Summit County resident and author of cannabis cookbook uses marijuana as a healing tool
August 30, 2014
"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food."
Pressure bubbled, both within and without.
Starting at age 10, Jessica Catalano began suffering from debilitating migraines.
“My last straw was having to take the anti-seizure medication. ... Realizing I’m able to do this legally and it’s OK shocked me. The first time I went into a dispensary I was like ‘Is this real life?’ It was a culture shock for me.”
"I had chronic migraines — up to 15 a month," said Catalano. "Before the migraine sets in, I sometimes get what is called an aura — disturbances in light. Lights look brighter than normal. You can smell things that aren't there. It's pretty intense. You have a feeling of anxiety or doom. You go through all these changes in your head, and then the migraine hits.
"If I'm not medicated I can have a migraine that can last anywhere from three hours to three days."
But then she recalls the first time she tried cannabis. It was summertime, mid-90s in upstate New York. She was 14 and about to go to the roller skating rink with a friend.
"She asked if I wanted to try some marijuana," she recalls. "I said sure. That day I had a migraine. And after I tried the marijuana it went away. I was like 'whoa.' But I was apprehensive. It was illegal. I knew people who had gotten arrested for stuff that we'd laugh at here now. The prohibition was still really strong there."
She could tell immediately something about the marijuana had helped her migraines in ways years of doctor visits and prescription medications had failed. But America wasn't ready yet. And yet, as a teenager she began learning about cannabis-infused edibles and discovered they were the best way to medicate and treat her migraines.
"In New York though I could never medicate like I wanted to," she said. "I always worried about getting caught and what would happen to me. Cannabis was limited too and very expensive. And you couldn't even tell what you were getting. There was no medicinal allowed at the time."
She also didn't want to disappoint her parents or even let friends and classmates know she was using marijuana.
"My mom knew I was smoking some," Catalano said. "But she didn't know I was eating space brownies as she called them. But my mom was liberal — she was OK but she wasn't OK. She wasn't OK because I was young and she was worried about other drugs. She thought it was a gateway drug — that I would smoke pot and then do other things.
"I wouldn't even tell my friends I was medicating. I acted like pot was just something that gave me anxiety. I was always worried about getting caught with cannabis and getting arrested. My mom was also really worried. So I was always very secretive and protective over my medicine. Only my closest friends knew what I was doing. It was also a high commodity there. If people knew I had brownies everyone would want one. But it was my medicine."
Meanwhile, doctors kept prescribing her a plethora of pills.
"They put me through a lot of different medications," Catalano said. "I struggled between using pain killers and high level Tylenol. And it never fully managed my pain. To be honest it mainly just tore up my stomach. But when I had cannabis I could medicate with that in secret and lay off the prescription meds. But I had to take the meds at times just to get through the day. Nothing really worked 100 percent. It took the edge off but never stopped it. I got frustrated with doctors."
At age 23, in 2007, she moved to Colorado Springs. Once she arrived in Colorado it was much easier to get higher quantities of cannabis on the black market for much less than New York. But she still hadn't perfected how to fully control her headaches with medicinal marijuana.
"I was still having to see a doctor," Catalano said. "My migraines were changing a little bit, and I wanted to make sure there was nothing strange like a tumor. They kept prescribing me different meds. And even though medical marijuana was legal here I was still getting it on the black market. I was still uncomfortable with it. I still wasn't sure if it was OK."
But prescription medications still weren't responding. Finally, a doctor prescribed her an anti-seizure medication.
"They said since I didn't respond to the other meds this is probably my last chance," she recalled. "I'm reading side effects, and it said if you start taking it and then you stop taking it, there's a good chance you'll start having seizures. I just thought 'why would I do that to myself?' I'm a healthy adult besides the migraines. That seemed crazy to give myself seizures if I miss a pill."
Meanwhile, she was still hiding her cannabis use, until a friend convinced her in 2009 to finally get a medical marijuana card.
"My last straw was having to take the anti-seizure medication," Catalano said. "For me, taking that step, a whole new door opened up. I didn't have to hide like I did before. Realizing I'm able to do this legally and it's OK shocked me. The first time I went into a dispensary I was like 'Is this real life?' It was a culture shock for me."
Treating the sickness
Not long after graduating high school, Catalano worked in a hospital in upstate New York. There she fostered a penchant for caring for people. That carried over when she moved to Colorado Springs, where she earned EMT certification and worked in the detox unit of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility.
She started running groups with detox patients at the Lighthouse in Colorado Springs.
"It was really intense," she said. "I got attacked a few times."
Most of the people there were recovering alcoholics, followed by a fair share of people addicted to methamphetamine, heroine and prescription pills.
"I never saw one marijuana case," she said with a laugh.
After working in that environment for two years, she finally enrolled in culinary school.
Everything started coming together in her life. She was finally enrolled in culinary school. Cooking had always been her greatest passion. And she finally had access to legal, medical marijuana. She was able to start experimenting and trying different strains with different types of meals.
