The Chew Road to Knowledge

Chewing tobacco scares off Indians, worms goats, spots carpets, destroys stomachs, repulses women, and, for those who indulge, produces blissful contentment.

November 1978By Comments


While chewing tobac­co has never to my knowledge been thought very socially suave, in our part of the world it is only during the past forty years or so that it has come to be viewed with much opprobrium, at any rate among men. In my rather distant youth in Fort Worth—not exactly the fountainhead of national taste, but a fair-sized city even then, ruled by a relatively solid set of Southern-Western mores—court­rooms and other public places had plenty of gleaming brass cuspidors about for the benefit of chewers and so did a good many private offices and waiting rooms. For despite the reigning popularity of cigarettes and cigars, chewing held a long-established toe­hold in the masculine realms of the day, even at respectable levels.

Certain lawyers in particular whom I remember had fondness for the quid, as did some judges who rose from the legal ranks and occasionally sank back into them again when the pointing fin­ger of electoral fortune swung else­where. But I knew doctors who partook also, though probably not in their of­fices, and oilmen who had picked up the habit on rigs where smoking was unwise, and a host of skilled jobholders of various sorts. Streetcar operators, for some reason, seemed to be chewers to a man and were furnished with a little brass trapdoor at their feet through which they spat between the tracks as their trolley sped and swayed along. By and large, storekeepers refrained at least while at their work, for they had to deal with customers of both sexes and one of the unwritten rules above a certain social line had always been that you didn’t chew tobacco openly around ladies.

Most ladies for their part, whether urban or rural, were willing enough to let out of sight be out of mind and if they made any reference at all to the practice, it was with a moue of indul­gent distaste. But some hated it consumingly, and woe was the chewer who married one of these unless he was a thirty-third-degree master of circum­spection. A case in point was my ma­ternal grandfather, a gentle agricultural immigrant to the Texas prairie from South Carolina who like many of his generation was permanently a bit per­plexed, I believe, by the lingering shock of the War and Reconstruction during which he had grown up. He had not a grain of circumspection in him or any other vices that I know of except a solid love for Brown’s Mule plug tobacco, which was his bulwark. Beset on this account by not only a strong Bap­tist wife but two proper, married, city­-dwelling daughters as well, when one or both of the daughters came on a weekend visit to back up his spouse’s excoriations, he would often seek refuge at his box-hive apiary where none of these females cared to go, and though I was quite young when he died I can remember sitting out there with him, enveloped in the hum of laboring Ger­man black bees, as he nursed a friendly quid to calm his henpecked nerves and whittled profiled human figures for me out of slats of fruit-crate pine.

It is a great solacer, the chew, com­parable in smoking to an aged and well-loved pipe. One old rancher I know, who uses no tobacco himself, recollects that in times of drouth or other trouble his bearded father would get up at one or two in the morning and go to the ranch house’s dark living room to sit close by the dead fireplace chewing tobacco, sorting out his wor­ries, spitting from time to time into the ashes, and by dawn ending up fairly cheerful. Such slow absorption of nico­tine through the mucous tissues of the mouth has little in common with the fury of a tense cigarette smoker’s puffing. It calms and gives perspective and is, to those of us who like it, with or without our ladies’ acquiescence (ap­proval being too much to ask, we know), one of nature’s true boons.

It is pleasant to be able to report that this noble practice seems to have had a mild renaissance in the past few years—that is to say among middle-class sorts, for with laborers and coun­trymen it has never lost its vogue. If, as the old cigarette ad said, spit is a horrid word, our Surgeon General’s in­timation that cigarette itself may be a worse one has set reflective or spooked smokers to thinking in other directions. The pipe and the cigar were given much higher marks than the cigarette by the said SG’s statistics and many have changed over to them. But the fact is that those statistics were derived from lifelong devotees of pipes and cigars, who seldom inhale smoke, whereas cigarette smokers who switch nearly always do, so that they’re prob­ably getting more “tar” and other abominations in their lungs now than they did from the filtered cigarettes they gave up. Logic would suggest flat abandonment of the weed, but logic is a bit mathematical for many of us nico­tine heads, and so we explore the other avenues that tradition offers. Though snuff has its points, the nasal mode of taking it is a bit alien and queer, and the old Southern way of folding it into the lip has very unfortunate connota­tions roundabout, based on equally un­fortunate reality in the form of some messy users. This leaves the quid, whose connotations in truth are also not all that glorious among moderns, in the main because it usually requires some spitting to get rid of excess juice unless the chewer happens to own a much hardier stomach than most of us are blessed with.

