One night earlier this year, after he had just enjoyed a meal at a restaurant in Huntington, West Virginia, J. Eric Ruegg had an epiphany.
He was siting in a warm, quiet loft at the bar, when he lit up a cigar; a Gran Habano 3 Siglos Gran Corona. What followed was nothing short of achieving an elusive "total consciousness," something that inspired him to write about it for the Cigar Advisor newsletter. He wrote, "Its flavors were truly spectacular and tantalized my taste buds into submission. It was an ebb and flow of rich, aromatic bliss. While I had difficulty singling out any one particular note from another, underneath a predominant tone of cedar, I tasted what seemed to reference baking spices."
A couple weeks later, he cooked a pork tenderloin for he and his wife, and the combination of the aroma of the fennel bulb slices, crushed fennel seed, and black pepper rub for the pork, and the backporch cigar he enjoyed afterward (a Perdomo Reserve Cameroon Robusto) got him to thinking about flavors and the interplay of those flavors of the food with those of the cigars. "I remembered the 3 Siglos," he wrote, "its cinnamon, I remembered the pork tenderloin and its fennel, its anise flavors, I thought of the Perdomo on the porch, its desperate flavors wishing to escape to freedom, what were they? I only knew that they shared some of the spices of these confluent events."
I had to talk to this guy.
That 3 Siglos cigar that started his reflection on the flavors in both food and cigars was given to him by a friend from Gainesville, Fla. The same friend had given him another one previously and "I kept it in my humidor a long time." This second one, though, Ruegg was "determined to smoke."So he too it to the bar, and "the flavors were so good. I just closed my eyes" in order to take it all in. "I had a really great cooking experience that week as well, so it was an epiphany about great flavors and great cigars."
Some people think cigars and cigar smoke is abhorrent, while to others there is no better way to cap off a great meal or, with a drink, as well, reflect on the day or week that has passed on consider the future. Ruegg understands those who might not be thrilled at the thought of smoking or smelling the smoke from a cigar. "A lot of people find the aroma unpleasant," he said, but "when the flavors are transmitted when you're puffing on the cigar (it's completely different)." His wife, who is in medical school, isn't thrilled with his cigar smoking, which he enjoys outside of their house.
But there is this matter of how the cigar's flavors can play off the flavors of food, and I asked Ruegg, who says he's "been into food longer than I've been into cigars," and who enjoys cooking and creating interesting experiences in the kitchen, about this.
He first got interested in cooking in college, where he learned some simple, one-pot dishes, such as chilli and tomato sauce, from a friend. "I hadn't thought of the culinary world up to that point as being accessible," he said. "I think my friend started opening up possibilities of cooking things and it was fun for me. I took to it right away.
At home today, he's the cook, and he enjoys many aspects of the culinary process.
In his kitchen Ruegg leans toward certain flavors. "I love aromatics, I love herbs." He likes "mimicking" a recipe, then seeing what works. Through some friends, he has also gotten into Indian cooking, which I would think would be a veritable bonanza for someone who likes all sorts of flavors and spices and the intermingling thereof. Indian food, he observes, "is amazingly complex and rich and just really cool to learn about."
Though both he and his wife are both really busy with work and school these days, he still puts aside time to cook. "I'll cook one really intense meal a week. On a Friday or Saturday I'll spend half a day in the kitchen." That may sound arduous, but Ruegg stresses, "for me it's really rewarding and there's something kind of relaxing about the whole thing."
For instance, he describes the pleasure he gets from working with a tomato-based sauce. He got the recipe for the sauce from a friend whose family had been making it for ages. It involves braising meat in the tomato, and cooking it down repeatedly, for days, but the result, when he first tasted it, "was rich and very nuanced and very subtle. Like when you take onions and garlic -- they have a crisp aroma, but when you carmelize them," they take on an entirely different richness. "The base flavor is the tomato or meat that had been braised," but when you add something, such as a sprig of rosemary, it adds something that may come through just a little bit at a time, but also increases the richness of the overall flavor of the sauce.
"Similarly, a cigar will have base flavors (such as cedar or oak) then floating on top of those you can have these aromatics," such as black pepper, bacon, red pepper and white pepper, he explained. "That's the structures of the flavor" of a cigar, kind of like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.
"I think (with) cigars and good food there's a sort of subtle play" that can happen when the flavors and smells meet.
His exposure to cigars came after he'd entered college, and there were times when he returned home that he would enjoy a cigar with his father, on the backporch of his parents' home. "There'd be those quiet moments when you wouldn't (necessarily have something to talk about, but the cigar) would facilitate the discussion." He likens it to the final scene of the TV show "Boston Legal," where James Spader and William Shatner always wind up on a terrace with a couple cigars, taking in the meaning of all that has transpired on the show and talking about whatever comes to mind. "That's something that's really beautiful about cigars, too," he says.
The first really good cigar he had, he remembers, was an Arturo Fuente "Don Carlos," which he described as "sort of a medium-bodied, but a smooth, complex and sweet smoke. It was a smoke that was complex but not too intense (for a not fully-seasoned palette). It sort of became a tradition (between he and his father) and we would have them on the backporch whenever I came to visit."
In college, a friend had an old, small desktop humidor he wasn't using, "so I started to collect some nicer cigars." He entered grad school in 2005 and "there was a lot of time where I needed to sit and reflect" and having a cigar every couple of weeks helped him to clear his head and do that needed reflection. He says he began to "become a bit more of a connoisseur over those three years of graduate school."
His ultimate cigar, though, "depends upon who you're with." But, he adds, "if I could go anywhere tonight for dinner and have any cigar afterward; like many people I like a good, simple steak." He mentioned Mark's Prime, in Gainesville, Fla. He'd get the filet mignon, what he calls, "the best steak ever." Then, "even if it was the 'last' cigar he could have, "I would try something new. There's a Padron that made the Top 25 of last year but it's like a $30 cigar.
Some of his favorite cigars include the Casa Torano by Carlos Torano, and the Rocky Patel brand. "Rocky Patel makes really fantastic cigars." Others of note include the CAO Ravita, the Don Pepin Garcia "601" and the Gran Habano 3 Siglos Gran Corona.
Noting that "there's a whole language to describe the flavors" that cigars have, Ruegg thinks "that's where the relationship with food comes from. I think it's a natural connection to make the analogy."
Other than how well they can complement a meal, cigars "help you relax. What a cigar is, is a fixed amount of time, depending on the size of the cigar." You know that, unlike a cigarette, you won't just take a few drags on it then toss it away. Even with a small cigar, you know that there is a commitment of time that will be required.
And, "you commit that time to the enjoyment of the cigar," he says. When you're smoking a cigar, "you can cast off the cares of the world a bit." And Ruegg, who is an Assistant Professor of Art at Marshall University in Huntington, adds, "smoke is ethereal and ephemeral. It is is something that's just very peaceful and beautiful to watch."
For me, my most pleasurable cigar experiences usually come after having had a garlic-soaked medium rare cheeseburger at Hamburger Mary's, then taking a walk around the neighborhood. But if they had an outdoor patio for smokers, or even a more walkable street outside their front door, I'd have to say the ultimate post-meal cigar could come after a nice filet mignon and a generous glass or two of a red wine at L. Woods. I'm getting a wave of calm over me just thinking about it.