Mary Jane’s Cousin. The Monthly (east SF bay area, California), Aug 2001, p 19, by Chiori Santiago, photos by Alain McLaughlin.
A staple crop in colonial times, hemp was linked to its psychoactive cousin in the ‘20s and has been vilified ever since. Today, hemp is making a revival. Dubbed “the Soybean of the New Millennium,” this hardy weed is made to be eaten, worn, and rubbed on your body– not smoked.
Subhead: Marijuana’s utilitarian relative is coming out of the shadows
Caption: Nuts over hemp: Richard Rose displays the fruits of his labor, among a growing number of hemp-based products.
If Richard Rose had his way, every patriotic American would be ingesting hemp tomorrow. No, Rose is not a banner-carrier in the fight for medicinal marijuana nor a cultivator of the plant that is one of California’s primary— and illicit — cash crops, although he supports efforts to usher the misunderstood herb into the mainstream. Richard Rose is more a cross between Julia Child and Thomas Edison, an inventor of fringe foods made of ingredients Fanny Farmer never considered.
He can take credit (or blame, depending on your gustatory preference) for popularizing tofu cheese, as well as dozens of soy foods. Lately he’s turned his talent towards a foodstuff badly in need of culinary attention: hemp.
This hemp is not the stuff of pot brownies. It’s a plant that once was a foundation of American commerce, used to make rope, sailcloth, paper, and other staples of colonial life. Its cultivation was encouraged in the 13 colonies; in 1640, hemp was so valuable Connecticut ordered all families to plant it, according to hemp booster, historian, and El Cerrito resident Chris Conrad in Hemp: Lifeline to the Future. Only in the last century did a complex array of corporate and political interests sully hemp’s good name by associating it with its illegal cousin, marijuana.
Rose, however, is so convinced of hemp’s importance as a potent source of nutrition that he’s invested $1.5 million over the last seven years to develop products he hopes will become as ubiquitous as hot dogs and apple pie. In 1997, he founded the Santa Rosa company HempNut, Inc. to market 12-ounce cans of shelled hemp seeds and a line of hemp snacks, nut butter, a vegetarian Hempeh Burger, salad oil, and lip balms. To underscore that this next-best-thing is even better than his last best thing, he’s dubbed his high-protein HempNut “The Soybean of the New Millennium.”
“If I could sell soy in the 1980s, I can sell hemp today,” Rose says with conviction. The 44-year old is lounging backstage at Santa Rosa’s annual Health and Harmony Music and Arts Festival, every inch the New Age entrepreneur in loose cotton clothes, sandals, and blonde hair pulled into a ponytail. ”I’m a food guy. I want to save the world, but I’m going to do it through food. When I started looking around for something new to add to soy, I started reading up on hemp. I noticed the nutrition data first. I was shocked by how beneficial the nut was; it’s loaded with essential fatty acids, which we don’t have much of in our diets anymore and which people are trying to replace with other substances. Well, when you mention [popular supplements] flaxseed and fish oil, you have to mention hemp as well.”
Since introducing his first hemp product, a soy-based cheese called HempRella, in 1994, Rose has won an increasing number of converts. Several HempNut booths at the fair (organized by Rose’s wife Debbie) are doing brisk business, handing out samples of chocolate-covered energy bars and blue corn chips. Rose’s company is not alone. Another vendor who’s jumped aboard the cannabis caravan is Humboldt Brewing Company, hawking its hemp ale (“Humboldt’s only legal export”). Also featured are hemp T-shirts, towels, drawstring pants, and other goods either manufactured or distributed by enterprises in Northern California—ground zero in the movement to rebuild the plant’s credibility. If the buzz in this region is any indication, we’ll all be enjoying better living through hemp in the next ten years.
Pull quote: “The key to marketing something healthy is to make it taste like junk food. Nobody wants to eat tofu, but just mix it with chocolate and make a mousse and suddenly they want to try it.”
