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Michigan: Home Baked

By Tracy Ross
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Home-Baked

In the 1970s, a free-spirited woman whipped up and hand-delivered marijuana-laced brownies to hippies, artists, and activists in the Bay Area. Her daughter shares her story.

Alia Volz grew up in San Francisco, the daughter of the cannabis connoisseur who founded Sticky Fingers Brownies. The company baked and distributed thousands of marijuana brownies per month and helped provide medical marijuana to AIDS patients in San Francisco. In her new memoir, Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020), Volz gives a raucous account of women pioneering the cannabis industry and of a family at home on society’s fringe. What follows are excerpts from Home Baked:

***

My mom, Meridy, was a canna-business pioneer, the driving force behind San Francisco’s first high-volume edibles business. For more than 20 years—from the frothy 1970s through the AIDS crisis and the dawn of medical marijuana—Sticky Fingers Brownies produced up to 10,000 potent magic brownies per month in an underground bakery, long before it could be done legally. 

I grew up embedded in deep cannabis culture. Of all the stereotypes I’ve encountered, the one that bothers me the most is the notion that cannabusiness is a man’s world in which women are now beginning to claim space. At least here in northern California, the frontier has been female.

All these years later, the aroma of our home bakery remains sharp in my mind. It was round and earthy: notes of crushed ponderosa pine needles, dusty manzanita, moss from the lazy Eel River, and backroad dirt. 

Sticky Fingers started in 1976, a year before I was born. At first, selling brownies was a casual way for my mom and her friends to make extra money. That quickly changed. The timing coincided with a breakthrough in the weed world. A new variety of pot was hitting the streets and sending shock waves throughout the country: California-grown sinsemilla. That summer, an executive editor at High Times dubbed it “superweed” and called its farmers “supergrowers.” 

Decades later, seedy weed has gone the way of VHS tapes; only people of a certain age will remember the tedium of deseeding compressed bricks of cannabis by hand—or how mediocre the buzz could be. Up to that point, the Sticky Fingers bakers had been cooking with bricks of dusty Mexican gold bud. Meanwhile, one of my mom’s partners, Donald, had a friend up in Humboldt who was growing tall, regal sinsemilla on a hidden sunbathed hillside. The flower was gooey, pert, and garnished with crystals. Like Christmas trees for psychedelic dollhouses.

So, my mom and her partners squeezed into the cab of a beater pickup and headed north across the Golden Gate Bridge in search of fresh magic. Urban civilization gave way to gnarled oaks and butterflies. Clumps of sycamores wearing slow-burn autumnal colors stood in toasted brown fields dotted with cows. KSAN fuzzed out, sticking them with two Christian stations and one playing country and western. After four hours in the truck, they blew across the Humboldt County line.

At Garberville, a one-horse town with a population of around eight hundred, a funky motel, and a redneck bar called the Branding Iron Saloon, they exited the highway onto an intricate maze of dirt roads. The collapse of the logging industry had flooded the market with large tracts of unwanted land, where rough, swooping hills discouraged people from living in close proximity. Between fragrant redwood groves and slick madrones with blood-colored skin curling away from the lime-green flesh underneath, there were ugly stretches of clear-cut land, scarred and eroded, barren but for stumps and weeds.

Donald’s friend was a burly mountain lesbian who went by Mumser (a nickname taken from the Yiddish word for “bastard”). She worked with a partner, whom I’ll call “Betty,” in the secretive Garberville woods—part of a community of women growers.

Betty came from tending their crop to meet with the Sticky Fingers crew topless—wearing nothing but dirty jeans and muck books—and my mom was in awe. “They just completely owned the running-around-topless-with-saggy-boobs-and-pooping-in-an-outhouse thing,” she says, looking back. She had never met women so unconcerned with how society might judge them. My mom, who always struggled with her body image, thought they were fabulous: Amazons of Humboldt.

“It was all for fun,” Mumser says now, reflecting on the early days. “We didn’t come up here to grow. We didn’t! We just wanted to be in the country.”

She and Betty had left San Francisco for the woods in about 1972 enamored with the notion of living on the fat of the earth. Donald helped Mumser build her cabin using homesteading catalogs and how-to manuals. The result was rickety, full of chinks and corners that didn’t quite meet.

