In the last few months, I’ve had increased time and money on my hands relative to the last few years, when I was a busy university student. I wanted to try things that had previously been financially or socially off-limits to me, such as pipe smoking and marksmanship. I still enjoy shooting my rifle and trying to improve my shots, but I have given up on tobacco in the few months since I first attempted to incorporate it into my cycle of hobbies.
I’ve been interested in pipe smoking forever. My grandfather smoked a pipe. He died when I was 6 or 7, and the overwhelming memory I have of him is the lingering, sweet smell of cherry tobacco. I always associated pipe smoke with relaxation, with the intentional taking of a break. He had heart problems (which ultimately killed him) and his method of combating stress was to take up pipe smoking. According to my father, the real value of the habit was that my grandfather spent more time cleaning and tinkering with his pipe than he did smoking it. It gave him something to fixate on, to occupy his mind in a non-stressful way.
There are a lot of opinions about the health effects of pipe smoking. What does seem to be clear is that it is not nearly as hazardous to your health as smoking cigarettes. Pipe smoke is not meant to be inhaled, so lung cancer is not an issue, and since not as much nicotine is absorbed in the mouth as in the lungs, addiction is much less common with pipe smokers than cigarette smokers. Some studies have shown that moderate pipe smokers have no significantly increased risk of any preventable cancer or other disease, relative to non-smokers. All of this is just to say that I didn’t take up pipe smoking without closely scrutinizing it. I won’t throw away my health on a nostalgic whim.
A friend gave me an old pipe he had sitting around. He’s a light pipe smoker (approximately once a week) and has been for a decade. When I mentioned to him that I wanted to try pipe tobacco, he gave me the first pipe he had ever bought, an unmarked briar. I bought a few pouches of aromatic tobacco from an online retailer along with some pipe cleaners and a pipe tool (a Swiss army-like device with a pick, a spoon, and a tamper). My girlfriend hated the prospect of me smoking, so I did the best I could to mitigate the effects of the tobacco smoke: I only smoked outside, only once or twice a week, and I immediately took a shower, brushed and flossed my teeth, and changed my clothes immediately after smoking. Reluctantly, the agreed to let me try it, I suspect because she feared crushing my nostalgic dreams.
I read a few articles (including this hilarious one) about how to pack and light the pipe, and finally set out to try it. The damn thing wouldn’t light despite my research, and once it did, I had to relight it every few minutes. While the different tobaccos smelled wonderful in the pouch, each with a distinct potpourri-like aroma, they all tasted basically the same when lit: smoke. Sure, some tasted more like campfire smoke, or vanilla-processing-plant-on-fire smoke, but basically they tasted the same, and not great. Not terrible, either, I should point out, but not good enough to excite me. Blowing the smoke out of my mouth like a dragon never got old.
A bowl would last half an hour, if I was careful. I had the tendency to smoke too fast, giving me “tongue bite,” a painful semi-cooking of the tongue from smoke that is too hot and too frequently drawn. Of course, if I slowed down smoking, I had to relight my pipe more frequently. I learned later that my packing technique had been poor, and once I corrected this error, I had to relight much less frequently. At the end of a bowl, I emptied the ashes and, before beginning my elaborate post-smoke cleansing ritual, asked myself, “How do I feel about that? Was it worth the trouble? Did I enjoy it more than something else I could have done in the same frame of time?”
Typically, the answers to these questions were only moderately positive. It isn’t that I dislike pipe smoking; I like it as well as many other things I occasionally do. I like it about as well as I like eating fried catfish, which is to say, I like it somewhat. But if the only restaurant that served fried catfish was an hour away, made me smell like catfish for the next twelve hours, and made it such that I could not smell or taste anything other than fried catfish for the same length of time, I probably would just not eat much fried catfish.
That brings me to my biggest complaint about tobacco smoking: No matter how aggressively I brushed my teeth, how faithfully I flossed and fluoride rinsed, I could not get the taste out of my mouth. I even bought a tongue scraper in the attempt to solve this problem. I could get the smell to about ten percent of its original pungency, but never further. Like a ghost, whiffs of tobacco would startle me throughout the rest of the evening and into the morning. Phantom smoky tastes would crop up on the rawer parts of my tongue hours after smoking.
This is my only real qualm about smoking. I don’t hate (nor do I love) the taste while smoking, I don’t mind the ritual of packing and lighting (and lighting and lighting and lighting) the pipe, and I like the historical and nostalgic qualities of pipe smoking as an idea. But I absolutely hate the lingering taste.
I tried smoking again and again over a six-week period. I tried cigars (which are smoked in essentially the same way as pipes and not inhaled) and found the experience much the same as pipe smoking, with similar lukewarm pleasures and prominent drawbacks. Ultimately, I decided to not buy any more pipe tobacco. I gave some of it away to the friend that had given me his pipe in the first place, and I have retained some of it. I still have a bag of Lane 1-Q and half a pouch of my grandfather’s beloved cherry Cavendish, along with my pipe in a case with some cleaners. I might eventually get through the leftovers that I have, or I might not. I’ll likely smoke cigars in a strictly celebratory fashion (at birthdays, bachelor parties, New Year’s, etc.) moving forward.
I really wanted to like pipe smoking, perhaps because I have pretensions to old-fashioned masculinity. I certainly love the idea of pipe smoking, the image of it: the weathered man, pipe in mouth, contemplating the days to come. I love things that offer varied experiences and opportunities to tinker, so the availability of different tobaccos to try and pipes to clean and break in should have been perfect for me.
But it wasn’t perfect for me. It’s hard to admit that I missed the mark on this hobby, especially after sinking money and emotional capital (I had looked forward to eventually smoking a pipe on my patio, like my grandfather, since childhood) into the project. Ultimately, I decided to try the next thing.
Maybe I can’t love everything, and I hope that’s okay.