Bad Bedfellows

2nd February, 2004: Posted by glpease in Pipes

I’ve written in the past about those special combinations of briar and leaf that, together, seem to work some sort of magic. With just the right tobacco, a great pipe can deliver an almost transcendent smoking experience. This isn’t about that. This is about exactly the opposite thing. Tonight, I was in the mood for a bowl of a particular, nicely aged Latakia blend, and chose a beloved, and always stellar smoking pipe in which to smoke it. What a mistake this particular combination turned out to be! The experience was nearly loathsome. I had filled the bowl carefully, lit the tobacco gently, and was almost immediately presented with one of the harshest, hottest, most acrid smokes I’ve had in a very, very long time. Nothing I tried helped. I tamped gently, let the pipe sit, sipped as softly as I possibly could, and yet every little wisp of smoke was scalding, blistering, tortuous. It was like an entire company of hell’s minions were performing “Lord of the Dance” on my tongue, complete with fiery pitchforks.

I know it is wasn’t the tobacco. I’ve smoked lots of it - enough to truly understand it’s nature and gentle, forgving ways. This is not a blend that ever tends toward sharpness for me. It has always provided a smooth, almost velvety smoke, and has even been known to tame a few somewhat fierce briars. In fact, I’d burned a bowl earlier in the day in a newly restored Comoy Grand Slam, and the taste was absolutely marvelous.

Too, I know it could not be the pipe. This briar has never provided me with anything but a fantastic smoking experience, and is a pipe I have often turned to when I’ve wanted to explore some Latakia blends that tend to have a little more edge than I enjoy.

Something about the combination of this tobacco in this pipe, though, resulted in a sensory experience akin to the sound of a thousand violins in the violent hands of Liverpool football hooligans, each fiddle just slightly out of tune and each player just slightly out of tempo with the others, sawing, screeching endlessly, accompanied by a wailing and moaning chorus of feral cats in heat. Get the picture? Concentrated habanero sauce applied liberally applied to my tongue through a garden hose would have seemed a welcome relief after about half the bowl was smoked. We’re talking mouth full of angry wasps, here. Not at all pleasant.

Rather than end my evening with an awful memory, one that would inevitably turn later pipe dreams into sweat drenched, incendiary nightmares, I chose to dump the rest of the still screaming tobacco, swab out the bowl and shank with a couple of pipe cleaners, and try again with a charge of Piccadilly, a blend similar to, but also quite different from the originally chosen one. What a difference! The first few puffs still exhibited some of the fire - apparently not all the wasps had fled - but within a few minutes, the smoke began to sweeten up nicely, and after about the first quarter, the pipe had returned to its typically docile temperament. The garden hose found itself reconnected to the water tap, the cats departed to stalk mice silently in the field across the way, the hooligans had quit their raucous fiddling, and the few musicians that remained found their charts, and the civility to tune up.

Now, as I near the end of the bowl, and the end of this little chronicle, all that is left is a sweet string quartet, and a delightful smoke. Events like this always take me by surprise. I like to think that I know my pipes pretty well, and generally am successful at pairing them with tobaccos that will perform harmoniously. Usually when the surprise does come, it’s a pleasant one, and I take note of it, considering the history of the pipe, what tobaccos it has made friends with, and how I might one day repeat this serendipity. Once in a while, though, the spanner falls noisily into the works, and the machinery comes to an abrupt, sometimes painful halt. I take note of these occasions, too. It’s not likely I will ever fill this pipe with that first tobacco again.

I’ll write this one up as just one more adventure along the pipe smoker’s Magical Mystery Tour, and one more bit of evidence that every pipe has a personality, as does every tobacco, and not all pairs will cohabitate blissfully.-glp