In Search of my Grandfather’s Tobacco

In Search of my Grandfather’s Tobacco 

His name was Robert Forest Jones.

To this day, some forty plus years later, I recall the man; he was the tallest member of the family (until I surpassed him at age eighteen) with vivid blue eyes, housed in a long face with receding hair in strands of blonde and silver; he had a penchant for red Hawaiian shirts and wood hued, scratchy wool Pendleton shirts; his slacks, also of wool, gave the impression his hips started at his sternum. And I shall never forget the hula girl that he housed on his right forearm nor the billowing pipe that often hung from his lips.

I recall too, watching him when I was four, agog at his side, as he dipped into one of his tobacco pouches and with his thumb press down this mysterious dark brown stuff into his pipe. I sat there, absorbing it all with utter fascination; the struck match and the roar of the flame; I marveled at the jolts of yellow fire on the exhale and the gopher flame on the draw. With gusto, my grandfather would heave massive, towering volcanic flames and great rolling clouds of smoke into the air. Then the aroma would come up, sweetly brown and rich, scented of earth and forbidden promise. The smoke would hover above us, and these blue-gray tendrils would push slowly across the shuttered sunlit room, drifting, swirling, and dissipating into Mom’s curtains.

Oh that essence at the light! This delectable, sweet, smoky nectar, the commingling of paper matches and the (now identifiable) burley and cased Cavendish.

Many years later—after I took up the pipe myself—buried well within the recesses of my food and scent memories, my grandfather’s tobacco came to mind. After my initial foray into our beloved leaf (Butternut Burley), I began to think of my Grandfather and of his pipes and of what he smoked.

For my first year of brotherhood, the question haunted me: what ever did Grandpa Jones smoke?

Since I had never smoked one of his pipes (I was, after all, a very innocent young child) and I had three things to go on: tin and room notes and artwork of the packaging.

I immediately recalled the exhausted Prince Albert cans he kept in his garage. Ever practical, my Grandfather—who I remember once complained bitterly to a drugstore salesgirl when the price of pipe-cleaners reached the astronomical price of ten cents—used his empty Prince Albert tins to store nails and screws. I do cringe however when I recall he painted them Mediterranean blue….

So, from the comforts of my armchair, I began my quest.

Based on my initial impressions of Butternut Burley, I recognized that my Grandfather smoked Burley. Therefore, I started off my hunt with a large (and now sadly, plastic can) of Prince Albert.

That wasn’t quite it. I certainly don’t recall Grandpa’s tobacco snapping and crackling like a noted breakfast cereal.

Now as you pipe-smokers know, when you are on the business end of a pipe, it’s hard to be fully cognizant of the room note of your tobacco de jour. I got the pipe going, left the room and returned two minutes later.

All I could smell were the matches.

I tried again, this time puffing and puffing, generating heaps of smoke ala Grandpa.

An exit. A return. A sore tongue.

Nope. It wasn’t Prince Albert.

Now, my first cognitive encounters with my Grandfather’s pipes happened in 1961.

Had the recipe changed that much over the intervening years? Was the removal of DDT from the fields the cause for such dramatic sensory negation? Or perhaps the culprit was the absence of the metal tin?

I went back to my leather chair, smoked more and more tobacco and pondered.

Let me see—Grandfather was, to put it politely—frugal. He owned three pipes, all war- horses. I remember him showing me his final two additions to his rotations. It was in 1965.

He presented them with the same enthusiasm that I would have shown off my prized G.I. Joe to my best friend. One of the pipes was one of those silver filigreed numbers with a race horse pattern. (I’ve come to learn it was a Medico). The other was a Falcon, which looked very futuristic at the time. I know he also splurged while on that spree and bought a tin of tobacco. But his tins always came from the drugstore. He shunned aromatic tobaccos. I do recall him trying something with Cherry once and then proclaiming, in words I did not fully understand in my innocent youth, how the tobacco was appropriate for visits with women of dubious reputation who worked in France. Trust me; he wasn’t at all politically correct in his descriptions. No, Grandpa was from Missouri and only good old fashioned tobacco would do. So what would, what could he buy at Thrifty Mart in 1965?

