The below feature appears in the current issue of Gourmet Live and was written by Foster Kamer. Download the free Gourmet Live app to get this story and more.
From the moment they pegged gluttony as one of the seven original sins, an individual’s right to indulgence at the table has been under perpetual assault from someone, somewhere.
Islam and Judaism tell you that pork and shellfish are unclean. But those faiths are OK with eating cows. Which are sacred in Hinduism. Some people think a glass of wine is sacred; others think you’re going to hell for it. Vegetarians think you shouldn’t eat meat. Vegans think you shouldn’t eat almost anything. One of 2010’s best-selling books on eating was Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. Yes: rules. For food. Sixty-four of them. As if the tax code weren’t enough to deal with. Is there no longer anything in the basic process of eating that’s immune from both passionate assault and advocacy? Nothing that won’t put you in the middle of a violent argument…over what you eat?
It goes back to the dawn of modern agriculture, yet it’s never been terribly well documented. It’s a widespread and common practice, accessible to everyone from the world’s most wealthy to the savagely impoverished, yet you won’t find it on a menu. The people who do it don’t think twice about it, but you won’t find a single person who would promote this ritual of dining to anyone, let alone themselves. They’ve probably denounced it out loud, while partaking. It’s the most unhealthy of indulgences, a literal epicurean suicide that speaking in favor of would be, at the very least, irresponsible, and at worst, sociopathic and morally reprehensible.
Which is why the Postmeal Cigarette’s time is now.
There’s no doubt about it. Cigarettes smell. They make you smell. They make you ugly. They cause waste. And, oh, yeah: They kill you. They definitely, absolutely kill you. With industrial efficiency! It’s been proven. And as if they weren’t enough of an imposition on yourself, those around you also tend to die from them. That’s been proven, too. Smoking cigarettes is so bad for you, even the companies that make them are funding campaigns to help you stop buying them or never start buying them in the first place. When was the last time (other than a recall) that a restaurant or food supplier told you not to buy their stuff? Sure, McDonald’s offers whatever nonsense “healthy option” they’re pushing . But they never told you to not buy their fries.
Studies have time and time again proven that there is virtually nothing commercially available that is as unilaterally dangerous to your continued existence as that pack of Nails. For a very long time, tobacco use has been the reigning cause of preventable death in America. When smoking’s most loyal storm troopers (Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man) were vanquished, a pissed-off, lied-to public sued the pants, shirt, socks, and shoes off companies for having claimed in the 1950s that “Camels agree with your throat!” and Pall Malls “guard against throat-scratch.” This is an industry of organizations so definitively insidious and evil that they’re known to the public at large with a name the Imperial Forces might blush at: Big Tobacco. Smoking is the one thing in American culture where quitting means you’re a winner.
And, hey, smoking is no longer the leading cause of chronic preventable disease in America! According to a study published on January 5, 2010, by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine using research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control from 1993 to 2008, 18.5 percent of American smokers stubbed out for the last time —thus making room for that other cause of chronic ill health to rule in America: obesity.
Yes, so much very, very excellent food is, like smoking, not good for you. The difference is that while you can’t smoke healthily, you can potentially eat healthily. You only smoke when you drink? You still smoke. You ate at Peter Luger? You can enjoy some epicurean delights in moderation, and you can do it without harming anyone else. Unless you count the gigantic carbon footprint you threw down getting that small fist–size organic, hormone-free, grass-fed piece of free-range meat. You think your socially conscious moderation isn’t hurting anyone? Go Google the words “peak oil,” read a few things about Monsanto, and then try not to bill Gourmet Live for the therapy sessions.
But that’s just it: Most of the things you can enjoy are being assailed from somewhere—probably with some degree of fairness. In an age when everything we do may seem an unnecessary exercise in excess, there’s comfort in knowing there’s no escape from indulgence. This also kills a lot of the fun in indulging. In fact, all of it. This is where the case for the ultimate—maybe the very last—indulgence begins.
The distance between smoking and food really isn’t far. Both are consumed orally (which lends itself to all kinds of indulgent imagery). Both satisfy your appetite, though in different ways. Much like the caffeine in your after-dinner coffee, nicotine’s a stimulant, and even the mere thought of a cigarette can send a coffee-like signal from your brain to your bowels: It tells them to loosen up. Surely, when tobacco was introduced to Eurasia in the 16th century, it didn’t take too long to figure this out?
You know what did take us a while to figure out? That smoking and eating are both laced with chemicals that lead to behavioral patterns resembling those of drug addicts. In 2004, the Society for Neuroscience reported that smoking triggers the release of opioids, as in opiates, as in: morphine, heroin, and an entire class of drugs widely prescribed (and abused!) legally and illegally in America. In 2010, the Scripps Research Institute released a study demonstrating that fatty, sugary, and high-calorie foods caused a bunch of rats to act like smack addicts, and thus uncovered “the most thorough and compelling evidence that drug addiction and obesity are based on the same underlying neurobiological mechanisms,” according to Scripps Associate Professor Paul Kenny.
