Tuesday, December 11, 2012

‘Personal best’

Alas, Magpie tobacco is no more.
Undoubtedly the hot topic of conversation in New Jersey Masonic circles this month is this newfangled pipe club that all the kids are talking about. The Craftsmen’s Calumet Club hasn’t even met for the first time yet, and already there’s so much buzz everyone thinks their cell phones are on the fritz.

Saturday was the occasion of the 2012 Northeast Regional Pipe Smoking Contest at Peekskill, New York. There was a lot more to the day than the contest, which actually didn’t begin until after a hearty repast and hours of mingling, buying, selling, trading – oh yeah, and smoking. This took place inside the factory where Kaywoodie pipes are manufactured. I suppose Kaywoodie is to pipes what Ford is to automobiles: They’re not necessarily the most exotic or expensive on the market, but they have stood the test of time by setting the standards other manufacturers emulate, while maintaining quality and affordability for the consumer. Among my own modest pipe collection, there is one Kaywoodie I bought about a decade ago; it has been a favorite since day one, and has been smoked more often than some of the others ever will be.

The Craftsmen’s Calumet Club was entered in the contest with a third of our membership present to take part. I am that third. If you’re not familiar with pipe smoking contests, the goal is not to smoke as many pipes as possible, but to smoke a single pipe under various restrictions for the longest duration. In American contests you typically see winners clocking in at an hour and change. Saturday’s winner, named Bill Mason, kept his tobacco burning for 65 minutes and some odd seconds. (In European contests, there are guys who keep their pipes lit for more than three hours. This is due to intense concentration and technique on the part of the serious competitors, which frankly you don’t see in the United States because Americans are too drawn to chatting and having fun, which makes more sense to me.)

Not only was this my first attempt in a pipe smoking contests, but it also was my very first attempt at smoking for longevity. Smoking is purely for pleasure, so struggling to stay lit on a single match simply is not a factor when I set gentle flame to fragrant leaf. In a rigidly timed format, the contestants are given identical briar pipes, identical samples of a tobacco, identical tampers, and two identical wooden matches. The competitors are given five minutes to prepare their tobacco for smoking, and to pack their bowls. Then two minutes are allotted for lighting up; with the two matches, each smoker first lights for charring, and then uses the second match to actually light his pipe for smoking. Once lit, you have to keep it lit.

The pipe was a Kaywoodie straight panel with sandblast finish. The tobacco was exactly one bowl of Chief Catoonah Tobacconists’ Princes Street Mixture, which happens to be the winner of the 2012 John Cotton Throwdown in Chicago. The tampers were four-inch sections of half-inch dowel – seriously no frills, and pointedly no tools. And the matches were just two regular wooden matches.

I had no idea how I’d perform, but I figured a best possible showing would last between five and eight minutes. Turns out I smoked for 33 minutes and 20 seconds, making for a tenth place finish among 54 contestants. I’m pretty happy with this personal best, which I probably never will equal or surpass. It was a lot of fun. I met some very nice people, which is pretty much the only kind of people one finds in pipe clubs and pipe events. Pipe smoking mellows you. There were prizes for all contestants, and since I ranked tenth I was able to choose one of the better offerings, which was a tin of McClelland Black Sea Sokhoum from 2008. I have been a fan of their Grand Orientals line for a number of years, and I look forward to trying this one.

Anyway, this is just a longwinded announcement to publicize the Craftsmen’s Calumet Club. All Freemasons are welcome to join, no matter how much experience one may have in pipe smoking. Check out our Faceypage. We’ll organize a first meet-up pretty soon.

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