In defense of tobacco

When Europeans arrived in the New World, they found the natives smoking tobacco, an indigenous leaf the Dominican chronicler Bartolome de las Casas said made them “benumbed and almost drunk.”

Tobacco leaves

Tobacco leaves

From the start, however popular it was among some, tobacco was judged by many to be very bad. King James I of England wrote a treatise against it, damning smoking as

“a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.”

Tobacco is a member of the nightshade family, whose siblings include potatoes, tomatoes and chili peppers, all of which contain some nicotine.

Even those among us who don’t smoke may confess that the smoldering aroma of good pipe tobacco or a fine cigar can be pleasant. The good news is that tobacco can be enjoyed in ways that don’t involve sucking hot smoke into your lungs.

The culinary possibilities of tobacco have been explored by innovative chefs such as Thomas Keller of California’s French Laundry, who infused coffee-flavored custard with tobacco leaf and served it to fellow chef and TV personality Tony Bourdain.

About two years ago, I ate a dinner at Tru that paired small batch Pappy Van Winkle bourbon with several dishes, including a lobster lightly smoked with tobacco. The beverage and leaf, both sons of the American South, were quite complementary, reflecting the fundamental culinary principle that what grows together, goes together.

The James Beard award-winning Chicago chef Carrie Nahabedian of Naha warns, though, that, “You need finesse when dealing with tobacco and food. It’s a fine line between beauty and nausea, just like using too much lemon balm: one minute beautiful and fresh, too much and it’s like a bar of soap.”

Nahabedian once prepared sweetbreads with a veal reduction infused with high-quality tobacco at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles for an Academy Awards party. She remembers the dish as “haunting in flavor and aroma, with a rich, smoky, earthy, leather-scented finish.”

Which brings us to chef Rick Gresh of David Burke’s Primehouse in the James Hotel, who has been experimenting with a medium amber ale finished with Blue Note pipe tobacco, a relatively sweet and mild Black Cavendish.

Gresh says he brewed this beer without a lot of hops to achieve “a sweet tobacco finish and that sensation of ‘I just smoked and now I’m drinking a beer.’ “

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