The starting point for Rose’s journey toward counterculture cuisine was strictly middle-of-the-road. He grew up in Pacifica, where his father sold a 1950s staple of bleached yeast dough known as Wonder Bread. His mother worshipped John F. Kennedy and the promise of liberal politics. She supported young Richard when, after a visit to Midwest relatives that included a tour of the local Spam factory, he was so disgusted by the transformation of pig by-products into canned lunch meat that he became a vegetarian on the spot.
He’s been plagued by respiratory infections from the time he was a child, but it wasn’t until he was 22 and working as a musician in Los Angeles that someone suggested he stop easting dairy products. He did, and his health improved. He became interested in “health foods” and, in 1979, “realized all the amazing things you can do with tofu.” He abandoned the stage, bought a business, bought Brightsong Tofu, and settled down near Santa Rosa to experiment with soybean curd. He created salad dressings, puddings, frozen desserts, and a nondairy product that became a cash cow: TofuRella soy cheeses, manufactured by Rose’s Rella Good Cheese Co. TofuRella eventually brought in $3 million a year and helped put the company on the Inc. 500 list in 1993 after 950 percent growth in five years. In all, he’s developed more than 80 soy products in the past 21 years.
“The key to marketing something healthy is to make it taste like junk food. Nobody wants to eat tofu, but just mix it with chocolate and make a mousse and suddenly they want to try it,” Rose says. “It becomes familiar, something you’d see in the supermarket.”
“With soy, we were always spending time masking the flavor. You don’t have to hide the flavor of hemp. We spent the 1980s just getting people to try soy; it was difficult to get them past that first step. All I have to do is say the word ‘hemp’ to people and their eyes get big. They’re so curious.”
Yet, as Rose points out, only in the U.S. do we fail to recognize the difference between edible, commercial hemp and the stuff you toke. “The government makes zero distinction between the two, but hemp professionals do because they are different plants,” says Rose.
“European countries are more sophisticated. The have been growing hemp for a long time. It’s been mankind’s food for five thousand years. It’s known as a famine food because it grows under harsh conditions. In China, you can buy edible hemp seeds on every corner. Apparently it never dawned on them to smoke it.”
Smoking the leaves of industrial hemp won’t do much more than cause a coughing attack, anyway. Cannabis sativa, grown primarily for its nutty seed and fibrous stalk, contains negligible amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the substance that gives ganja its kick. The resinous variety known as Cannabis indica is grown for its leaves and, more importantly, the buds of the female plant which can be cultivated sin semilla (Spanish for “without seeds”) for maximum potency.
Many proponents of hemp production are careful to distance the plant from psychoactive marijuana to prevent painting the helpful herb and vile reefer with the same brush.
“The fact is, marijuana is far more legal today than hemp,” says Rose. In several states you can get a permit to grow medical marijuana but not industrial hemp. In another irony, Rose says the main opponents to hemp are marijuana farmers who don’t want the low-THC plant cross-pollinating with, and weakening, their crop. The only other opponents are conservative forces, including the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and lobbying groups like the Committee on Moral Concerns, which feel hemp is simply the gateway to reefer madness.
Today, marijuana is to hemp what Billy Carter and Roger Clinton were to the political aspirations of their more mainstream kin—an unfortunate association dooming the earnest C. sativa to a public image as loco weed. But, hemp wasn’t always so discredited. You’ve no doubt heard that founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were prosperous hemp farmers. “Make the most of the Indian hemp seed and sow it everywhere,” Washington stated in 1794, as reported in Chris Conrad’s book. Jefferson, in 1791, cautioned that “the culture of tobacco is pernicious” and “flax is so injurious to our lands…Hemp, on the other hand, is abundantly productive and will grow forever on the same spot…” He urged farmers to invest in the alternative crop known to be “of first necessity to the commerce and marine, in other words to the wealth and protection of the country.”
