I’ve taken up pipe smoking again, after a three-year hiatus from real tobacco.
I’d been getting my nicotine fix from those disposable, electronic cigarettes ever since I had my first stroke in 2010 and then had two more last year before I found out that the e-cigarettes have their own blend of poison metal particles and are probably as dangerous to my health as the regular old tar and nicotine that come from real tobacco smoke.
Bottom line is that there is no safe way to ingest nicotine and that tobacco probably kills off as many people as lard and other greasy food. So, please do not take this column as an endorsement or inducement to take up smoking because there is no doubt in my mind that it is a very harmful habit.
On the other hand, I found myself unable to quit after deciding I was going to and decided that if I was going to kill myself anyway, I might as well enjoy it. And I do, in fact, enjoy my pipes.
I purchase my tobacco online now, from Abenaki Tobacco Company in Conway, N.H. Named for a tribe of Native Americans who inhabit that part of New England, Abenaki Tobacco’s only product is pipe tobacco. They blend, not only the hands down best and smoothest mixtures I have ever smoked, with only one exception, but also the least expensive. Talk about your well-kept secrets.
The Abenaki brand is not well-known simply because they don’t spend money advertising and they cater mostly, to pipe smokers in New England and those of us who discovered them by accident. Suffice to say that you will not find it on the shelf at your favorite tobacco store.
Most really good pipe tobacco costs over $7 and up for a tin or pouch that weighs less than 2 ounces. Some brands are much higher than that and cater to suckers who have more money than common sense. Abenaki prices are far less than half that, even after priority mail shipping charges.
My old friend from college days, the late John Bowers, who took up making granny fighting cider, a freeze distilled liquor made from apples, also grew several types to tobacco that he processed into both chewing tobacco and his own special blend of pipe tobacco.
He sold the chewing twists (made from regular old burley) wholesale to several country stores scattered throughout Pike, Floyd, Knott and Martin counties, as well as some just over in West Virginia.
But John also grew nearly a dozen other varieties of tobacco from saved seed that he had originally acquired from France, England, Turkey, Cuba and several Mediterranean countries. He staggered the very small , one or two rows, crop planting and used separated fields to prevent cross pollination. He blended the various varieties to make only three or four mixtures that ranged from very mild to smothering strong smokes.
After retiring from the mines, he became off-season caretaker of Camp Shawnee (then a summer Boy Scout camp that encompassed over 900 acres on Dewey Lake). He pretty much used the camp however he wanted for the 10 months when no kids were around. For the four years I was in college, I often stayed at the camp, where I worked full time all summer, on weekends so John could go home or take care of business.
My grandpa and later my Uncle Stevie Craft had taught me how to use a sharp pocket knife to cut the stems and veins out of a tobacco leaf, because they, too, made chewing twists. John not only put me to doing that chore for him, but my skill at it led him to proclaim that there might be some hope for me after all.
Once the exotic varieties were cured and de-veined, he stacked the leaves in many layers, inserting sassafras root and vanilla beans here and there and then spraying the 16-inch thick stacks down with 90 proof granny fighting cider with a pump-up garden pressure sprayer. The stacks of leaves were then placed on wide oak boards, another board was laid on top of them and weighted down with coffee sacks loaded with creek gravel. Then it was left to cure for a year or so.
Mrs. Bowers, who worked for the school system, found John a broken paper slicer; one of those long handled jobs with a blade that looks like it was designed for use on a guillotine. After removing all the sassafras root and vanilla beans, John used the paper cutting board to slice stacks of tobacco leaf into ultra thin, half inch long, strips of pipe tobacco. If it seemed a tad too dry, he dampened it with the cider.
John had a long-standing group of fairly elite customers who included bankers, lawyers, politicians (including a few federal court judges) and wealthy businessmen who also stocked up on granny fighting cider.
I once asked him how much he got for the tobacco and he told me college boys couldn’t afford it but he’d give me all I needed. And, to this day, there are some fellows who lived in my dorm or hung out in the Pikeville College student center who still wonder where I got my pipe tobacco and why I was so stingy about sharing it.
Even Abenaki pipe tobacco is not quite up to the blends that died with John Bowers in the 1980s. But it’s better, in my opinion, than anything else on the market today, at way less than half the price of most other stuff. But you’ll have to buy it online or drive to Conway, N.H.. The website is tobaccoforpipes.com. Or simply Google Abenakai Tobacco and follow your nose. Email me and I’ll tell you the blends that I enjoy: firstname.lastname@example.org.