Standing at 6-foot-1 without taking his hair into account, broad-backed with a generous surplus of muscles, eyes possessed of the pure giddy light of a satisfied arsonist, Justin Fornal, aka Baron Ambrosia, already looks rather more like a mad bear than the average man on most occasions (and only slightly less bear-like than the average bear, for that matter). In the fall of 2015, I attended the fifth annual Bronx Pipe Smoking Society’s Small Game Dinner. It’s the sort of event that cries out against half measures. So, as if to drive the point home, Fornal is wearing a black bear’s pelt like a poncho as he prepares to initiate several new members into the society by christening them with coyote blood, assisted by Rose, a local Bronx Haitian Voodoo queen. Clearly this is no ordinary pipe club, no ordinary dinner and no ordinary host.
After the ceremony, the diners crowd around for the unveiling of the evening’s masterpiece: the 2015 pipe of the year. Fornal whips off a sheet to reveal the snarling head of a coyote, a long churchwarden stem extended from its back like a spinal cord, a covered metal bowl embedded intos the top of its skull. Baron Ambrosia has once again delivered an exceptional climax to an exceptional evening.
Fornal is a longtime pipe and tobacco enthusiast. His love was kindled many years ago when he saw his Italian grandfather smoking a piperaleigh.
“He was very debonair,” says Fornal. “Smoked a pipe, drove a Cadillac. It always smelled good, and I thought pipes were cool.”
When he was a freshman in high school, Fornal borrowed some of his grandfather’s pipes to photograph for a project, and he was soon collecting them himself.
“Other kids were experimenting with cigarettes, and I was walking around with a pipe.
After college, Fornal moved to the Bronx, where he set up his own movie production company and began developing his Baron Ambrosia character. At the same time, he needed a day job to cover his bills. Having spent years obsessing over pipes and tobacco and not getting paid for it, he decided to take his enthusiasm to the big tobacco shops of midtown Manhattan. When Fornal walked into Nat Sherman for the first time, he felt right at home. “Everyone was wearing suits,” he recalls. “There was this old New York feel.”
Fornal was hired as Nat Sherman’s pipe buyer, and he was soon meeting some of the world’s greatest pipemakers. When Erik Nording, one of Fornal’s longtime heroes, came to Nat Sherman for a trunk show, Fornal took it upon himself to wine and dine Nording. The two became fast friends.
It wasn’t long after that Fornal left his job at Nat Sherman to focus on his filmmaking, which had taken off in the form of a wildly popular local cable show called “Bronx Flavors,” in which Baron Ambrosia spends each episode on some kind of zany, food-related quest or caper. Fornal’s career as Baron Ambrosia, “culinary ambassador” of the Bronx, began to take over.
Around this time, Fornal, indulging his taste for rituals and tribalism, attended a powwow in upstate New York where he met a cadre of professional trappers. Fornal started trapping with them in the Adirondacks, spending the autumn and winter months catching animals, skinning them and freezing the meat. His concept was to host a large dinner featuring a menu of ethnic dishes prepared by local Bronx chefs using meat from unusual animals. Thus the Bronx Pipe Smoking Society was born.
The first dinner took place in an abandoned Bronx courthouse, and, though small, it went well enough to justify a second. Each year the event gets bigger and more ambitious. Along with the elk, muskrat, skunk, beaver (including the tail), dishes of crickets for snacking, and coyote, the porcupine was served with a twist: The willing diner (usually taking his dinner jacket off first), was lowered by professional circus people onto a bed of nails, whereupon a morsel of the rodent was fed to him with chopsticks.
Fornal also provides some exceptional and unusual cocktails. The choice of digestif was an aquavit infused with the potent scent glands of a skunk. Stranger still was the method of consumption: A taxidermic skunk, clinging to a log vertically, acted as the conduit in a strange parody of the drink luge. The liquor was poured into a funnel in the creature’s open mouth, went through its body via a glass tube, and emerged from the posterior. The drinker positioned his mouth beneath the animal and lifted its tail for better access, like an unsupervised child in a 7-Eleven might use a Slurpee machine. The drink, to nobody’s surprise, tasted like a skunk smells, and the experience itself and resulting photographs were generally more coveted than a second round.
The crowd was then ready for the pipe unveiling. In previous years, Fornal had provided guests with his own blends, including a camel-dung-smoked Latakia. He’d read about the practice and, determined to try it himself, called up the Bronx Zoo to ask them for some camel excrement. They turned him down on the grounds that it was hazardous material. So he found a woman with a petting zoo in her home and called her up, asking, “I know you have a camel. Do you mind if I come by and get some shit?”
The main attraction this year, of course, was the coyote head pipe. The idea evolved into the “totem furnaces,” a series of ritual taxidermic pipes in which guests would smoke tobacco flavored with the glands of the animal used for the pipe.
The project took off when Fornal was introduced to artist and taxidermist Divya Anantharaman. He brought her a coyote head that one of the trappers had given him because the hide had mange and was unusable. The head had stayed in Fornal’s freezer for 2 1/2 years next to various animal glands and a chunk from a 10,000-year-old glacier. He sent concept sketches to Erik Nording, who agreed to make a pipe that could fit inside the animal’s head.
“The goal was to glorify the animal,” says Anantharaman. “With taxidermy, a lot of people see it as a status thing—I’ve conquered this beast. But a good taxidermist captures the spirit of the animal.”
After three months of work, the pipe was finished, and Anantharaman and Fornal took an inaugural puff of tobacco from it.
“I’ve almost never smoked a pipe,” confesses Anantharaman. “Seeing Baron’s pipe, I can see absolutely why people do this—especially if you can do it out of a coyote head. The ritual is really attractive. That’s what draws me to it.”
For Fornal, ritual is an important part of pipe smoking, and the Small Game Dinner is, in part, a way for Fornal to evangelize about pipes. “Tobacco is ingrained in us as something spiritual, something sacred, something social,” he says. “Pipe smoking creates curiosity—you get a wonderful reception. People come up to you and talk to you just because you’re smoking a pipe. A pipe tends to lure people in—it’s like a siren’s call, that aroma. Like incense.”
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