May 312016


Today is World No Tobacco Day (WNTD), which is observed around the world , although I have to say that I don’t see much hooplah about it from year to year. It is intended to encourage a 24-hour period of abstinence from all forms of tobacco consumption around the globe. The day is further intended to draw attention to the widespread prevalence of tobacco use and to negative health effects, which currently lead to nearly 6 million deaths each year worldwide, including 600,000 of which are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke. The member states of the World Health Organization (WHO) created World No Tobacco Day in 1987. In the past twenty years, the day has been met with both enthusiasm and resistance around the globe from governments, public health organizations, smokers, growers, and the tobacco industry.

I think the negative impact of smoking is well known and does not need to be beaten on here. Smokers know the facts. What I want to do is get personal about it. If you want to quit, how do you go about it? Here I think everyone is different. I’m not going to give advice, but I am going to admit that currently I am a smoker and this year I intend to quit. So let me take you on a personal journey.


When I lived in England I began smoking as a teenager even though I was a long-distance runner. I did not smoke a lot because I was in school and smoking was not allowed. But my father was a heavy smoker and by the time I was 17 he did not show any disapproval.  Nor did my mother who smoked off and on. Most of my friends did not smoke, but in the 1960s it was a socially acceptable habit. I smoked about a pack a week until I left school at 19, and went on to university.

At Oxford I became a heavy smoker. I had very little time when I had to be somewhere, and I used smoking as a way to take a break from my studies (which I did very often because I found the subject matter dull). The thing is that I was not physically addicted to nicotine, so much as I was psychologically attached to the act of smoking. It was a way to take a break and to fill time. In those days railway carriages in England were divided into smoking and non-smoking. I always traveled in the non-smoking compartments because I did not like the atmosphere (literally) in the smoking ones, and could go hours at a stretch without the craving for a cigarette.

After Oxford I started teaching, so I was back to school restrictions. But I could smoke in the staffroom, and did. It was still a way of taking a break. Then, into my second year of teaching, the government drastically raised the tax on cigarettes so I decided to quit. I did it cold turkey – made a decision to stop smoking one day, and did. The first 24 hours were tough, but after that I was free of tobacco.   Sort of. I stayed smoke free for about a year without cravings. It took a while to adjust to finding other things to do at times when I used to smoke, but I managed. The hardest was not finishing a meal with a cigarette.

When I moved to the U.S. in 1975 I was smoke free, but I moved to North Carolina, one of the centers of tobacco growing and cigarette production in the U.S. Taxes on tobacco were very low, so that a carton of 10 packs (200 cigarettes) was around $3.50. That’s less than a third of what ONE pack costs in New York these days. I was not tempted, but my wife was a heavy smoker, as were all of our friends. At university it was acceptable to smoke everywhere including the classrooms and even the library. Still . . . I did not take up smoking again.  However I did have one or two cigarettes after a meal if I were out with friends. That stopped when I moved to New York and took up residence as a professor at my university. I never smoked again until about 5 years ago.


When I retired and moved to Argentina I was surrounded by smokers. This reminds me that smoking is very much a cultural thing. In New York in my circles, especially the university, very few people smoked. In the early 1980s laws were passed banning smoking in public buildings, and there was a general negative public attitude towards the habit. Curiously, the main smokers were the female dance students who were under great pressure to be very thin. They could be put on weight probation and even expelled from the conservatory if they gained too much weight. Smoking for them was a distraction from eating. I was not tempted, and was something of a martinet against the few faculty who chain smoked, against one in particular in my department who flouted the law and smoked in the lecture halls. Students did not complain, but I did – loudly – to him personally, and to our dean.

All that changed in Argentina. There everyone smokes. Cigarettes are cheap and people smoke wherever and whenever they want – in offices, on the streets, in bars – everywhere, all the time. At first I was not tempted, but I had a lot of time on my hands, lived alone as a widower, and occasionally wanted a distraction. So I took to smoking Cuban cigars. At first this was an act of defiance because Cuban cigars are illegal in the U.S., but plentiful in Argentina, and cheap. I smoked maybe one per week for a couple of years. But my pals all smoked cigarettes, so I drifted in that direction. Decent cigarettes ran about 6 pesos for 20 (about US$1), and by the time I left for China I was up to a pack a day.

China was the same as Argentina. People smoked everywhere and often, and cigarettes were very cheap. I couldn’t smoke where I taught and I had a busy schedule for over a year. But I smoked at home. This meant that I was smoking less, but still at it. It was the same issue as when I was a young man. I could go hours without smoking if I had to, without craving, but picked up as soon as I was free. The same is true today.

