The Devil’s Picnic

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The Devil’s Picnic : Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit by Taras Grescoe

Grescoe’s irreverent examination of the world’s prohibited products is a flighty read covering several continents and nine censured substances. The main subject is prohibition, but nothing can be prohibited without engendering a black market for just that thing, so smuggling is addressed, as well as the hypocrisy at the heart of nearly every effort to ban anything. Grescoe's prose style is bombastic at times, but it's also humorous and quite entertaining.

Among the several deleterious items Grescoe goes in search of are Norwegian moonshine, unpasteurized French cheese, absinthe, and Cuban cigars, the last of which piqued my interest in particular.

Unfortunately, Grescoe is not a cigar aficionado. He approaches the subject as a former cigarette smoker, and by the end of the chapter he finds that he is still a cigarette smoker, and doesn’t care much for cigars. After working up to a pack of Nat Sherman cigarettes per day in a misguided attempt to “prepare” himself for a Cuban cigar, he’s suffering from a reawakened nicotine addiction. Accordingly, his focus on smoking restrictions in the U.S. turns out to be largely cigarette oriented.

And while cigarette smoking is severely restricted in the cities he visits – New York and San Francisco – sales of Cuban cigars are forbidden by federal law everywhere in the states. So Grescoe purchases three Habanos while in Montreal before his trip and then smuggles them into the U.S. Among them is a Cohiba Esplendido which he describes with pornographic glee:

Ramrod straight, cross hatched with veins beneath a membranous, batwinglike wrapper, the Esplendido felt firm but spongiform—indeed, almost sweaty—as I grasped its seven-inch-long shaft. It was as if some powerful shaman had sculpted vegetable matter into living tissue, pumped it into tumescence, and fettered it with a cock ring in the form of a paper band.

In New York he finds that smoking is prohibited even in bars, and a pack of cigarettes sells for $7.50. Upon seeing someone light up, bar proprietors come running to prevent the evildoer from violating Mayor Bloomberg’s edict. But Grescoe sees cigar smoking as a plutocrat’s domain, and notes that Bloomberg declined to comment when at a fancy dinner several wealthy financiers lit up cigars in violation of his own law. He mentions other examples of hypocrisy as well, such as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s smoking tent outside his California capitol office, in a state where smoking is prohibited in all public buildings.

Grescoe finds things a little looser in California, but not much. There he finds a culture of “smoke easies” akin to the speak-easies of the Prohibition era. Some bars have found ways around the law by having no official employees; instead all employees are part owners. Other places have found that the police will turn a blind eye, such as the “IRA Bar” where they “don’t give a shit about American smoking laws.”

But at the end we find Grescoe with his Esplendido on Mission Street at 2 a.m., chased away from the Odeon by a bartender worried about the police. He shares it with a woman he met in the bar.

After about fifteen minutes, with only minimal progress down the shaft, we agreed the process was feeling like a bit of a chore.

I stubbed out the $65 Esplendido and said to Linda, “You know, what I really want is another cigarette.”

“Yeah, “ she said, as we walked down Mission, continuing our smirtation. “You want to feel that smoke in your lungs, not your mouth.” She lit my Nat Sherman for me.

I was definitely hooked.

What a waste!

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