By 1845, hemp was a major crop in Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. However when hemp threatened to monopolize fiber industries it prompted competitors to seek alternative raw materials. The shift to jute and sisal for the manufacture of rope, the increased availability of inexpensive, mechanically-processed cotton (the cotton gin had been invented in 1793), and the introduction of timber pulping in papermaking during the 1850s would be factors in hemp’s downfall.
Ultimately, warring corporate factions were responsible for killing cannabis, according to the few who’ve documented its history (It should be noted that, with a dearth of professional research in the field, hemp historians tend to rely on a few, mostly pro-hemp sources, such as Jack Herer’s Hemp and the Marijuana Conspiracy: The Emperor Wears No Clothes—a classic of cannabis literature.)
According to Conrad, the forces that killed hemp included DuPont, backed by Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, and California’s own William Randolph Hearst, who owned a publishing empire and substantial investments in timber and papermaking industries. The three allies had good reasons to wipe out competition from fuel oil, cellulose, and paper made from easily renewable hemp. Spectacular stories in Hearst newspapers introduced the word “marijuana” to readers of the 1920s and painted cannabis as a vile substance that drove smokers to frenzy and violence.
In 1931, Mellon’s nephew Harry J. Anslinger became head of the newly-formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). He sought to retain power in the face of Depression-era budget cuts by supporting hemp prohibition. By declaring war on cannabis in any form, he ensured steady jobs his department. To make his case before a Congressional committee, he presented a number of reports documenting the horrors of hemp, most of them, writes Conrad, published in Hearst newspapers. In 1937, cannabis was declared a substance under the control of the FBN and, except for quantities imported for birdseed, was banned in the U.S. That year, DuPont filed a patent for nylon in fabric and cordage industries.
The plant was briefly paroled during World War II, when a shortage of Philippine jute prompted the Department of Agriculture to urge “Hemp for Victory,” a campaign that allowed farmers to plant nearly a million acres of hemp throughout the Midwest for the production of rope and cordage. Schoolchildren in 4-H Clubs were encouraged to grow one-acre hemp crops as a patriotic duty. (Meanwhile, Germany was growing 52,000 acres of hemp for their war effort. According to authors Dr. Ivan Bosca and Michael Karus in The Cultivation of Hemp, “Near the end of the war, German cotton gins processed more ‘cottonized’ hemp than they did cotton.”) American enthusiasm evaporated at war’s end. The last federal license for hemp cultivation was issued in 1957. Soon after, total prohibition was in effect once again.
With the exception of small amounts of medical marijuana and test plots at universities in Hawaii, Illinois, and a handful of other research sites, domestic cannabis remains illegal. The importation of hemp fiber and sterilized seed is legal; commerce in leaves, tops, and unsterilized seed (sproutable) seed is illegal. The hemp presently used for food, body care, clothing, canvas, bird seed, and other products is imported, mostly from China, although France, Germany, and Eastern Europe also grow significant crops.
“The DEA has an interest in upholding traditional laws,” says Rose. “Two-thirds of their budget goes to cannabis eradication, though most of what they are pulling up is “ditchweed.” Rose estimates there are a half-million acres of feral plants scattered throughout the country, the legacy of those once-sanctioned hemp fields.
As a renewable resource, hemp has much to recommend it. It grows in a variety of soils and marginal conditions. When planted thickly, its rapid growth shades most weeds. It hosts few pests or diseases, making it a fine candidate for organic farming. Its deep root structure helps ventilate and break up soil, improving soil quality. For these reasons, it’s an excellent plant for us in crop rotation, but hemp can also be grown repeatedly—up to three crops a year – in the same soil.
Given proper technology to process the fiber, cellulose, and seeds (actually, they’re tiny, hard-shelled nuts), hemp can be in main ingredient in particle board, linoleum, plastics, paints and varnishes, salves and lotions., in addition to its traditional uses in fabric and cordage. “There’s no reason to cut down old-growth forest when you can get a new hemp crop every 90 days,” says Rose, adding that hemp’s versatility is exactly why its threatening to established industries. CEOs won’t pursue change unless they are sure it will rake in money. Rose figures the best way to the bean-counters’ hearts is through consumers’ stomachs. After all, he recently made good on his investment in hard-to-peddle soy by selling Rella Good Cheese Co. to a huge corporate competitor.