And so it is that through depraved drug use, the Postmeal Cigarette is a relative-by-marriage of food. But what’s the thrill? Well, it is also, of course, first cousins with the popular Postcoital Cigarette, wherein one good turn—or dirty, depraved romp in the sack—deserves another. The imagery of lust and indulgence transposed to all that blowing and sucking? Where isn’t the sin in that?
Nicotine—again, like coffee—can also account for heightened alertness. There’s one high. And you know how you feel after a large meal? Like you could sleep in the car on the way home? Well, a little cigarette-induced increase of acetylcholine and norepinephrine to the dome will help with that. Counterintuitively, cigarettes also help reduce anxiety, thanks to the shot of beta-endorphins you get from puffing. Finally, if that mind-blowing sex or meal felt like an accomplishment or a reward, a cigarette on top of it only increases that feeling, by extending the dopamine you got from the experience—as nicotine also acutely activates brain reward systems and induces what’s been characterized as a long-lasting increase in reward sensitivity. Which helps if you feel slightly guilty about the meal (or person) you just indulged in. It’s OK. It happens to all of us.
The bottom line is this: Smoking a cigarette after eating a meal feels goddamn incredible. It’s a physical, psychological, and emotional relief. It’s the finish line. It’s the postindulgence indulgence. The worst part? It feels spectacular in a manner so many less destructive things should feel, but don’t. But that’s always the case, isn’t it?
It’s only recently that smoking and dining publicly parted ways in America, and that the stigma has grown. Until a few years ago, most restaurants were divided into “smoking” and “nonsmoking” sections—unimaginable for the most recent generation. Yet behind kitchen doors, smoking has long been a hallmark of the food service industry.
Next time you catch Top Chef or Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, go ahead and count how many of the contestants smoke, or the scenes in which Tony is found holding a cig off-camera. In fact, in a recent report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, almost 45% of food-service workers reported smoking cigarettes in the past month, vs. 28% of all U.S. full-time employees. This despite the obvious fact that a waiter reeking of smokes isn’t exactly good for business, and also despite another bit of smoking science.
In 2009, a study published in the medical journal BMC Ear, Nose and Throat Disorders confirmed what most people already knew: Smoking leads to decreased taste sensitivity. It “can affect the shape of taste buds and also affect vascularization, or the formation of blood vessels.” This, if you’re preparing food, isn’t an advantage. Hot-tempered telechef Gordon Ramsay has repeatedly slammed smoking in the food service industry. He once told the Television Critics Association: “The biggest issue with chefs today is smoking. The first thing I teach a chef is how to taste. If you don’t understand how it tastes, you shouldn’t be cooking it.”
Smoking may be, as Ramsay noted, the biggest issue facing chefs today, but they sure don’t like to talk about it. Several chefs reputed to be smokers were contacted for this article, yet all of them—many of whom have cultivated reputations in the dining community for being outspoken—were mysteriously and unusually unavailable for comment. In one case, a chef so well known for being a smoker that his publicist recommended I speak with him had—apparently overnight—no history of ever having been a smoker. Fair enough: Who wants to be quoted in a story defending their palate despite being a smoker? Even Bourdain declined through a publicist to comment for this article. These are the people who work in a business dedicated to satisfying others, even if it’s a business that, as those recent statistics demonstrated, tends to feed a preventable and costly problem in American health today. Yes, even those people wouldn’t talk about smoking.
Maybe it’s better that way. Aside from profiting the cigarette manufacturers (luring their customers into addiction and then killing them, for a spectacular bottom line), smoking loses out to basically every other indulgence in a cost-benefit analysis—from heroin (a better high and less lung damage) to Peter Luger (at least you get protein). But that’s precisely what makes the final indulgence sacred. It is unquestionably, unassailably, just plain bad.
In late February, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law a ban on smoking in New York City parks and other outdoor public places. Smokers’ opportunities for harming others are ever-diminishing—and shouldn’t have existed in the first place. Yet smokers will continue to light up outside restaurants after a long, wonderful meal, and they’ll continue to be judged. That’s fine. They know what they’re doing, and exactly how indefensible it is.
But is it respectable? Well, to enjoy such a patently, objectively gross act of indulgence consciously and publicly takes a certain stripe of moxie. You might even call it a brazen and brave autonomy: Smokers are choosing to simultaneously please and destroy themselves. They know what they’re doing is wrong. They have no excuse, no defense, far less reason for lighting up than you ever, ever will have for ordering the steak. Or so nonsmokers would argue. These people, they’d say, lack restraint—something the nonsmokers do have, at least in this respect.
But there might be an indulgence in America more dangerous and prevalent even than smoking. It’s that one where you convince yourself that what you’re doing—whatever it is—isn’t wrong. At least the dirty, indulgent after-dinner smoker has no place to hide.