"I fell in love with fruity strains, and I'm still stuck on them and love cooking with them," Catalano said. "I continued to develop my recipes. Once I got my medical card I was finally able to start controlling it. I had always been reacting."
She adopted a preventative, prophylactic method.
"Every night before bed I have an edible at a specific dose — a hybrid or Indica to help me sleep," Catalano said. "I'd sleep good, wake up refreshed. I found that by doing that every night I never got migraines again. But if I go to sleep without taking a dose I start getting the tension and weird sensations and then the migraine. For me, every night, I'm able to have an edible and control my migraines … I have minimal side effects. The worst side effect is if I wake up too early I feel really groggy."
While the ultimate cause of migraines and even controlling them in extreme cases remains a bit of mystery, neurologists have pinpointed increased bursts of electrical activity in the brain along with constriction and dilation as main factors causing the blinding pain. Cannabis appears to control those electrical bursts and to relieve the constriction.
During this same time she also learned how to control her asthma attacks.
"I also have exercise-induced asthma," she said. "If I run more than two to three miles I start to get constriction in airways. Doctors diagnosed me with asthma and prescribed me an emergency inhaler. But I know cannabis is a bronchial dilator like the asthma inhalers. So I just consume a small amount of an edible made from a sativa, 15 or 20 milligrams, before any extreme cardio, and I haven't had to touch my inhaler in years. I still have it, but I haven't needed it. It's taken experimentation with my doses on what works best with migraines, 25 to 40, and asthma, 15 or 20. I stick to those doses."
For the people
Like any researcher, after finally legally learning how to control to her ailments with medicinal cannabis, Catalano had a sudden urge to share her findings with others.
"One day I woke up with an intense urge to start a blog," she said. "Throughout my life this has helped me, so I thought if I started writing about this I could help other people too. So I started a free blog on the website called Blogger. I'd write a little blurb and put up a recipe."
Within three months of starting this blog she received an offer from out of the blue. Green Candy Press contacted her and asked if she'd be interest in writing a cookbook. She talked to a lawyer, got the ball rolling and soon signed a contract. It took her three years to finish it. But by the end she'd compiled all her favorite recipes into this one book.
In November 2012, "The Ganja Kitchen Revolution: The Bible of Cannabis Cuisine" was first published. It's become one of the top-selling books in its genre and is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and even at places like Sears.
Now at age 30, and living in Summit County, Catalano's become the Alice B. Toklas of our age.
The "Alice B. Toklas Cook Book," originally published in 1954, might be the first cannabis cookbook. In it she describes how to cook Hashish Fudge, a type of brownie made from spices, nuts, fruit and cannabis. It helped spark a cultural revolution and remains one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time.
But while Toklas was mainly interested in the giddy and philosophical feelings one gets from cannabis edibles, Catalano has focused more on the medical.
The dosing chart and strain information really helps to set this book above its counterparts. She honestly breaks down how to use cannabis as a successful medication. And while understanding what the correct dose is can be difficult, she makes it easy in her book. There is also a lot of misinformation out there on cooking times for infusing cannabis into butter and oil, but she clears all that up in her book.
Her blog has also transformed into a website, and she now writes as a food columnist for SKUNK magazine and several others, including Ladybud, an online magazine.
And her move to a place where it's legal to pursue her passion has even brought her parents on board.
"I was scared to show my mom that this was my career path," Catalano said. "Everyone wants their mother's and father's approval. I don't want them to think I'm a drug addict. In high school they threatened to send me to rehab for marijuana. I didn't want them to think bad about what I was doing. So when this was going into production I had to let them know what I was up to because I'm very close to my parents.
"They asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. I told them I was very passionate about it. They said then that's what I needed to do, and they supported me. Because I was older, and I was using it for medicinal purposes, and it was legal now, they supported it now. They said they were proud of me and I was helping people."
Her family played an important role in the recipes she's crafted for her book. The berry compote takes her back to her childhood and her mother fixing those with wild, gathered strawberries. Her grandmother and her Northern Italian background also played a role, as well as did her father's recipes.
And of course her studies in culinary school also helped her expand and experiment even further. She stresses the importance of making the edibles yourself at home because you have full control over what and how they are produced and can better manage the dosages.
In her case, strains are also imperative.
"It's important to pair certain strains with certain dishes and to get the appropriate medicinal benefits," she said. "Every strain is different. Cooking with different strains is just like cooking with various types of herbs. It makes different flavors. That's exciting for any chef."
It seems like every step in her life has led her to place she is now, helping heal others with food.
"I definitely believe there is a higher power, God, and everyone has their own life path," Catalano said. "If you stay on that path, you'll do what you're supposed to be doing on this Earth. I had to struggle and go through a lot of stuff, then I stepped on that path, and everything has worked out. Now I can share my story with people and help people. Share my experiences and let people know they don't have to rely on these medications if they don't want to. There are alternatives.
"Life is a strange journey. But if you just listen to the signs and pay attention you'll get where you need to be … for me food is medicine."