The Greenhorn’s Plight
Pity the poor greenhorn. They come in many stripes. When I was a kid growing up in Wyoming, my friends and I clutched our stomachs–overcome by hilarity–while watching dudes’ first encounters with horses. I will never forget the time I watched one poor fellow put the wrong foot in a stirrup, swing up, then kick his long-suffering horse square in the head with his other foot. The horse was not amused, but we were.
These days I am more sympathetic to the greenhorn’s plight. The aspiring pipe-smoker faces many barriers to success, the biggest of which is that many tobacconists’ sales people know little about pipes or pipe tobaccos and are unable to be of much help. Most of these people have concentrated on learning about cigars, not pipes, because cigars are where the money is in the retail tobacco business. Often, these sales people may never even have smoked a pipe, themselves.
So, what an aspiring pipe-smoker will receive in advice or guidance reflects assumptions that are often far from what’s true and real about pipe smoking. Where this ignorance really impacts new pipe smokers is in helping them choose pipes and pipe tobaccos that they might enjoy.
Without guidance, those who are new to pipe smoking may easily make counterproductive, even humiliating choices. This post is intended to alleviate the situation by offering some guidance on the nuts and bolts of becoming a pipe smoker.
We are our own worst enemies.
Typically, men have a tough time admitting ignorance on a topic about which they have interest. This is particularly true when it comes to “manly” pursuits like drinking and smoking where tastes are gradually acquired. We feel like we’re supposed to know about these things. None of us want to look like greenhorns, especially to our friends. So, rather than owning up to our callow inexperience, we gut it out and learn through doing. This can be a tough road when it comes to either smoking or drinking. As a result, most men I know–myself included–have repeatedly endured worshipping the porcelain god during our rites of passage.
Some 40 years ago I awkwardly began my pipe smoking journey by trying to pose as an experienced pipe man. Later embarrassed, I shortly thereafter betrayed my ignorance by loading my just-purchased pipe with Apricot Arabesque or some other fruity goulash that is best forgotten. The first long draw which an experienced pipe-smoker relishes contrasted starkly to the gagging, coughing fits and watering eyes that I suffered while trying to smoke that vile aromatic, all the time seeking to transmit the collected composure and cool élan of a real pipe man. My performance was a spectacular flop.
I never would have selected that loathsome concoction had the sales person not encouraged me to pry the lids off the bulk tobacco jars to take a whiff of the blends inside. The scents of these blends were as fragrant and exotic as a Bedouin dancer’s hair, freshly rinsed with orange flower water and frankincense. The one I smoked sure didn’t taste like it smelled, however. It tasted more like zombie flatulence.
Tobacco isn’t food.
We humans are wired to rely on our sensory inputs and memories. Aroma is a key aspect of tasting flavors so, absent experience, we assume that smoking will parallel eating. However, the typical aromatic tobacco’s aroma makes promises to the nose that no pipe can keep to the tongue. It is counterintuitive, but nonetheless true.
Unlike eating, when smoking the scent of a blend is disconnected from its flavor. While the smoke may smell pleasant to those who notice its room note, that doesn’t mean it will taste as good as it smells. The opposite is often true; the nastiest smelling tobacco blends will often deliver delicious flavors to the smoker. For example, my wife compares the smell of my latakia-laden English blends to the stench of burning tires while their flavor upon my palate is smoky ambrosia to me.
Ignorance has its consequences.
I recently witnessed yet another typical pipe-newbie’s tobacco-travails while traveling on business. I was happily smoking my pipe in a shop where the sales person knew little about pipes when he asked me to assist him with his customer’s enquiries. After the burly college student plucked a large, rusticated Oom Paul from the display case then purchased it, I suggested a small bowl of Lane’s popular, light aromatic blend, 1-Q, for his maiden smoke. He opted instead for a brimming bowl of Mango Moonrise or some such tripe, after sniffing blends in the shop’s bulk tobacco jars.
Despite the obvious discomforts he experienced during the first five or so minutes of smoking this calamitous blend in his new pipe, he continued puffing vigorously. He tried to persuade me (and himself) just how satisfying this first smoke was to him. I was skeptical about how long this would last, especially since the longer he smoked, the more he looked like a younger sibling to Shrek. I gave him fifteen minutes. He lasted twenty.
It’s no wonder so many people are put off pipe-smoking early on, given the guidance they receive, the options they have, and the choices they make. We experienced pipe-smokers would hate pipe-smoking, too, if our pipe-smoking were accomplished with varnished-bowl basket pipes loaded with horrific aromatic tobacco blends.
Don’t believe blend names.
Creme brulee, peach cobbler, key lime pie, or cherry surprise; these may be delicious treats for the dessert plate, but if you think their flavors can be captured in pipe smoke, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. These blend monikers might as well be Pennzoil, Limburger, or Whale Blubber. It would be better if they were so named, for surely this second set of evocations would come closer to approximating the actual flavors delivered than their dessert-derived counterparts.
I write this knowing that whale blubber and limburger devotées deserve better treatment from me (if not an outright apology) for associating their gastronomical favorites with these fruity outrages. Naïveté comes in many forms, including expectations that any pipe tobacco, whatsoever, will taste like your mother’s pinochle potluck dessert.
You can’t smoke crème brûlée.
You can’t smoke cherries jubilee, either. I don’t care what it says on the jar or the tin. These names have one purpose only: to persuade the young or inexperienced pipe smoker to purchase the blend. Acolytes of P.T. Barnum, the scalawags who flog these blends believe that there is, indeed, a sucker born every minute. They count on that sucker sucking a pipe.
I am baffled as to why anyone ever thought it would be a good idea to slap Auntie Tillie’s county-fair-ribbon-contender dessert name onto a tobacco tin. Apple Blueberry Surprise. Peach Crumble. I haven’t come across a Mincemeat blend yet, but I’m sure it’s only because I haven’t looked hard enough. When I set match to leaf in my favorite briar, I doubt that the flavor might transport me to my old Wyoming home if only the smoke stream were redolent of venison, raisins, and rum. It might, if a smoke stream could deliver those flavors, but it won’t.
Can you imagine cigars with these names? At my tobacco haunt, were someone to ask for a fruity figurado, there would be such sniggering abuse heaped upon the prospective buyer that he would likely long for the good ol’ days when being tarred and feathered was the worst one might encounter for committing such a gaffe.