This was during a rare moment in US history when the pace of urban migration slowed to a crawl. The once-flourishing Humboldt lumber industry was dying out from over-logging, and land was cheap. Back-to-the-landers erected cabins and outhouses, planted sustenance gardens, raised goats and chickens, and set about living rustically. But while you’re planting tomatoes — and buying weed from someone else — you might as well plant your own weed. Then, while you’re planting your own weed, you might as well plant extra to sell. Perhaps you’ll want to upgrade from an outhouse to a flushing toilet. And how are you going to pay for a septic tank on organic tomatoes and welfare checks?

Back then, sinsemilla techniques were new to California. One had to kill the male cannabis plants before they could pollinate the females, so that the females would ooze gooey psychoactive resin instead of producing seeds. But the differences between male and female plants are subtle and apparent only at certain stages. And you couldn’t take your questions to Google. Friends taught one another.

The 1976 publication of Sinsemilla: Marijuana Flowers by Jim Richardson and Arik Woods was a turning point. It’s a handsome coffee-table book with more space dedicated to photographs than words. The sparse writing makes an impact. Part practical manual, part pot porn, it gives step-by-step instructions that one doesn’t have to be a horticulturist to understand. And the language is so suggestive that it’s tempting to read it aloud in a phone-sex voice.

The virgin blossoms swell with sexual energy eager for consummation. But the breeze brings no pollen and the rhythm continues to intensify . . . As the last pistils come into the tips, the clusters turn pure white. The pods swell and the resinous coating thickens. The true sweetness of the flowers comes forth and becomes so strong it is almost too much to bear.

Macrophotography shot with the same erotic sensibility accompanies the writing. Seed pods shaped like vulvas, pistils that look like erect penises. It’s over the top but also useful. Woods’s sensual photos taught new growers to identify the sex organs at various stages—when to kill males, when to wait, and when to harvest mature females. This book passed from hippie to hippie in the California backwoods. It made the delicate art of farming sinsemilla appear accessible, even fun.

In reality, it was hard labor. Mumser and Betty built a hilltop water tank and ran lines to their patch, then lugged soil and fertilizer into the woods in 50-pound sacks. Rabbits, deer, caterpillars, molds, fungi, and human thieves posed constant threats. In late summer, when the females produced psychoactive resin, every day of sunshine made the product stronger. But an early frost could ruin everything. Timing was crucial. Once harvested, the plants hung to dry on hooks in the cabins, where the growers watched obsessively for signs of mildew. At any stage, local police or federal drug enforcement could seize everything—including their freedom at a time when growing a single plant was a felony. 

By the time Sticky Fingers came around, they had it down. Their farm was small but mighty, and their homegrown packed a punch.

My mom and her crew crammed garbage bags of shake into…the pickup and drove slowly, carefully home, crossing the Golden Gate with a profound sense of relief.

***

As impressed as my mom was with the flower from Mumser’s farm, she was looking for something else. Their bud was too expensive—and too strong—to use in high-volume baking. Through experimenting, Sticky Fingers had discovered they could use sinsemilla “shake”—the leafy detritus left over from trimming—and still come out with brownies that were more potent than anything made with the bricks of Mexican gold they’d been buying. 

This benefitted everyone. The shake left over after trimming was a liability to the growers. Though it lacked street value, it would count the same as expensive bud in a bust. In the eyes of the law, a pound was a pound. The Garberville women had been mulching or burning their shake to get rid of it. They sold it to Sticky Fingers for just $50 a pound—one sixth of what they paid for Mexican gold. This increased the bakery’s profit exponentially while also helping the growers. 

My mom and her crew crammed garbage bags of shake into an antique icebox in the back of the pickup and drove slowly, carefully home, crossing the Golden Gate with a profound sense of relief. The new extra-potent sinsemilla brownies caused a sensation in San Francisco, and the rest is history.

***

Between 1976 and 1998, Sticky Fingers Brownies went through several iterations, growing or shrinking with the demands of each era. In the mid-80s, when HIV/AIDS was rampant in San Francisco, Sticky Fingers became part of the medical-marijuana underground, getting soothing cannabis into the bodies of those who needed it most. Through all its changes, Sticky Fingers remained a woman-run business with close ties to the wholesome outdoor growing communities of Humboldt and Mendocino counties, and the nature-worshipping gardeners who made their homes among the redwoods. 

All these years later, the aroma of our home bakery remains sharp in my mind. In the days before hybridization brought us strains smelling of blueberry muffins and Girl Scout cookies, the odor was tied to the land. It was round and earthy: notes of crushed ponderosa pine needles, dusty manzanita, moss from the lazy Eel River, and backroad dirt. The scent of northern California.