere of Abdullah Saeed’s epic dinner parties on Bong Appétit, as you peer into the cannabis pantries that are making these shows possible, you can’t help but notice the clear economic limits that are already growing up alongside the growing acceptance of cannabis in American society. The average cannabis smoker, who smokes a couple of joints a day, isn’t going to start hosting cannabis infused dinner parties any time soon, given the expense involved.

This reality mirrors some of the major debates pot activists are having over the direction of cannabis legalization as poor communities seem consistently shut out of emerging state-level cannabis markets. In the 2020 election, four states (Montana, Arizona, South Dakota, and New Jersey) were added to the ranks of legalized adult-use cannabis. NJWeedman, long-time legalization advocate, voted against legalization citing these very limitations. While marijuana is getting its moment of respectability on television in recent years amid the growing support for cannabis policy reform from the public, its worth remembering how the politics of respectability often limit the truly liberating aspects of those reforms.

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