“A certain hierarchy of things has to happen before you get to the point where large corporations are interested in a product,” he says. “It’s up to entrepreneurs to do a lot of groundwork and education. We are like teachers.”
Years of living on the economic edge and running a business from a desk in his bedroom paid off as soy products worked their way into health-conscious, lactose-intolerant households throughout the land. The stuff Rose couldn’t give away in 1980 is big business today. There is no reason hemp nuts can’t achieve the same acceptance. In protein content they’re second only to soybean and are about 36% essential fatty acids, more than flax, sesame, or soybean oils. (A Canadian study of five hemp varieties confirmed “the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids are almost exactly three to one for all varieties. This is the nutritionally optimum ratio for human health.”)
A can of HempNuts exudes the singular perfume of a just-opened stash box. The tine grains can be munched straight from the can, sprinkled on cereal and salads, added to baked goods, or used to coat fish or chicken. They have a pleasant flavor with a slightly astringent aftertaste and bit of crunch contributed by shards of husk although Rose’s processing removes most of the shell, which contains trace amounts of THC.
As a food additive, HempNut capitalizes on the concept “looks like sesame seed, tastes like pine nuts.” In HempNut’s blue corn chips, chocolate chip cookies, and chocolate-coated energy bars the little seeds are barely noticeable, but the snacks are truly addictive, with all the crunch and sweetness you would want from great junk food. HempNut “cheese” has the disconcerting gluey texture of soybean cheese substitutes, but it’s tolerable melted over a Hempeh Burger, a smoked soybean-hemp pattie comparable to other veggie burgers (meaning it’s helped by a generous application of dijon mustard). Hempseed oil, HempNut butter, and the unadulterated shelled seeds, however, offer the best means to appreciate hemp’s character. Both oil and butter have that good green cannabis fragrance; it dominates the nut butter in spite of a large ratio of Valencia peanuts.
As part of his quest to take hemp out of the feed store and into the grocery aisle, Rose has prepared entire hemp dinners for farm groups, for Ralph Nader, and for patrons of such upscale-progressive restaurants as White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia. He penned the HempNut Health and Cookbook to encourage novices to stir up “Cool Gruel” and “Bright Red deadhead Bread.”
The Hemp Cookbook, developed in Germany, where a great deal of hemp research is going on (and published in English by Berkeley’s Ten Speed Press), takes a more elegant in such recipes as “Hemp Gnocchi,” ‘Pork Rib Roast in Hemp Beer Sauce,” and “Hemp-Brittle Parfait with Tipsy Pears.” (I made the “Hemp Stuffed Chicken Breasts” and they were divine; my 11-year-old son proclaimed it was one of his favorite dishes. A hemp-basil pesto was another winner.)
Rose is quick to point out that eating HempNut foods won’t get you fired from your job as school bus driver. Removing the shells removes any lingering THC resin so consumers won’t test positive for drugs. The hemp foods won’t get you high, either. I dressed a salad with hempseed oil and a handful of HempNuts and took it to a parent potluck. Everyone liked the salad; no one got naked and danced on the tables. Still, Rose admits that overcoming the THC link is to marketing hemp food as covering up the flavor was to soybeans.
“I don’t want to force people to accept my products if they think THC is evil,” he says, “but I do want to stress that hemp used in food is like the difference between potatoes and vodka.”
“I predict hemp will be far more ubiquitous than soy, and we’ll be healthier people for it,” Rose says. “When people start eating it and buying it, business will jump in with both feet.”
Pull quote: I don’t want to force people to accept my products if they think THC is evil. But I do want to stress that hemp used in food is like the difference between potatoes and vodkas.