Have Smoking Bans Help Convert Us into a Nation of Foodniks?

​"Do you have a light?" Don Draper asks the waiter in the opening scene of the Mad Men pilot when he's interrupted from writing ideas on a cocktail napkin. The waiter pulls out his lighter marked with his cigarette brand. 

"Old Gold, huh?" Draper says as he takes a drag. "Lucky Strike here."

While the two-cocktail lunch and men wearing suits may be dead rituals, smoking still has legs.

Smoking is perhaps a fuck you now more than ever,

as governments ban smoking and entertain regulations on anything from allergy meds to junk food. I realized this yesterday while sitting outside at Maguires, where I was a minority among a crew of friends with packs of Marlboros and Parliaments. 

Rather than scrolling through an IPad, taking a call, or droning through a work task, a cigarette break carves an excuse to take a moment by yourself or with the hot girl or a sympathetic coworker as company.

Unlike New York and D.C., where smoking is banned in every indoor public space, South Florida and its prolific smoking habits are less retro than reality. Why? Three reasons: one, because of the area's acceptance of anything goes; two, because of its large population of older folks who've been smoking their whole lives; and three, because there's still the freedom here to smoke in bars. 

And no matter where you live, smoking is alive and well in restaurant culture -- perhaps the largest anticonformist lot in any city -- where camaraderie is built on cigarette breaks between shifts and paired with after-work drinks.

Yesterday's muse led me to wonder: How does smoking affect what we're tasting? 

A smoker/food writer acquaintance often told me how smoking affected his sense of smell and taste, in correlation with findings that nicotine dulls taste buds. It serves as an extreme version capsaicin -- the agent in chili peppers that mutes other flavors -- for as long as a person smokes regularly. 

Many a former smoker also notes how the habit curbs appetite and enthusiasm for food. Compromised taste buds naturally would affect chefs, whose process of cook-season-taste-adjust on the line is handicapped by a muted sense of taste and smell. It takes a big chef to overcome such compromises.

Might no-smoking rules and the decline of smokers nationally have renewed our appetites and inspired enthusiasm for eating? Perhaps bans have helped spur a collective attentiveness to food, cooking, and culinary conservation that embodies our era-- food madness, as former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni referred to it in an op-ed a few days ago. 

Perhaps Florida's smoking habits affect its food scene in the opposite manner, creating a crew of less discerning cooks and diners. 

"How does smoking affect taste?" I tweeted during the Maguire's session yesterday. "And how many food critics smoke?"

"Chefs too!" Washingtonian food critic Ann Limpert replied. "Or at least that's the excuse I think of when everything tastes like a salt lick."

What role do you think smoking plays in dining, cooking, and the shaping of food culture right now? How does smoking--or the kicked habit--affect your appetite and cravings? Have at it in the comments.

Follow Clean Plate Charlie on Facebook and on Twitter: @CleanPlateBPB

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Food Critic
Contact: Melissa McCart