The more I puffed, the more glimmers of memory started to filter through:  the images of labels and fading dyes came to mind. I started to look seriously at the drugstore blends.

I tried Carter Hall—nope.

Sir Walter Raleigh—not the aromatic one, that’s certain. How about the straight?

Not quite it, the sweet undertones of the room note were missing. Something was familiar but that allusive “it” was still too far away.

Ships? Were there ships on a little packet or something?

Borkum Riff? Well, the color was sort of there. The room note offered that aroma but it was too intense.

Had age altered my perceptions?

I continued searching and recalling fleeting glimmers in the ether.

Men. Yes, men. Men huddled in close communication. What was that painting? Oh! Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch (I had to look that one up) better known as The Night Watch! Thank-you Rembrandt!

So, on the prowl for a pipe tobacco with a group of cheery faced fellows in close communion, I acquired some Dutch Masters, fired up and flashed back upon a piece of my childhood in the ample smoke. My wife commented on the room note; “Oh I like that one. It reminds me of something from the 1960’s!”

I drew on the pipe, awash in Cavendish.

I squinted, sniffed the air, watched the embers and thought, ‘this was close, but not quite the same thing.’

Staring up into the smoke trails I asked once again, “What in the world did my Grandfather smoke?”

Suddenly, it occurred to me. And in a cinematic flicker, I saw it all unfold….

My grandfather owned two tobacco pouches. One was the color of sun kissed vulcanite. The other was a tightly woven, brightly colored plaid that would have worked as a tartan for Bozo. (I told you he was frugal–I’m certain this was acquired at a considerable discount). In my eyes, I saw his hand dip into those pouches and dump things on a plate and—my Grandfather—God love him—blended his own tobacco!

I remember seeing him doing it once. He was far from scientific. I mean, I personally use an antique gold scale for my blending (Ah ha! I bet that’s where I got the blending bug from!) But Grandpa was one of those: a “bit of this, a bit of that” kind of fellow.

I realized that Grandpa mixed together Prince Albert with Dutch Masters with a pinch of Sir Walter Raleigh. (I think this one came from his pocket—most likely from his coin purse—after all, he only owned two pouches). I know! Grandpa named this concoction after himself—Robert Forest Jones. My Grandmother, a sharp tongued Italian woman from New York, took his RF initials and would call him Rat Fink, therefore, Rat Finks blend came into existence.

O.k., I’ve got a name, the components but what were the ratios?

I tried the pinch of this and a pinch of that and by God, it worked!

Then, approaching this as a high school science experiment sans lab coat, I tried to replicate it by measuring the tobaccos out.

It didn’t work. Dismal on all counts.

So, failed by science, I repeated the process doing the pinch of this and a pinch of that method and once again, I met with success.

Oh, the cruelty of science!

I started to separate the leaves but I felt that was overkill. Besides, it’s casing in the brew that made the stew.

I’ll tell you one lesson I learned while searching for my Grandfather’s tobacco—I decided to make my “signature” tobacco one that my young son can readily find in later years. (Assuming politics don’t get in the way, but that’s a different issue altogether).

Since I keep a well stocked cellar, I’ve also have written down the names of my top twenty blends—far more than my Grandfathers more simple three. (Perhaps we are in the glory days of pipe tobacco?) And the notes are kept with a pipe that I have set aside for my boy. So what if the lad is only nine years old at the moment? He will at least always know why his Dad smells the way he does and where that lovely aroma came from.

But then again, perhaps that gold scale of mine and a few condiment tobaccos, a recipe book and a youtube post of how to make smoke rings will be all that’s required to see us into the next few generations…but then again, in this age of instant gratification, I may be better off leaving the tins. (Don’t worry—he’ll still get the scale and recipe books).

By the way, my Grandfathers tobacco—it’s not a bell ringer. But then, I certainly learned a great deal in my quest for finding my grandfather’s tobacco.

Now, I’m going to light up a pinch of Rat Fink, try not to shudder and blow a few rings to the moon. These are for you Grandpa.

ByPaul J. Hinsberger, Spring 2008

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