Would You Like That to Go?

Truffles in your underwear won't work anymore. Here's how to get food past airport security.


Photo by Alex E. Proimos/Flickr CC

In last month's installment of What To Do...?, our etiquette column by Stephanie Pierson and Barbara Harrison, the authors explained how to approach confusing high-end foods like wasabi marshmallows and cod semen chowder. Here, they explore the ongoing standoff between gourmet goodies and Customs and Border Protection.

You've figured out how to travel with your significant other, but have you figured out how to travel with a sausage?

From a Chowhound post: "Ok, so when I fly down to Mexico, I had some American beef jerky with me as a snack. I had purchased two packs of a national brand jerky at the local Giant grocery store in VA. When I flew out of Mexico, I still had an unopened pack, but customs would not let me bring it into the country, even though I actually bought it in the states. Did they screw up or was I legally not allowed to bring my jerky back in?"

Do you have to declare your jerky? Your Gouda? Your ignorance? What are the rules for flying foodies and flying food? Who decides whether the gingerbread jam you bought in Stockholm is a solid (okay) or a liquid (no go)? When it comes to terrorism, which does the U.S. government currently find more threatening: four ounces of toothpaste or four ounces of sun-dried tomato paste from Barcelona? And why are those Junior G-Men beagles sniffing at your bag at the carousel?

Before we wrap it in our PJs and stuff it in our carry-on, we need to ask ourselves, is it legal? Is it leaky? Is it lethal? And is it worth it? The only thing worse than coming home and seeing what looks like toxic mold growing on your Gascon truffles is finding that you can get the exact same red caviar you bought in St. Petersburg at Whole Foods. For half the price.

It's amazing how many issues, questions and problems arise when all you want to do is bring home the bacon ... speck ... Parma ham ... jerky.

SITUATION: You aren't sure what the traveling-with-food rules are when you're flying inside the U.S. Can you make up your own?

"We have a friend in Berkeley who loves to grill. He marinated a leg of lamb at his home, froze it, then packed it in his suitcase for his flight to New York. By the time he arrived at JFK, the lamb (which had been in a cold cargo hold) was sufficiently marinated and just defrosted enough to toss on the Weber that evening. And it was delicious. We wondered why what must have looked like a human body part in his suitcase went undetected by airport X-ray machines."

-Dinner party guests from Wilton, Connecticut

"I have a history of taking food home in my suitcase. I must have gotten this from my mother who used to stuff truffles in the toes of her shoes when she went to Europe. So two years ago, when we were vacationing in Vancouver, my husband caught a 28-inch striped bass. How to get it home to Boston? No problem! We had the fish filleted. Then, I wrapped it in newspaper and ice packs. I put it in my bag and checked it. Well, of course the suitcase wasn't at the airport when we landed. When it did arrive much later, the airline mistakenly delivered it to someone else's house. I called the people and they hadn't opened it. When I went to get it, the fish was perfect. God forbid it went to Mexico."

-Barbara Ito, Boston, Massachusetts, who met her husband at cooking school

SITUATION: Can beagles sniff out the difference between cocaine and methylcellulose? If so, should they be on Top Chef?

"Aside from bringing food for an event across the country, my worst horror so far was seeing my luggage come down the carousel with clam consommé oozing from the cooler case. My molecular gastronomy ingredients get me in trouble every time. I can't get through any airport without spending hours explaining to officials that the small bags of white powder are what I need to cook with. I've even gotten warning letters from the transportation department."

-Richard Blais, Bravo TV's Top Chef contestant

SITUATION: Before you go on your trip, you go online, where you find the brochure, "Know Before You Go," published by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. You learn that "bush meat made from African wildlife is not admissible" so you're not bringing back the cheetah. But what about the apple from Canada, the pork from Mexico, and the yogurt from Greece?

The best way to find out what's "generally admissible," what's "severely restricted," and what's "denied entry" is to call the CBP's information line (1-877-227-5511). It offers the most complete and current guidelines on which food products you can bring in and concludes by saying, "it is impossible to be more specific" since the list of products is "so susceptible to change. Disease and pest outbreaks—which impact the admissibility—occur over the world at a moment's notice." Oh—and that jar of duck liver mousse tucked away in your handbag? "Failure to declare food products can result in a $10,000 fine."