UPDATE: This entry was originally in November of last year but in honor of April 20 and all things 420, I’m reposting it. Brownie Mary was a wonderful and unforgettably kind woman.


As I watched the results of the election last night, Brownie Mary suddenly popped into my mind, especially as I watched Prop 19 go down in defeat. In the early 1990s, she was arrested for making pot-infused brownies, which she distributed to the sickest of the AIDS patients at a hospital in San Francisco where she worked as a volunteer.

Brownie Mary was beloved by the people she served

These brownies alleviated the nausea of the patients, stimulated their appetites and allowed them to both eat and gain weight, which in turn made them feel better and live longer. She was beloved by the patients and widely praised for her dedication, her compassion and the quality of her brownies, which were said to taste really good.

I had lunch with Mary, whom I did not know, when we both ended up at the same restaurant, Evelyn Cheatham’s Tweets, after her court appearance, when the judge chastised her for wearing a tiny gold marijuana leaf necklace. It was a gift from her daughter, her only child who had died in the early 1970s, Mary explained to the judge, adding that she had never taken off the necklace.

Mary was a typical grandmother of her era, with gray curls and a big smile. It was impossible not to like her. I tried to get her to tell me how she made her brownies but she wouldn’t give up her secret, though I suspected I knew what it was.

A few years later when I was writing California Home Cooking, my ninth book, I added a passage about Mary entitled “Make a Brownie, Go To Jail,” which I used as a sidebar alongside this recipe for “herb” brownies. The book had a very short turnaround time and I did not notice until it was too late that my editor had axed both the story and the recipe and did so without telling me. I still bristle when I think of it.

The recipe came to me in an odd way, by fax late one night. It was a typical brownie recipe, with a single addition: 15 grams of high quality hashish. Based on what I could find on line last night, the cost would be around $225 for 36 brownies.  Pricey little things.

But there’s a better way and more economical way to make what I will call medicinal brownies. I make smen, a pungent butter infused with dried oregano that is used widely in Moroccan cuisine, frequently. It’s quite simple to makeclarify some butter, add a lot of dried oregano, let it infuse over very low heat for 30 minutes or so and strain it into a clean container. Store it in a closed container in the refrigerator, where it will keep for several months. It works with any herb and I am willing to bet that is how Mary made her notorious brownies. It is probably easiest to use a pound of butter infused with as much green herb as you can spare. This should be enough for about 12 dozen brownies.

Brownie Mary, whose full name was Mary Jane Rathburn, died in 1999 at the age of 77. If she were alive today, I suspect she would be volunteering with a marijuana dispensary, making her delicious brownies.

Here’s the recipe that did not make it into California Home Cooking. I’ve made a single change, the salt sprinkled on top of the batter.

High on the Range Walnut Brownies

  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 ounces (1/2 cup) herb butter, (see description above) or unsalted organic butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 4 ounces best-quality unsweetened or bittersweet chocolate
  • 1 cup toasted walnut halves, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon Maldon Salt Flakes, optional

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and set the mixture aside. Use a small amount of the butter to coat the inside of a 13-inch-by-9-inch baking pan. Fill the bottom of a double boiler about a third full with water, set it over high heat and when the water boils, reduce the heat to low or very low, so that the water simmers gently. Put the chocolate and butter in the top of the double boiler, set it over the bottom and gently melt the chocolate and butter together. Meanwhile, put the sugar, beaten eggs and vanilla in a bowl and mix, using an electric mixer or a balloon whisk, until they are light, fluffy and fall from the beater, whisk or a spoon in a constant stream. Use a rubber spatula to gently gold in the chocolate and butter mixture. Being careful not to overmix, fold in the dry mixture and the walnuts, if using. Spread the batter in the buttered baking dish and sprinkle the Maldon Salt Flakes on top, if using. Set on the middle rack of the oven and bake until the center springs back when gently pressed, about 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool. Cut into squares and serve at room temperature. Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

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  1. Jeff B.

    Thanks for remembering a great lady, Michele! I always find your posts and recipes very interesting!

    November 4th, 2010 8:26 am

  2. Joe Gargiulo

    Great reminder … love the herb butter.

    November 4th, 2010 9:03 am

  3. RisaG

    I think Mary sounds like a wonderful caring person.

    I think making it legal to buy and use marijuana is a brilliant idea. It costs a lot of money to keep pot users in jail, for doing the same to people who sell and grow pot. I used pot for a few years, many ages ago, and it never did anything except make me hungry and silly. Never made me use harder drugs. I think if it does some good medicinally, then it should be grown legally and used to help with ailments from cancer and other diseases.

    I used to bake Hash Brownies (in the 1980′s) and they were excellent!

    November 4th, 2010 9:06 am

  4. shannon

    I love this story Michele, I’m glad Brownie Mary was willing to do what many weren’t. A true humanitarian. My uncle died of AIDS complications, back in the early 1990′s. I remember what it was like. Everyone was fearful, including my grandparents. Luckily my parents and my uncle’s partner, were there for him. I was young, but remember it well. I could hear the pain in his voice, while he was lying in the hospital, it was terrible.

    November 4th, 2010 9:09 am

  5. Joan Simon

    The salt on top is a great touch- very today.

    November 4th, 2010 10:52 am


    Brownie Mary was the sweet, kindly grandmother anyone would love to have had themselves. She was way ahead of her time with a heart of gold.

    I first met her on a flight to Amsterdam while she was traveling with Dennis Peron, we were all on our way to the Cannabis Cup, appropriately…

    November 4th, 2010 10:56 am

  7. M. Montgomery

    Hi. Michele! Great article on Brownie Mary! She was a wonderful testament to the importance of someone simply doing the right thing, regardless of the potential personal consequences.

    Thanks so much for this memory of a lady we all knew about, and couldn’t help loving.

    November 4th, 2010 11:06 am

  8. Elise Baril

    I remember Brownie Mary, thanks for writing about her, she was quite a lady. I will try this recipe, good brownies are a thing of beauty!

    November 4th, 2010 11:55 am

  9. Veronica Bowers

    Thanks for sharing a wonderful story and recipe. Fresh mint could also be used – doesn’t posses the same benefits as the other herb, but still tastes good.

    November 4th, 2010 5:25 pm

  10. Marion

    This is a charming story and makes me feel nostalgic!

    November 4th, 2010 5:40 pm

  11. Julie S.

    Timely, intelligent, compassionate and delicious. Thanks for the recipe!

    November 4th, 2010 8:54 pm

  12. Aphrodite Caserta

    Wonderful tribute to Brownie Mary…

    November 4th, 2010 9:29 pm

  13. Judy Barrett

    You totally nailed the secret ingredient, Michele. Thanks for the sweet remembrance of Brownie Mary. (FWIW, friends used to make butter to use on veggies, savory breads, etc., for their cancer-patient mom who could not smoke and couldn’t handle the sweetness of brownies.)

    November 5th, 2010 8:00 pm

  14. bradpipal

    If the planet had more “Brownie Mary’s”, those that are suffering from severe spasms, spinal wind-up, AIDS, etc., may have a life of control vs. suffering with no help . . . God Bless.

    April 21st, 2011 7:15 am

  15. Pennie

    Thank you, Michele, for remembering not only the great human being that Mary was, but also the great baker she obviously was. I knew her in the late 70′s when I managed a record store on Castro Street in The City and she was quite the character. She had quite the little kitchen industry going back then and would make weekly rounds to the shops on Castro. She helped many early HIV patients with her compassionate baked goods back then.

    April 25th, 2011 6:26 pm

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