On Doctor's Orders

A Cigar is a Valuable Way to Release the Stress of a Busy Day
| By Charles Carluccio | From Fidel Castro, Summer 94

Sigmund Freud was wrong. A good cigar is not just a cigar.

A student once chided Dr. Freud about his smoking 20 or more cigars a day, relating it to the symbolic difficulty of weaning from the breast. Freud said, "Yes, my son, that may be true, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

Now, Siggy, you should have known that a cigar is always more than just a cigar--just as a woman is more than a woman. Another thing you should have noted about cigars is that they are marvelous tranquilizers.

I am a psychiatrist. There are days when my patients' problems almost overwhelm me. They become enormously complicated, apparently unsolvable mixtures of damaging environments, harmful experiences, faulty genes and just plain self-destructive, bad judgment.

Then the last patient leaves, the phone calls are made, and I put my feet up on the desk and carefully light my favorite cigar (currently a La Gloria Cubana Wavell) with a long, wooden match.

Time stops, phones no longer ring, tension melts like an ice cube in a hot cup of coffee and I preside over the gentle, elegant lighting ritual. The silent ghosts of smoke drift off the end of the slim, white ash. What soothing to the body and soul!

As director of a center for the diagnosis and treatment of stress-related disorders, I am aware of the benefits of various methods of relaxation from biofeedback to yoga. Whereas all have their benefits, smoking a cigar, for me, has advantages no other method has. The good cigar experience is most sensual; the beauty of the well-made cigar appeals to the eye, the firm construction to the touch and the fragrance (one of the most masculine of aromas) to the sense of smell. And a good cigar can appeal to taste as much as a vintage wine.

But there is more. A cigar often evokes a sense of nostalgia that allows you to rerun in your mind your own cigar history.

I wager every good cigar smoker (i.e., one who smokes the best cigar he can afford) remembers the milestones--his first cigar, how he evolved and progressed through the years to his present cigar status--and some of his favorite cigar experiences. It's almost like replaying old romances in your mind.

I remember while on convoy duty during the Second World War, seeing photos of Maj. Joe Foss, the Marine ace, with a characteristic thick cigar in his mouth.

I suppose I started smoking cigars to model myself after Major Foss. The ship's store had nothing but Muriels--cheap and fresh,so they were my first. The fact that the cigar had a woman's name was pure coincidence. Take note, psychoanalysts.

As the years went by, the quality of the cigar became more and more important, and, just as one endeavors to move up from a Chevy to a Rolls Royce, I endeavored to move up to Cubans. I aspired to the best.

I remember well a pre-Castro Romeo y Julieta double corona that cost me all of $1. It was savored after a memorable Italian meal, great in its simplicity. The best of pastas, homemade red wine, crusty Italian bread baked in old brick ovens, crisp fennel and orange salad, espresso, cannoli, and then tiny glasses of grappa with the magnificent Romeo y Julieta. I can taste it now. My brother-in-law Richard and I looked on with sadness at the remains of the cigars that we were forced to extinguish or burn our fingertips.

There is one other milestone I would like to tell you about. Fifteen years ago, while driving through the South of France with my family, I found myself outside Lyons at 9:00 p.m. without a clue as to where we would eat that night.

The Michelin Guide listed Paul Bocuse's restaurant as outstanding. Believing that we would probably not be accepted without a reservation, I gave it a try anyway.

I don't know about you, but I've noted that the French are not overcome with joy at the sight of a family arriving late at a restaurant without reservations. I had also noted over the years that French waiters don't smile very easily. Like Freud, I couldn't have been more mistaken.

We were welcomed as if we were family, and I asked them to serve whatever was convenient for them. The meal was magnificent, simple and elegant. Bass en croûte, garden vegetables, fresh raspberries, café filtre. Then the waiter presented a Davidoff panetela, lit it for me in a manner I had never seen--with a long taper--and handed it to me fully lit, to be savored with a snifter of Delamain Cognac. It doesn't get much better than that.

Even now, recalling this, I am overcome with a sense of relaxation and, yes, peace. Has anyone ever remembered great cigarette experiences?

As a psychiatrist, I don't prescribe cigars in place of Xanax or Valium, but unlike my interdiction of that dirty habit of smoking cigarettes, I can't bring myself to discourage cigar smokers. I have given cigars to patients on occasion and have received my share of some great cigars in return. One unusual gift was two H. Upmann coronas from Cuba that were as old as the patient: 35 years. They had been given by his father at his christening, and these few had been lovingly saved.

Incidentally, they tasted remarkably good after being resuscitated in my humidor. Some of my psychiatric colleagues will look askance at this practice, but if both the patient and I felt better as a result of this interchange, was it not therapeutic?

Another important person in history made a big mistake regarding cigars. It was Rudyard Kipling, not Groucho Marx, who first said, "A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke." Rudy, a woman is never only a woman, and a good cigar is much more than a smoke. The special experience of enjoying a good cigar can be transcendental.

It is my professional opinion that cigar smoking is beneficial to one's mental health. Surgeon general: I challenge you to prove otherwise, but first try a Gloria Cubana Wavell after a good Italian meal with espresso and grappa. Enjoy!

Dr. Charles Carluccio, a psychiatrist, is a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.