In female circles I have a hard time believing that it will ever have much appeal, either as something to do or as a spectator sport, though of course I may be hidebound in this view. In topsy-turvy times nearly anything can happen, and conceivably the sexist monopoly heretofore enjoyed by men in the realm of chewing tobacco may sooner or later tempt some feminists into joining us as we munch. If so, they might consider adopting as a patron saint that historic Parker County lady, a Mrs. Rippy, who once faced down some raiding Comanches (male) by fishing a plug from between her unbrassiered breasts and biting off a hunk while she cursed and glared at them.

Chewing tobacco comes in three main forms these days, the best known of which is the kind Mrs. Rippy used, a dark compressed brick enclosed in a wrapper of light-brown leaf. Nearly all of the numerous brands of plug, each with its hooked supporters, are impregnated to some degree with molasses for flavor and cohesiveness. In the so-called “natural leaf” sorts this admix­ture is rather light, but in a good many of the others it is heavy enough to give the tobacco a sticky texture and a candy sweetness in the mouth, and some of the other attributes of candy too. A dentist with a rural and small-town practice once told me that he could spot many chewers easily—not by stains, for contrary to slanderous rumor chewing sullies teeth less than smoking does, but by where their cavities occurred. A real quid-man with a taste for sweet tobacco would have most of his caries in a clump on the outside of his lower molars where he usually kept his sug­ared chew.

Plug tobacco is compact and easily hidden on the person, and since it ex­pands somewhat in the mouth a small bit can give fair satisfaction without a great deal of mulling about and conse­quent spitting. Therefore it is rather well suited to the purposes of sub-rosa indoor users, who are denied access to cuspidors these days and have to search about for potted plants or men’s rooms if their chew gets unruly in its produc­tion of strong fluids. (One lawyer friend of mine uses wastebaskets when he can’t find anything else, but on the other hand he is not a very sub-rosa type either.) To use plug, though, you ought to like it, and some people find this hard. I have heard that when the habit had more cachet a few premium brands of superb flavor were available at high prices, some of them made from the true Havana leaf, but these are dif­ferent times and many kinds now have a “pluggy” edge of rancidity in their taste that not all chewers admire.

A seldom-seen variation on the plug is the old-fashioned twist, usually made by growers out of their own leaf by forming it when damp into a tight-spiraled rope which is then doubled back and retwisted on itself. Twist can be unbelievably strong—some that I ordered in quantity from Tennessee a couple of years ago, fire-cured stuff, turned out to be so imperious that I ended up feeding it bit by bit to my goats, who thought it gourmet fare. I need to add that this was not sadism on my part, for not only do goats like tobacco but it also does them good; in the days before modern veterinary antihelminthics made an appearance it was the drug of choice for worming them. Human chewers have a general heartening belief, probably valid, that the habit will keep them from getting worms, though a small still voice won­ders how much of an advantage this is in a society that has largely vanquished such parasites.

A second main form of chewing to­bacco is what used to be known as “scrap,” a homely term that has likely been euphemized into something else by now, though if so I haven’t heard what. Consisting of coarse, usually syruped shreds, it comes packed in foil-lined pouches, and on grocery store shelves the main brands—Beech Nut, Red Man, Mail Pouch, etc.—are a fa­miliar sight. So elsewhere are the huge­ly lumped cheek and copious expectora­tion characteristic of many of its users. It is strangely hard to take a little- bitty wad of scrap and just tuck it away for nursing. A large dangling three-finger pinch is the rule, and after you’ve draped it into your mouth you have to more or less bale it with your tongue and side teeth; in the parlance of chewers it “works you to death,” de­manding to be rolled about and gnawed. Therefore those who favor it tend to be either outdoor workers or types who are proud of their habit’s masculinity and like to exhibit it—baseball players, rodeo cowboys, and such, along with fans who admire them.

