By G. L. Pease
Not long ago, on a hot, sultry evening, I was out back, grilling chicken and burgers for the evening dinner – on days like that, the thought of standing at the stove, or turning on the oven finds me wanting to run to the nearest walk-in freezer and take up permanent residence – while puffing on a bowl of what I thought was my usual choice of tobaccos for hot summer smoking. If you’ve read along for a while, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of heavy Latakia mixtures in the heat of summer, and often forgo the pipe completely in favor of a good cigar. Cigars were born in hot, humid climates, and are as welcome for outdoor cooking as a Panama hat and dark specs. The pipe? The right blend works, and my choice of a particular mixture sporting a little cigar leaf and not too much Latakia has worked really well for me since I accidentally discovered it some time ago. But, full Latakia mixtures? Never! They’re just too bold, too assertive, too fatiguing to the palate during the dog days’ swelter.
Waiting for the other shoe to drop? Here it is: I was actually smoking a full Latakia blend that I was working on at the time. My brain, dramatically addled by the heat of the day, managed to completely forget what I was smoking, and filled in the missing information through association. "He’s outdoors, grilling, smoking a pipe. It’s got to be Key Largo. Yes. That’s what it is." I didn’t argue. Of course, as soon as the realization came to consciousness, the tobacco mysteriously transformed. I was no longer enjoying my ritual grill-time smoke, but feeling a little silly over this ridiculous mistake, lost my pleasure in the smoke.
That’s the power of suggestion. Twice. First, the thought of smoking something I truly enjoy, at a time when I truly enjoy it had a stronger influence over the actual experience than it probably should have. Really, I should have known. I was smoking a pipe dedicated to full Latakia mixtures, so it must have been one, right? And, it was at a time when I was busy working on the formula for what was to become Lagonda, so what else would I be smoking, but full Latakia mixtures, mostly prototypes. What’s worse is that I consciously set out to smoke these prototypes during the hotter days, just to see if it might overcome my prejudice. After all, there are plenty of pipesters who enjoy full mixtures even on days that feel to me like I’ve been strapped, half dead, to the squeaking iron doors of hell’s furnace.
I simply forgot, momentarily, but completely, what I was smoking, and the coyote in my head hypnotized me into thinking I was smoking something I wasn’t. I could taste all those subtle nuances – the cigar leaf underpinning the sweet virginias and spicy orientals; the hint of Cyprus’s smoky stuff adding a nice depth, some bass notes for the rest of the tune to counterpoint. And, none of it was real. Certainly, there were enough cues in the smoke to keep the delusion going for a while. The Latakia was there, the virginias, the orientals, but the cigar leaf was completely absent, and the balance of the rest of the tobaccos was totally different.
I once read in a book on wine tasting that many people, blindfolded, wouldn’t be able to tell if they were served a white wine or a red. I didn’t believe it, and still am not sure that I do, but here’s a tiny speck of evidence that slightly supports the claim. Certainly, I’m reasonably acquainted with the blends I smoke, especially the ones I make. If anyone should be able to tell the difference between one and another, it should be me, right? (Just nod your head in agreement. I’m making a point.) But, I was completely bamboozled this time by other factors. Habituation, set and setting, and environment, were supported by just enough sensory clues, and I was all in, fully convinced, and quite wrong.
The second way this sinister power spellbound me was when I realized I was not smoking what I thought I was, and suddenly, though I’d been enjoying it immensely just moments before, found myself not at all happy with what was in my pipe. The coyote again. "You don’t like full mixtures in the summer. You even wrote a column about it, remember?" Yeah, I remember. I cashed the cheque. Never mind that I’d been smoking prototypes of the stuff for weeks, in all the myriad weather we’d had. (This summer’s been exceedingly weird, with days ranging from almost cold to blistering, sometimes in the same week. It’s actually been great for exploring different blends under the influence of different environmental conditions, but enough already. Bring on fall, please.)
Of course, this immediately called into question some of the assertions I’ve made in the past about what I like, what I don’t like, when I do or don’t like them, and why. Given how easily I was fooled that day at the grill, how much of any of that is really true?
None of us are immune to the power of suggestion. Peer pressure, the bane of adolescence, or at least the parents of adolescents, isn’t lacking in influence even amongst our coterie of sophisticated, thoughtful, rational pipe smoking adults. We all get sucked in, sometimes, even when we know it’s happening.
This all came back to mind when I received an email from an overseas friend to whom I’d sent some samples of some of my fave vintage weeds. Amongst other things, he wrote, "A day fishing, a good meal, good wine, and time to try the OE. Am I prejudiced because you like it? Don’t know. But, I certainly do!" Even my wise and learned friend is fully aware of the possibility of being seduced by his expectations borne from my own enthusiasm over the tobacco.