In my part of Italy there’s a rather laissez-faire attitude towards smoking. It’s banned in public buildings, but plenty of people smoke – including many of my friends – and no one makes a big deal of it. I can’t smoke at work and I’ve stopped from time to time without trouble. I’m still not hooked physically. I took a 23 hour trip by air from Kunming to Verona and was able to avoid smoking without much effort. When I am smoking these days it’s no more than 5 or 6 per day – during slack times.

In consequence I’ve decided to take today as the push I need to quit completely. It’s going to be a challenge because I’ve finished teaching for the school year, and have time on my hands. But I’m still not really physically addicted. It’s psychological. The trick is making sure that I have other things to do that will distract me from the desire to fiddle around and waste time. I also need to keep motivating myself with personal pep talks about why it is not a good idea to smoke. Health benefits are obviously important, but the fact is that I am very healthy, so I don’t feel much urgency in that direction. A greater motivating factor is the sense of freedom I will feel when I am not tied to a pack in my pocket. Personal freedom is supremely important to my happiness.  Being beholden to other people or things limits me in key ways. I have no debt, my son is grown and independent, my wife died 9 years ago, I have money to live on without working, I don’t drink . . . and so on. Smoking is perhaps the last barrier to my independence and it has to go.

I don’t need or want lectures and pep talks from others to do this. I’ll happily encourage others in this endeavor if they ask for it; not if they don’t. Everyone is different. There is no one-size-fits-all method of quitting any habit you are tied to.  If you choose today to quit smoking, I wish you well.


Cooking is a key for me in doing something calming that is other than smoking. I enjoy the act of cooking as much, if not more, than eating. It’s always been a passion. When I am cooking I have no interest in smoking, so I may cook a lot over the next few days. As it happens, today is National Macaroon Day in the U.S. so that seems like a suitable recipe. I like coconut macaroons.

Macaroons come in many varieties worldwide. The history and development of macaroons is as filled with nonsense and speculation as calendar customs in Europe. The name of the cake comes from the Italian maccarone or maccherone (plural maccheroni – i.e. macaroni).  How a cake and a shape of pasta came to have the same name is a mystery that has philologists arguing to this day. The root word may be ammaccare, “to crush.”

Culinary historians claim that macaroons can be traced to an Italian monastery of the 9th century. Some monks from this monastery went to France in 1533, joined by the pastry chefs of Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henri II. Later, two Benedictine nuns, Sister Marguerite and Sister Marie-Elisabeth, came to Nancy seeking asylum during the French Revolution. The two women paid for their housing by baking and selling macaroon cookies, and thus became known as the “Macaroon Sisters.” Take this for what it is worth – i.e. not much.

Recipes for macaroons (also spelled “mackaroon,” “maccaroon” and “mackaroom”) appear in recipe books as early as 1725 (Robert Smith’s Court Cookery, or the Complete English Cook), and use egg whites and almond paste. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management includes a typical traditional recipe. Over time, coconut was added to the ground almonds and, in certain recipes, replaced them. Potato starch is also sometimes included in the recipe, to give the macaroons more body.

Macaroons made from desiccated coconut instead of almond are most commonly found in the United Kingdom (in addition to almond macaroons), Australia, the United States, Mauritius, The Netherlands (Kokosmakronen), Germany, Hungary (kókuszcsók), and Uruguay. Coconut macaroons may include almond slivers, or occasionally pecans, cashews or other nuts. In Australia, a dollop of raspberry jam or glacé cherries are often concealed in the centre of the macaroon. Coconut macaroons are often topped with a glace cherry, and/or dipped in chocolate (usually milk chocolate).


Here’s Mrs Beeton. Her recipe is still serviceable and the concluding remark still valid – buying macaroons is simpler than making them, and often as tasty. If you want to follow this recipe use caster sugar and bake the macaroons on rice paper.


INGREDIENTS.—1/2 lb. of sweet almonds, 1/2 lb. of sifted loaf sugar, the whites of 3 eggs, wafer-paper.

Mode.—Blanch, skin, and dry the almonds, and pound them well with a little orange-flower water or plain water; then add to them the sifted sugar and the whites of the eggs, which should be beaten to a stiff froth, and mix all the ingredients well together. When the paste looks soft, drop it at equal distances from a biscuit-syringe on to sheets of wafer-paper; put a strip of almond on the top of each; strew some sugar over, and bake the macaroons in rather a slow oven, of a light brown colour when hard and set, they are done, and must not be allowed to get very brown, as that would spoil their appearance. If the cakes, when baked, appear heavy, add a little more white of egg, but let this always be well whisked before it is added to the other ingredients. We have given a recipe for making these cakes, but we think it almost or quite as economical to purchase such articles as these at a good confectioner’s.

Time.—From 15 to 20 minutes, in a slow oven.

Average cost, 1s. 8d. per lb.