Another rodeo cowboy and athlete, however, the amiable Walt Garrison—at least he seems amiable enough in the commercials—has lately been hitting a hard promotional lick for a very popu­lar third form of oral tobacco that is the least showy of all, or can be. This is the granulated wet kind sold in flat cylindrical waxed boxes with tin lids and known in the Midwest and to some extent down here as “snoose”—from, I understand, the Swedish-Danish snus for snuff, which indicates its ultimate geographic origin and has bearing on a controversy concerning what the sub­stance really is. The United States Tobacco Company, which manufactures all the brands of it that I have seen (and which must be cleaning up) has muddied the question rather thorough­ly. Its original stout, sweetish-salty version called Copenhagen is labeled forthrightly “snuff” on the box, but of three subsequent products flavored with wintergreen, mint, and (no comment) raspberry, one is described as “chewing tobacco” and the other two as “smoke­less tobacco.”

Such skilled semantic footwork al­most certainly has to do with snuff’s American connotations, which as we have hinted before are especially poor in urban reaches of the once snuff-happy Southland. Those same connota­tions, though, appear to be why certain users maintain hotly that snoose is snuff. Some of its burgeoning popu­larity—undoubtedly in part because of Walt Garrison’s rugged grin—has been among youths of goat-roping and/or footballing propensities, who carry it in jeans hip pockets, where the con­tainer’s round shape is unmistakable, or sometimes even flaunt it in special pouches hanging from their belts. Though many, perhaps most, come from the urban or small-town middle classes, the image they yearn to project is anything but bourgeois, and having descried that in bourgeois eyes snuff is very nasty, they are vehement in insist­ing that what they use is snuff and what they do is dip it. Occasional bumper stickers on pickups underline the point. In fairness, I have not heard our amiable and prosperous friend Walt put things in this way; he calls the stuff merely tobacco, and wintergreen Skoal is his flavor.

The trouble is that anyone who has put in time around real dippers knows that the only material that deserves to be called snuff is the true, the blissful, the sometimes consummately repulsive brown powder of our Southern heritage. In these terms, the kids’ pretensions are rather pathetic. For pure horribleness, they could not start to compete with even a medium-nasty front-lipper of Levi Garrett or Honest, try as hard as they might, for their ammunition is just not up to the job. Snoose compacts readily into a manageable wad, settles well for long nursing, and does not keep sending its effluvium all over the mouth to encourage wild dark salivation. In short, it may be a hybrid form, but it acts very comfortably like chewing tobacco.

Snoose crept in on Texas at some point, not being traditional here. As a long-hallowed institution up North, it must have entered this region before the Second World War, when I first saw it in use among Midwestern farm boys in the service, but if so it hadn’t made enough of a dent in the market to become well known. During one period or another it gained acceptance in the oil patch and lately it has been gaining the same thing widely else­where, for the reasons given above and other related ones that are clear enough. A little of it goes a long way, both in kick and in time, and unless you take on too much you seldom have to of­fend anyone’s sensibilities by spitting after it is well established in your cheek. It makes the best secret chew available, and that is what a surprising­ly varied lot of men are looking for these days.

Two or three years ago I was talking with a banker at his vice-presidential desk. He is an urbane type but has been around, having begun his working life as a roustabout in the Red Rolling Plains. We had arrived at an ever-absorbing subject—the pains of stop­ping smoking—when he hesitated, grinned broadly, reached into the side pocket of his tailored sharkskin coat, and briefly flashed a round box of Copenhagen.

“The hell with cigarettes,” he said. “This is all I need. I’m right back where I started out.”