We’re surrounded by suggestion every day, and now that we, as pipe smokers, have such a large, active and diverse on-line community, with the ability to share our thoughts and impressions at the press of a few buttons, those suggestions may now be influencing our collective tastes. Every time someone posts in a "What are you smoking" thread, and we read it, we undergo a subtle shift. If we like the blend being discussed, we might find ourselves wanting a bowl. If we don’t, we might unconsciously press the tastes of our colleague under the thumb of scrutiny. Or, perhaps we’re on the fence about something, and that little message we read in the morning might push us off over the edge to click the "order now" button before tumbling to the ground. On the other side of this is that something we might otherwise like may be so apparently universally reviled by our electronic cohorts, so it seems, that we might find ourselves reluctant to go exploring for ourselves, and even if we do, we might be less likely to talk freely about it. (Some tobaccos have possibly rightfully earned their bad reputations, but, these tobaccos clearly continue to sell well, or 1) they wouldn’t be on the market, and 2) we wouldn’t all know about them.)
Naturally, there are those who will consciously buck the trend, fashioning themselves as the rugged individualist, uninfluenced by the vox populi. In fact, that, too, is a result of suggestion, and these self-styled iconoclasts may well e missing out on some fantastic experiences simply because they choose to oppose the stream of influence of popular opinion.
As a different sort of illustration, I recall the big Bordeaux hype over the 1982 vintage. "The vintage of the century!" we were told. (It wasn’t the first of those, neither was it the last, but in my recollection, it was certainly one of the loudest.) Wine lovers scurried out to stock their cellars with the big, bold, and truly spectacular ’82s, many completely ignoring the under-hyped, stellar wines of the two adjacent years. Personally, I found as much, if not more pleasure in the ’81 and ’83 vintages, which was certainly to my advantage, at least as regards my wallet at the time. But, the press was abuzz over the ’82s, and the sales were brisk. People spent a fortune. Good for them, it was a great vintage. But it drew a lot of attention away from some other wonderful wines. I’d like to say that my own buying decisions were based solely on my own palate, but I have to confess that two other influences played a non-insignificant role. The ’82s certainly tended to cost more, which put a lot of the better ones out of my reach, but I also enjoyed the delusion that I was being one of those bold, iconoclastic trend-buckers I mentioned in the previous paragraph. I told myself that I was buying the ’81s and ’83s not only because I liked them, which I did, but because they were better, I was better, because I wasn’t taking a ride on that noisy, crowded ’82 bandwagon packed with those under the thrall of the Svengali like wine experts and their newsletters. In retrospect, though I did get some exquisite wines from the ’81 and ’83 vintages, I also missed out on opportunities to get some pretty great ’82s.
So, what’s my point? Just this: Sometimes, just maybe, we might find ourselves liking something we otherwise might not, simply because we subconsciously think we should based on what we’ve read what we’ve been told, or the situation in which we’re smoking it, or any other factor. Conversely, we may think we dislike something we otherwise might really enjoy for similar reasons. Of course, this doesn’t always happen, we’re not always some some sort of gustatory trance, but it might happen more often that we’d like to admit. It’s dangerous to underestimate the power of suggestion.
But, does any of this really matter? Taste is not an objective thing, and very few of us are in a position where we have to be objective in our pipe smoking. Generally, we either like or dislike something, and in the end, who really gives a flying fig why, as long as we’re deriving the greatest pleasure possible from the time spent with our beloved briars.
What I might suggest, though, is that once in a while, it might be a good idea to do a little sanity check, a little sensory housecleaning where we leave our preconceptions at the door, and see if the coyote’s power of suggestion might have been causing us to delude ourselves in some subtle way. We should try something we don’t think we’ll like, or smoke a blend we prefer in the winter on a blistering hot day. Exploring a style of tobacco we’ve never have before might be an interesting experience. We might not find gold in these little mining adventures, but a door of perception may be opened, through which a new dimension of enjoyment might be found. What could it hurt? We can always go back. Or, can we?
I’ll end with a quote from a Fleetwood Mac song, written by their then guitarist, Bob Welch.
Now you know it’s a meaningless question
To ask if these stories are right.
‘Cause what matters most is the feeling
You get when you’re hypnotized.
Since 1999, Gregory L. Pease has been the principal alchemist behind the blends of G.L. Pease Artisanal Tobaccos. He’s been a passionate pipeman since his university days, having cut his pipe teeth at the now extinct Drucquer & Sons Tobacconist in Berkeley, California. Greg is also author of The Briar & Leaf Chronicles, a photographer, recovering computer scientist, sometimes chef, and creator of The Epicure’s Asylum.