Bong Appétit host Abdullah Saeed left Vice Media last fall, and he's making the most of the departure with several new projects, including the podcast Great Moments in Weed History that officially launched this week. In the podcast, Saeed and co-host David Bienenstock revisit major moments in history, pop culture and science that involved cannabis, in many ways putting a new spin on old memories. Saeed recently spoke with PRØHBTD about the new series, music, gastronomy and his return to High Maintenance.
Tell me about Great Moments in Weed History.
[David Bienenstock and I] have known each other for a few years, since I got into the cannabis game. This podcast is our opportunity to do something outside of the platforms we're known for, to try and build a grassroots audience out of sheer interest in cannabis. [The plant] has a fascinating history, and anyone involved in the cannabis world knows there are countless stories in every realm: history, science, technology. We're focusing on history because there are all these great moments that span from Maya Angelou to Jesus Christ. Everyone has a weed story, and we're collecting a bunch of them.
Jesus has a weed story?
Jesus indeed has a weed story. If you dig deep into the baptism of Christ, there's a recipe for the anointing oil, and it's chock-full of cannabis. Nine pounds of it. I won't say too much more, but that tidbit should get you interested enough. Isn't that crazy? There's a recipe for cannabis oil in the bible.
You have a background in the culinary arts. Do you have an episode coming up that ties together food and history?
We have an episode on Brownie Mary, who pretty much started the activism up in Oakland and San Francisco. She's somebody who made edibles for the good of the community, and that really resonates with me. Her story is incredible. She was a really interesting figure in the Bay Area who provided cannabis-infused brownies to AIDS patients and to the entire community up there. In terms of edibles, she's somebody that I try to look to as a role model. She made edibles for the good of people who really needed them and who were suffering. I don't know if a lot of people outside of the cannabis world know Brownie Mary, but she's the original cannabis grandma. That's a really incredible episode as well.
Another passion of yours is music. Do you have an episode coming up that talks about a great moment where music and cannabis coincide?
There's always a lot of crossover between cannabis and the music world. One I really love is the story of Fela Kuti. He was a huge pothead, and at one point, he established his own sovereign nation inside the borders of Nigeria. Fela Kuti had a contentious relationship with the authorities there, and he was like so many adamant cannabis users who were inherently activist without even trying. He was just that guy who stood up for weed in a place that was really against it. That episode tells the story of Fela Kuti's "Expensive Shit," which I won't say too much about, but the story behind it is pretty wild.
Do you also cover things that most people are familiar with, but giving it a new twist?
When you talk about the people and icons of weed history, you intertwine a lot of the stories around prohibition and the times before prohibition. One episode that comes to mind is not about a person, it's actually about a place, Amsterdam. Historically, or at least in recent history, the city is iconic when it comes to cannabis because it really was the first well-known place in the modern world where people could just walk around and use cannabis. In the Western world, Amsterdam was one of those first places that spread the sentiment that cannabis was accessible or could be tolerated. That story's amazing, too, because the activism is nothing like the story we know here in the United States or in California. It's its own animal, and we're going to see that every place has a different approach [to legalization].
You spent most of your youth in Thailand. How did that help shape your view on the culinary arts and the range of flavors that you have on your palate?
I'm Pakistani, ethnically. My dad worked in Thailand when I was growing up, so I lived there until I was 13. That really gave me a lot to consider in terms of food because we would alternate between Pakistani food and Thai food at home. American food was also becoming a staple, not only in Thailand but all over Asia at the time, so I grew up with a little bit of everything. I think that left me with some disdain for the Eurocentric approach to high-end culinary art and instilled a deep love for the street-level food in any place.
I really don't like the idea of paying more for complex food that should somehow be better. I favor the idea that the best culinary traditions emerged through the most [accessible] or most common foods, the ones that are available at street level to everyone. It's almost like a more populist approach to developing culinary culture. Here in the United States, a lot of lines are drawn between higher-end food or middle-of-the-road food or lower-end food or whatever it might be, based on ingredients or location or ambiance or on the complexity of the food or the rarity of the ingredients. To me it's a lot more important to exercise ingenuity with what's around you or what's available to you. Historically, I think that's what brings about the coolest food.
From my experience, chefs seem more likely to smoke cannabis than the average person, which I suspect is a way to come down from the stress in the kitchen. Do you find that bigger chefs are hesitant to embrace cannabis openly for fear that it might hurt their brand?
First off, chefs are creative people, and creative people love cannabis, and cannabis loves creative people. So you definitely find a lot of chefs that blaze. But, like in any craft, you also find people who don't vibe with it as much or just don't use it. The same goes for musicians. You might meet a jazz guy who's a virtuoso and smokes weed all the time, but you might also meet someone who's a classical pianist who doesn't [smoke] and who sticks to the discipline in a different way. I think it's really all about approach. Everyone kinda brings their own personality to it.
What I'm glad I did [with Bong Appétit]... I taught chefs about cannabis as an ingredient as opposed to the usual introduction that a lot of people get. Some are the ones who are not familiar with cannabis, but they are all very curious about it. As creative people, chefs approach the idea of cannabis as an ingredient just like they would with any other [herb].
You were in the web version of High Maintenance, and you made your return to the show this season on HBO. What made this the right time or the right storyline for you to come back?
That sorta came about organically. I met Ben [Sinclair] and Katja [Blichfeld] and Russell [Gregory]—the creators and producers of the show—and we became friends and always stayed in touch. We would catch up once in a while and smoke weed and chat. Really, High Maintenance is just one of my favorite shows, and I loved watching it since the beginning. I really love the universe these guys created with all these people in it—this kind of fictionalized New York that feels so real to so many people.
To have any behind-the-scenes understanding of the show is such a treat for me, so when they asked if I was down to bring my character back as a clean-cut Uber driver, I was just excited to see how they're making the show now. It's a lot different than it was back when they were doing the web series. Based on how the season has gone and how they've developed the show and how they've shuffled around the characters, I'm just so stoked that I get to be in a show that I love to watch.
I've gotta imagine you get offered all kinds of crazy opportunities in the cannabis space. What's the most ridiculous "opportunity" anyone has ever pitched you?
A few months ago—I can't remember the name of the company—but a hot sauce company hit me up on Instagram or something. Honestly, that was kind of a crazy thing. I was like, "Wow, hot sauce! Hell yeah! Fucking hot sauce!" I adored the idea of [medicated] hot sauce. I think hot sauce is a great thing, but I didn't end up doing it. The cannabis industry is still kinda growing and developing, and I just like that I get to watch and interact and see it grow.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.