Being inclined to read up on what­ever subject it is that grabs me at the moment, I have trodden some weed-grown literary byways in my time, and once in a witty and unsubstantial eight­eenth-century book I ran across a clas­sification of nasal snuffers according to their way of handling the treasured dust. Described therein were the Pinch Supercilious, the Pinch Ecclesiastical, the Pinch Haughty and its counterpart the Pinch Self-Effacing, and so forth. In like manner, I suppose, one could examine chewers. We have already glanced at the two extremes—the Chew Surreptitious, a tiny quid nursed in secret for hours through conferences with clients and board meetings and even cocktail parties, and the Chew Ostentatious, that large juicy lump af­fected by pitchers and bronc-riders and others who perform for the public in the open air. In between these are the other kinds, including such oddments as the Chew Cinematic, seen in real life only among callow beginners. Its ma­nipulator—most often either a stubbled villain or a crusty picturesque in West­erns—works his jaw up and down in exaggerated wagging rhythm and spits noisily every fifteen seconds, thus using up, one would be willing to bet, enough tobacco to require the services of an extra pack horse on trips.

But most common among us ordi­nary folks is the Chew Philosophical, a moderate wad of the type and flavor of tobacco preferred by the philosopher in question, who after working it into the proper shape and consistency tucks it away against his jaw and holds it thereafter with true contentment and only occasional expulsion of fluid, stealthy or otherwise as conditions de­mand. For circumstances have much to do with the way a chewer operates at any given time. A usual practitioner of the surreptitious or the philosophical style may, when outdoors by himself or in tolerant company, indulge himself in the Chew Generous, aiming frequent jets of brown juice at stones and spiders and cow patties and the entrance holes of red-ant beds and enjoying the pro­cess hugely.

If all this delight came without in­ternal hazards and difficulties there would be a lot more chewers around than there are, regardless of protests from women and other nonusers who think the habit unaesthetic. As we have noted, the main effect of chewing—call it narcotic or toxic or whatever you like—derives from absorption of nicotine in the mouth, there being no jolt or high like that of inhaled smoke but rather a steady and low-keyed sense of well-being. Obviously, however, not all the fluid generated by a quid is expectorated by the user even if he tends toward the Chew Cinematic. Some, along with the alkaloids it car­ries, goes inexorably to the stomach and some stomachs, I have to report, do not like this at all.

The problem is by no means new. American aborigines had been happily consuming tobacco in all its forms for ages before whites arrived and seized upon the weed for their own delecta­tion, and many of them who chewed it had the habit of mixing it beforehand with a powder made from lime or burned shells, just as is done with coca leaf and betel nut. Their modern equiv­alent is the fellow who carries some antacid tablets in his shirt pocket and downs one whenever his chew seems to be catching up with him, but even this doesn’t always work. Some people are simply not made for the quid.

One such that I heard about lately was a young doctor in a Texas coastal city, who had developed a hero fix on a senior member of the group of sur­geons with whom he worked and sought to imitate him in every way possible, right down to his distinctive methods of tying sutures, wearing a hat, knuckling an ear, and inquiring benevolently as to postoperative pa­tients’ bowel habits. The older man, a rugged former athlete, was fond of golf and while on the links always munched a large wad of Tinsley Red Tag plug. His disciple played with him and after some hesitation took up the other habit too, and with the aid of Maalox got away with it for two or three rounds. But then one day he tensed up over a close putt, swallowed the wrong way, and barfed all over the fourteenth green in front of his hero and two other golfers, who nearly fell down laughing. At last report he had gone back to Vantages and was thinking seriously of switching from surgery to pediatrics.

Hence our society is probably not in much danger of being taken over by tobacco chewers, and this is very likely a good thing. But I suspect that as long as there are men who spend time regu­larly outdoors there will be chewers, and that some of these will carry chew­ing back indoors with them, though generally in secretive fashion. For the practice is not an ancient one without reason, and the reason has little to do with showoff masculinity or juvenile would-be nastiness. It has to do with quiet pleasure and equanimity. Nobody but an ironhead can maintain, in the light of present medical knowledge, that tobacco in this or any other form is good for the body. But the body, as all but mechanists know, is only part of a man, and chewers believe whether rightly or wrongly that they have a hold on one thing that is good for an­other part.

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