Cafe Society

Give Them a Hand

My father used to smoke a pipe. For decades, the man was rarely without it, and he seemed to be forever packing and unpacking it, tamping it, lighting it, re-lighting it or just generally fussing with it. I came to know the sounds of his pipe-smoking as a kind of signature -- a DEW line of his presence in any room -- and even today, the smell of burley and bright will instantly bring him to my mind.

These days, the man mostly smokes cigarillos. He’s given up the pipe, the tins of Half & Half and bags of black cherry tobacco. Things are different. But I still have a powerful connection with that smell, with the mechanics of pipe smoking.

I remember being a teenager -- sixteen, maybe seventeen, already a smoker myself -- and sitting in his chair in the living room one night when my folks were gone; taking up the tools of his habit and trying to make them work. I remember being older, traveling, and picking up a cheap cob pipe and a foil bag of Half & Half at a drugstore, sitting in a cheap motel room and trying to go through the motions myself -- the packing, tamping, lighting and drawing. I did it because I missed his quiet, stoic company. The smell of his presence. What I learned was that pipe smoking is not something that one can aspire to casually. It takes a certain skill, a certain expertise, to make it work. How to pack the tobacco, how to hold the match, how to hold the pipe itself -- what it requires is practice: a series of motions that, once performed a thousand times, simply become reflex. My dad? He’d been smoking his pipe since I was a toddler. It was as much a part of his body as the fingers that made it work.

I was reminded of this refinement, this ease of manipulation, while sitting at a sushi bar for this week’s review (I'll post a preview here later today), watching the hands of the sushi chef prepare my fish.

Some people dedicate their lives to the study of pianist’s fingers or the way a violinist draws the bow. Others could talk for hours about the way a pitcher grips the ball before delivering a slider across the plate. Me? I remember the way my father tamped his pipe and thrill to the hands of true sushi savants at work, because they are two things that I never had the discipline or the desire to learn. -- Jason Sheehan