The Edifice of Memory
“When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered...the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls...bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory” Marcel Proust
When I was a child, one of my intense culinary delights was a simple dish served up by my mother mostly on days when she was too busy or tired to tackle something more complex. This dish consisted of flat egg noodles, cottage cheese, butter, salt and pepper. Everything was melted and gooey and comforting. Over the years I have attempted to recreate the taste, smell and texture of this basic wonder but, somehow, it just never quite gets there. My mother is no longer with us and can't council me on where I have gone wrong. When she was alive I never would have suggested making it for her since so much of the pleasure it gave came from her hand in the process. I have often wondered whether it was a matter of having the exact brands for the ingredients or whether the proportions in the mix were just a bit off. How hard could it be? Perhaps my memory of the experience has added an ineffable quality to the dish that exists outside of its intrinsic characteristics.
A local tobacconist and good friend is constantly telling me that there just isn't any pipe tobacco out there anymore that can measure up to the great tobaccos of the past. Whether it's Balkan Sobranie, Markovich, Three Nuns or the same number of Noggins (from Perth of course), we are bereft of the glories of these legendary blends unless we are willing to shell out a good deal of money for vintage tins. Of course, a few decades in the tin are going to change the mixture in wonderful and mysterious ways, and hence, I believe we may have something of a Proustian dilemma here.
Russ Oullette has recently re-imagined three of the great old John Cotton blends and he, like other fine and talented blenders, is continually reworking classic mixtures and making new ones that challenge our notions of what is possible when confronting the immense edifice of memory. Nothing he or Greg Pease or the Gawith blenders or Cornell and Diehl or McClelland or Mac Baren or Rattray's will ever make can compete with my memory of puffing on a new basket pipe with my friends at twenty years old while pursuing romance and adventure. It ain't gonna happen. That stuff just tasted better. Dunhill 965 was a different thing altogether back then, right? So were we.
Ok, we cannot get some of the tobaccos that went into blends from 40 years ago. This would certainly contribute to the difference. For me, though, the remarkable accomplishment inherent in the new Capstan or John Cotton, Bengal Slices or Dunhill's is that in using what is currently available we are now able to enjoy some fine blends that recreate the essence of classic tobaccos minus the powerful coloring of lost youth. I can get tremendous enjoyment out of Old Dog or Frog Morton while substituting joint pain for heartache. I am overwhelmed with great choices and am in awe of these blenders whose palates are so finely tuned that they can make new memories. Sometimes I envy pipe smokers just coming to the hobby who will, no doubt, create legends of their own.
Tracking down vintage tins is a fun and exciting hobby but having this continually expanding feast of smoke laid out before us is a wonder in and of itself. I am going to open a tin of (Russ Oullette's) John Cotton's Smyrna, pour a dram of the new Macallan Edition No. 1 and sing praises to the intrepid master artisans that do so much to enrich our senses. Hell, I may even put a pot of water on the stove and give those noodles another shot.