I’ve always had a love affair with tobacco. I fondly recall, despite my parents’ snide remarks, the miasma of cigar and cigarette smoke hanging over casino floors that I’d have to hurriedly walk through when I was underage and on vacation. I’ve had the best conversations with loquacious strangers at bars who straddle their little white death stick between their fingers, punctuating their tales with a series of deep inhales and soft exhales until the torched paper reaches the dreaded filter, and then subsequently laying their ephemeral nicotine wands to rest in the bar’s communal ashtray graveyard. When I’m browsing for a hotel to stay at on a trip to a Mediterranean country, I’m charmed by the regularity of “smoking-friendly” accommodations — I have a proclivity for the old world and its happy disregard for the cushioned confines imposed by the health bureaucracy’s dogmatism.
But I’m not a smoker.
I’ve always viewed smoking as a performance art, kind of like cooking: The art is in the followthrough, from the beginning to the end. In cooking, it’s not only the mixing and chopping and finished prêt-à-manger product that qualifies as art, although celebrity chefs may make it seem as though that’s where the spectacle is. It’s the peeling back aluminum-can lids, and picking a perfectly sized skillet from the cabinet, and even dishwashing — it takes a holistic panorama to appreciate the idiosyncrasy that makes an art form complete and special.
Cigarette smokers must also engage in a ritual before the cigarette even touches the lips: pulling the box out of a purse or pocket, possibly bumming a cigarette to someone else, sardonic small talk about the years that this bad boy is gonna shave off the smoker’s life, perhaps invoking George Strait’s timeless wisdom that we’re here for a good time and not a long time, and then balancing it with the teeth as it’s lit, and voila. It’s a performance — often with an encore.
Cigar smokers, often of a different breed of tobacco-user than cigarette smokers, are not quite as vilified as their cigarette-smoking comrades. Roger Scruton once said that “people who smoke have a ready way of putting themselves at ease, of standing back from the world of troubles and taking benign stock of it.” Cigar smokers are indulgent, but are of the “less is more” variety, able to practice self-denial until the occasion calls for the ol’ boys club duo of whiskey and a Romeo y Julietta (Winston Churchill’s favorite brand). A cigar aids an episode of contemplation or celebration; the act of smoking a cigar is deliberate and often orchestrated, and the time it asks of you is different than the time a cigarette asks of those who have a physiological dependence on it. There are 15-minute smoke breaks to relieve a craving, but cigars require an elongated commitment — smoking cigars shouldn’t be a utilitarian act.
I, too, appreciate cigar smokers and love speaking with cigar aficionados. They describe those chubby tobacco rolls in language that sommeliers or coffee connoisseurs would use to describe wine or coffee: earthy, full-bodied, rich, peppery. Cigars have flavor profiles, and they take time and expertise to craft — they’re the caviar of tobacco products and I respect those with refined palettes, even if they’re coated in tar. After all, there are entire establishments dedicated to smoking them and storing them, with different brands stored in humidors that are carefully adjusted to a specific temperature to preserve them. Cigar bars are a cache of tasteful people in an often tasteless world: camaraderie, erudition, exclusivity, and rebellion? All in one place? Perhaps it’s best for business that hoi polloi remain faithful to heeding the surgeon general’s warnings.
Speaking of Churchill and the vilification of tobacco users, he appears, smoking a cigar, in the featured image for an app called “Churchill Solitaire” which Google suspended (and later realized its mistake) because the object was confused for marijuana (close, but no cigar). Florence King describes the alienation of tobacco users from polite society in her 1990 National Review essay as the “tobacco pogrom,” which she says is serving “as the basis for a class war in a nation afraid to mention the word ‘class’ aloud.” And despite what those with outstanding rectitude may believe, tobacco is a nuanced subject, and it involves the dynamic within American class hierarchy, especially that between farmers and the government.
My love affair has only been further complicated by Wendell Berry’s remarks on tobacco in his 1991 essay “The Problem of Tobacco,” where he explains the farming of tobacco, and if you think I’ve romanticized the performance art of smoking, what precedes the tobacco product itself is even more compelling. Berry tells us of the beauty of the tobacco plant itself, and the “lore and conversation of tobacco growing.” Tobacco farmers care for the land that they grow the crop on, and are of the most skilled farmers out there. It’s a sociable crop, involving a ballet of different tasks and people. Along with the hard work of cutting the plant, curing it, stripping it, and grading it, tobacco neighbors helped each other — Berry fondly reflects on the season, and the big meals and laughter and storytelling that accompanied it.
He doesn’t endorse smoking itself, but tobacco farmers, among the best stewards of the land, have no other options if they are to also survive, and the federal government had not taken to heart the rural communities that the farmers represent that would also be affected.
Tobacco can’t be reduced to just skinny cylinders of rat poison, and none of us make it out of here alive. As P. J. O’Rourke once said,“Government is a health hazard. Governments have killed many more people than cigarettes or unbuckled seat belts ever have.”
No, I’m not on the payroll of big tobacco, and no, I’m not a smoker myself — I’m vain, and teeth-whitening strips are expensive, and my mother is a doctor who would likely harangue me for it (don’t worry, Mom, I don’t smoke myself — I just egg on people who do). I also am not encouraging you to smoke a pack of cigarettes after reading this. But I am an intrigued bystander and a writer perpetually in search of a muse, and perhaps the second-hand smoke has gotten to my head, but if others are willing to crucify themselves for a couple hundred or so drags of chemistry’s most lethal legal concoction, I will watch and be entertained without attempting to proselytize you.