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Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
Groucho Marx, Spring 93

You've probably heard the question a thousand times: "Gotta match?" The query was asked by smokers long before lighters were portable. And before the First World War, carrying a lighter would have been equivalent to carrying a clock--ridiculously cumbersome. In their infancy, lighters were strictly tabletop devices reserved for the privileged few.

In 1993, if anyone asks you for a light to get his cigar going, the question is invariably: "Gotta light?" The transformation is subtle, but to the cigar smoker, this small linguistic difference has "sparked" an endless debate about the best way to light up.

All arguing aside, assume for a moment that you are confronted with a perfect source of fire. How do you light your cigar? Do you saunter up to a roaring fire, stick the stogie in the flame and puff away until the air turns blue? Hopefully not, unless you dislike the taste of your cigar. Remember for a moment how hot coffee tastes when it burns the roof of your mouth. There is no taste, because the heat destroys the flavor just as it destroys your taste buds. Logically then, when you plunge a cigar into the heart of a flame, you turn the tobacco into carbon so quickly that the smoke tastes hot and harsh and the flavor of the cigar is greatly diminished--and the cigar will continue to taste cooked because you'll still be sucking air across a burnt surface.

Cool smoke is the goal of a good light. To achieve this end, never let the cigar touch the flame. When you light up, hold the cigar at a 45-degree angle above the flame, just far enough away so that the flame dances up to the cigar but never quite touches it. Then, to assure a proper light, rotate the cigar in your hand so that the foot of the cigar lights all the way around. When a lightly burning ring surrounds the tip of the cigar and begins to creep toward the center of the foot, blow out lightly through the cigar. Rather than breathing this first puff of lighter (or match-born sulfur) gases into the cigar, this first exhalation will rid the tobacco of these unwanted flavors--then you are ready to begin smoking. Do so by continuing to rotate the cigar as you take your first few puffs. This will regulate the burn, ensure that it is even and prevent tunneling. This technique applies no matter whether you light up with a match, a cedar strip called a "spill," or a lighter.

However, don't assume that the perfect flame will always he available. If cigar smokers were free of daily cares, cedar strips tom from the packing of cigar boxes would be an economical and aromatic way to light up. (Use a candle to light a spill; but never use the candle to light the cigar directly, because the wax aroma will invade the cigar and ruin the taste.) But wood sticks are hardly portable, and they create a lot of ash, which might dirty your shirt and ruin the experience.

Matches, especially the long variety, are a bit handier. If you're out to dinner and sitting away from a drafty entrance, it's conceivable that you could light your cigar with little fuss. Make sure that the sulfur match head has burned away before lighting your cigar, and with shorter matches, strike two at once and the fatter flame will enable you to achieve a more even light.

Lighters are the most portable source of fire, and most can be lit with one hand, while the other holds a cigar.

A good lighter should immediately feel well-made. Without even operating it, a good heft should weigh on your palm as you hold it. Grasping an S.T. Dupont or Caran d'Ache lighter will make this clear to you. Both lighter cases are cut from a solid block of brass, to which the lighter mechanism is added. Lighters such as these become permanent parts of a wardrobe--and can become constant companions.

As important as weight, though, is how comfortable a lighter is to hold. As a rule, the larger the hand, the larger the lighter you'll want to buy.

Whatever the size, opening a lighter should be effortless. The cap of a fine lighter will swing open smoothly, and the hinge mechanism should be silent when opened (exceptions are S.T. Dupont lighters which often ring like clear bells). A "clunk" or hollow sound echoing from a lighter cap is a sign that lower quality materials were used to make it.

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