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Pipe evangelist

Justin Fornal, AKA Baron Ambrosia

Justin Fornal, AKA Baron Ambrosia

Justin Fornal establishes the Small Game Dinner and Bronx Pipe Smoking Society

by Nathaniel Adams

Photos by Rose Callahan

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). But the fifth annual Bronx Pipe Smoking Society’s Small Game Dinner is 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, his grinning face looking out from between the beast’s jaws with unmistakable delight 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.

BA4After the ceremony, the diners crowd around for the unveiling of the evening’s masterpiece: the pipe of the year. Fornal whips off a sheet to reveal the snarling head of a coyote, a long churchwarden stem extending from its back like a spinal cord, a covered metal bowl embedded into the top of its skull. The pipe is packed and passed around the room, the crowd of black-tie eccentrics puffing in communion. 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, Victor Marrone, smoking a pipe. “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’sBA3 pipes to photograph for a project, and he was soon collecting them himself. The first pipe he bought with his own money was a meerschaum, and the already-conspicuous Fornal was soon getting some strange looks on campus.

“Other kids were experimenting with cigarettes and I was walking around with a pipe.”

By college he’d amassed a large collection, and in an example of his growing
penchant for organizing people around his own enthusiasms, he founded the
University of Pittsburgh Tea Society, in which members—a strange mix of everyone from football players to graffiti kids—came to his room to smoke pipes, drink tea blends he’d acquired or made himself, and listen to Billie Holiday in a room lit by red lights.

Of course, the average college kid is no more likely to use a pipe for tobacco
than to drink tea at a party, and the association of pipes with cannabis in the American mainstream is something Fornal has been pushing against for years, and occasionally reveling in opportunities to confound.

According to Fornal, at one college party an overzealous police officer threw him against a wall, frisked him and found a pipe.

“What do you smoke out of here, tough guy?”

“Actually I was smoking a toasted vanilla Cavendish.”
BA2
“… OK. Get the hell out of here, smooth guy.”

“People expect you to smoke weed out of it,” says Fornal. “Why? You can smoke weed out of paper, too.”

After college Fornal moved to the Bronx, where he set up his own movie production company and—after falling madly in love with the borough, its residents and the fantastically eclectic cuisines and cultures on offer from block to block—began developing his Baron Ambrosia character. At the same time, he needed a day job to cover his bills and the cost of his films. Having spent years obsessing over pipes and tobacco and not getting paid for it, he decided to take his homegrown enthusiasm to the citadel of smoke itself and began making scouting trips to the big tobacco shops of midtown Manhattan. Dunhill and Davidoff didn’t quite do it for him, but 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.”

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Category: Fall 2015, Feature Article

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