Notes From the (Tobacco) Field

It was my great pleasure to have recently attended a public lecture at the University of Florida by Professor Jean Stubbs, who is currently in residence here at the Center for Latin American Studies as the Spring 2011 Bacardi Family Eminent Scholar.   Jean’s lecture, “The Havana Cigar Goes Global,” was an engaging tour of the research that’s been occupying her attention for some time.  You can find a recent scholarly expression of that work in: “El Habano and the World It Has Shaped: Cuba, Connecticut, and Indonesia,” Cuban Studies 41 (2010): 39-67.

Jean’s lecture was, to paraphrase her own comments, an entertaining romp around the world following the Havana cigar.  It would be well enough, I suppose, to simply show some of the engaging images that accompanied the lecture.  I thought, however, that your enterprising reporter might take a moment to highlight some of the most intriguing aspects of Jean’s work on the Havana cigar.  I choose three and–still better!–asked Jean to briefly respond to my comments.  My comments and questions follow, with responses interspersed.

Connecticut tobacco barn, covered in graffiti

Teenagers in my (unspecified) day found Connecticut tobacco farms useful as a source of summer employment, and their barns a handy canvas for graffiti.--J. Spillane

First, there is the question of the place of nationalism within the larger transnational worlds of tobacco (and other drugs).  Jean’s work helps us see that the Havana cigar exists within a world of global flows (from Sumatra to the Connecticut tobacco barns I recall so well from my youth), but that it also connects to powerful elements of nationalism as well.  It’s an interesting question—my colleague in cocaine Paul Gootenberg has written of cocaine as a Peruvian “national commodity” in the late 19th century, and one can see similar processes at work with Cuba and its cigars (1).  How do these psychoactive commodities, and others, become tied into the project of building national identities, even as they move about the globe?  Jean is fully engaged in the world of commodity studies, and I wonder what she thinks of the chances to understand the national and even the local within the global world of commodities?

Jean Stubbs: Interestingly, I started out on my Havana cigar global journey after having written a national history of Cuban tobacco and tobacco workers in which nationalism figured strongly. It was only years later that I became drawn again to issues of sovereignty and nationalism, linking commodity and migration history through the prism of the Havana cigar, in the context of Cuba’s independence wars of the nineteenth century and revolution of the twentieth century – offshoots of both were accelerated processes of out-migration and the creation of off-island cigar and cigar leaf economies, societies and cultures. Subsequently, that catapulted me into the Commodities of Empire British Academy Research Project I currently co-direct; and this is turn led me to the conviction that the local and the national have to be seen in the context of the global.

Second, there is the related issue of “quality” and “authenticity”—what makes a particular version of the cigar better or worse than any other, and to what extent does superiority come from location?  Obviously, commodity historians find such questions interesting as a general matter, but it comes up over and over again for historians of drugs (tobacco included) and alcohol.  What makes something an “authentic” Havana cigar?  What makes authenticity desirable, or denote quality?  And who cares, really, about such things?   The subscribers to Cigar Aficionado, probably—but how far does the quest for psychoactive authenticity go?

The quality/authenticity question is one that is haunting me right now, as I tussle with explaining the Havana cigar’s ascension to the throne in the world of hand-rolled premium cigars. We know much about the bigger picture of how tastes are created over time but significantly less about the more microcosmic who, what, when, why, and how.

Finally, I had to mention Jean’s struggle with tobacco and the question of legal controls.  In her lecture, she made the obligatory nod toward the liberal consensus on the tobacco industry—i.e., ruthless corporate interests preying upon a victimized public, destroying health and wellbeing.  At the same time, Jean acknowledged both the practical limitations of tightening regulations (do prohibitions ever work?) and even some more personal misgivings over the fundamental critique of tobacco as an inherently damaging or evil commodity.   A fascinating internal conflict for Jean (a non-smoker, I might add), it plays out over and over again in our conversations about drugs in the modern world.  Are the corporate and the mass produced (cigarettes, pharmaceuticals, and so on) inherently suspect?  To what extent are “natural” products inherently superior, or safer?

Re large corporate tobacco (in the twentieth-century read primarily cigarette) versus smaller independent manufacturers, growers and hand-rollers of cigars, I’m with the latter – albeit guardedly so, as an asthmatic as well as a non-smoker. Tobacco, much like coca and other substances, is not the ‘baddie’ per se. Indeed, it began as spiritual, and its incursion into the ‘West’ started out as medicinal and ornamental. It’s the substance abuse that’s the problem – how it’s been addictively used and abused, in a drive for profit and gain, and with a health cost that can’t be ignored. Yet you’ll find me happy researching tobacco, contemplating green fields of cigar leaf fringed by royal palms, and virtually recreating myself on a Havana cigar band!

Portrait of Jean Stubbs on a cigar wrapper

Prof. Jean Stubbs, in an imagined cigar band!


Jean Stubbs enjoying a fine cigar

Prof. Stubbs, nonsmoker, enjoying a fine cigar.


That’s probably more questions than one blog post is supposed to feature, and more answers than we could reasonably have expected from Prof. Stubbs!  I would strongly encourage readers of this blog not already familiar with her work, to spend a bit of time with it–you’ll find much of interest.


(1) Paul Gootenberg tells us that cocaine’s Peruvian promoters saw cocaine as emblematic of the “national fusion” of Peru, taking aspects of traditional coca culture and blending it with modern, European-influenced pharmacological science.  Jean Stubbs’ own lecture called to mind Fernando Ortiz’s older idea of using the tobacco experience as a way of modeling the process of “transculturation” by which he saw various cultural traditions being fused together in Cuba.

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