An American Tradition: Corn Cob Pipes and Aromatic Tobacco
In my mind, few images are more strikingly American than a person of the land smoking an aromatic blend in a corn cob pipe. Many will disagree, but that’s ok. Briar is not an American product, and briar pipes did not originate on American soil. But again, that’s ok. We owe a great debt to our European friends who first discovered and mastered the art of briar pipe making. But the humble cob is the domain of American craftsmanship, unequalled by anyone else in the world. To me, the most appropriate and iconic tobaccos for the cob are aromatic blends. Although often belittled or neglected by pipe enthusiasts, aromatic blends are important to the pipe smoking world, and rightfully so. Let’s talk about the splendid relationship that exists between cob pipes, aromatic pipe tobacco, and the culture of rural America.
Cob pipes hearken back to a time when America was predominantly agricultural. With origins in the 19th Century cornbelt region, cobs are quite literally the product of hardworking, dedicated farmers. Even now, the cob pipe begins with well-tended land cultivated by those who love working soil. With a corn cob pipe, one is enjoying the products of agriculture: corn and tobacco. There’s something natural, down to earth, old-fashioned, and wholesome about this combination. The cob pipe is humble, basic, and amazingly satisfying. The experience reminds me of a time in this country when Americans knew how to “make do” with what they had, a skillset far more impressive than building a life reliant on machines. As historian David Danbom once said, America was born in the country but moved to the city. Yes, we know that Bing Crosby smoked his famous Merchant Service briar and C.S. Lewis enjoyed his briars packed with Three Nuns tobacco. But corn cob smokers do not take a backseat to these giants. The world is complicated, but the corn cob pipe remains refreshing and pleasant in its simplicity.
Growing up as a child, when I thought of a tobacco pipe, a corn cob always came to mind. I was raised in the rural South. Grandma and Grandpa watched HeeHaw on television and one of my earliest memories is when my parents took me to the Grand Ole Opry as a small boy. We watched the Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction for entertainment, all reruns by the time I was born. But I remember the corn cob pipes featured on these shows. It never once crossed my mind that the rural culture I inherited from my parents and grandparents was in any way “backwards” or “unsophisticated.” Such thoughts do not cross my mind now. We didn’t watch Bing Crosby when I was a kid. We watched shows that featured country people, and sometimes they smoked corn cob pipes. Even Frosty smoked a cob when the much-anticipated Christmas shows came on television after Thanksgiving each year.
From my perspective, corn cobs are made for aromatic blends. Since I started smoking a pipe, I’ve discovered that many folks who fancy themselves pipe and tobacco connoisseurs often detest aromatic blends of any kind. I find this odd. Most blends are topped or flavored in some way and a quality aromatic can be heavenly in flavor and presentation. I appreciate the flavor and excellence of mild or full English, straight Virginias, Virginia-Perique, Burleys, Dark-Fired Kentucky, etc. just as much as anyone. There are many times of the year when I crave a full English, a straight Virginia, Burleys, HH Old Dark Fired, the list goes on. But the blends that are constant for me in all seasons are aromatics. However, not all aromatics are created equal.
What makes for a good aromatic blend, and why do I prefer to smoke aromatics in a cob? This is not to say that I do not smoke aromatics in briar or meerschaum. I do. But the natural starchy sweetness of a cob transmits a unique element of flavor to an aromatic blend that I’ve not experienced through other mediums. It’s as if the natural flavor of the corn crop is being added at a condimental level to the overall blend profile. In short, a cob seems to enhance the taste of aromatic blends, and it does so in an interesting and appropriate way. But the blends should be good to start with. Bad aromatics, to me, are goopy with a chemical aftertaste. I prefer aromatics that are expertly blended, allowing for natural tobacco notes to come through whatever casings may be present. The natural tobacco flavor and topping/casing should compliment each other as perfectly as possible. This happens only with expert blending houses, including many smaller blenders who operate brick and mortar stores. (If you want blend recommendations, contact me.)
To the corn cob pipe: may it long live as a symbol of joy and peace for those who enjoy its simple pleasures.