Modern society is addicted to convenience. Let me expand on that: over time, as anything succeeds, its challenges decrease and it focuses on absolute convenience so it can bore itself to death. Old companies, stale friend groups, even churches and heavy metal bands fall prey to this. At some point, everything becomes easy and everyone becomes bored, and quality plummets. Life is an existential process after all that benefits from the search for pleasure, adventure and intensity (“a repo man is always intense”) more than stability, convenience and the other stuff that goes into Excel spreadsheets when users answer surveys.
For pure convenience, nothing beats the cigarette. Buy a pack and a lighter, then throw them out when consumed. The more intrepid seek a greater intensity of flavor from cigars and pipes which burn cooler and are absorbed through the cheeks instead of the lungs, so require a bit of a slower pace. Even with those fields a variety of conveniences exist. Some cigars are designed to burn evenly over any other factor, and many pipe tobaccos are meant to target the holy trinity of easy lighting, mild flavor and cool burning. For those who seek to push past all barriers, and to exceed past sensations, the more difficult realm of flakes, twists and plugs awaits. These were traditionally tobaccos for those who smoked pipes as away of avoiding expensive cigarettes, and who were busy with their hands and bodies and so were not sitting comfortably in an easy chair sipping on a pipe. They smoked all day, and they liked tobacco like their lives: rough, durable and strong. Coincidentally they usually had at least one pocketknife on their persons and were accustomed to using manual dexterity at a moment’s notice. For such a person, dragging an aged twist from an inner pocket, brushing off the lint and slicing it into shreds was a matter of course.
In our current time, convenience (and entropy) has just about won out, as has the belief that jobs which involve sitting inside cubicles in the glow of multiple screens are the desired lifestyle. When we can smoke, it is in our homes away from the prying eyes of society and the databases of law enforcement and health insurance (many of us smoke with our rifles and tricorner hats close at hand for this reason). Tobacco blends have kept up with this and now come mostly in tins with elegant labels and fine cuts. While those have their place as well, and are very enjoyable, many of us are turning toward the older forms of twists and plugs for the power of that form. Not only are they stronger, reminding us that smoking like life is a struggle against the forces of nature, but they bring back the ritual of an older time. The focus, dexterity and precision are as much a part of this as any other aspect. Slicing layers of pressed tobacco, then rubbing it into strips, and packing a pipe not for an armchair smoke but for walking around in the world, interacting with it and moving with purpose, this provides a different sort of enjoyment.
Take for instance the Peterson Peterson’s Perfect Plug. Easily available across North America and Europe, it is relatively low-cost owing to the predominance of the Peterson brand, which is currently manufactured by Mac Baren. This makes it a great plug to start with since it is neither exotic nor unduly expensive and in its abundance, allows enough material to experiment with. The plug comes in a tin, beneath a layer of cardboard surrounded by a ruff of tissue paper, and is then sealed inside a plastic bag. Slicing apart the bag and tossing the cardboard, one finds a brick of pressed tobacco leaf which resembles a very dense brownie. Since the tobacco is layered, the plug is sliced in thin flakes from the end, much as flake tobacco is made with much larger plugs at the factory. You control the width of this flake and that is where some of the magic of plugs originates:
- Slice it thin for a lighter and shorter smoke with more sweetness. If you cut to the width of a postcard or narrower, the soft feathers of tobacco rub out into something closer to a shag which burns quickly, delivering predominantly the notes of sweeter tobaccos with more natural sugar like Virginias.
- Cut it thicker for a dense-burning long smoke that emphasizes the savory flavors. This lets it smoulder and melds the nuttier flavors of the Burley with the denser flavors of Virginias that come out with aging and slow burning.
- If you want to experience the toppings alongside the slower flavors, since this plug is lightly flavored with a fruit and anise mixture, cut thick flakes and then cut them the opposite direction into 1/4 inch cubes. Rub those slightly, let them dry and pile them in the pipe for a long-burning melange of flavors.
It is my feeling that the original smokers of plugs used them in each one of these different ways. They sliced thin for the first smoke of the day to wake themselves up, and cut rough during the day for hourlong pipes while they worked on whatever they did, and may have done a variation on the two or a cube-cut on weekends and after work to wind down. The versatility of the plug enabled it to be many tobaccos at once by emphasizing different flavors, speeds and volume of smoke. Being familiar with mechanics and some chemistry, the original smokers of the plug naturally adapted to this usage, in addition to enjoying a hardy piece of tobacco that could be tucked in a pocket alongside a knife for a no-frills but slightly inconvenient use.
Thanks to the resurrection of pipe smoking by the internet and its ability to join scattered people into groups, pipe smoking has experienced a revival and with it many old blends have returned as new ones have sprouted like the flowers of spring. This audience rewards intensity as it is united not by the convenience of the local tobacco store and friends to smoke with, but interest in something that is more than a hobby and less than an addiction. It is both a fascination and a lifestyle choice, a relaxation and intensification of life at the same time it is a way of dispensing with modern habits to gain appreciation for the timeless. One way to spin it faster is to go back to the revered and cherished form of pipe tobacco, the plug. Naturally, that adventure goes best with the music of open frontiers and wars in the heavens, Celtic Frost.