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by Braden Ruddy
Last month at Los Angeles International Airport, U.S. Customs agents noticed some unusual cargo arriving from Lagos, Nigeria. Hiding in two picnic baskets were 67 giant African snails, totaling 35 pounds, intended for human consumption.
While the case made for spectacular and unusual headlines, food smuggling is actually a common occurrence. Sometimes it’s unknowingly perpetrated by oblivious tourists, other times it’s a conscious scheme to evade import taxes, and, occasionally, organized crime gets involved, as Mexican cartels have during this year’s lime shortage. More often than not, however, food smuggling into the States is carried out by humble immigrants simply craving a taste of home.
To highlight the tasty contraband that never made it stateside, we compiled a list of some of the more bizarre food smuggling attempts in recent memory, each a reminder of how far people will go to preserve their cultural identity.
Considered a delicacy in Nigeria, where they are commonly peppered and stewed, these big fellas can reach up to eight inches long, are high in protein, and are abundant in a country with pronounced disparities in food security and economic equality. The snails are also culturally significant, particularly to the Yoruba people, whose origin story involves their divine creator descending from heaven and creating land by pouring earth out of a snail shell. In America, however, the snails are blacklisted because they are incredibly invasive—known to eat native fruit, vegetables, and even stucco off building walls.
In February, a couple on their way back from India was detained at Dulles International Airport in Virginia for trying to sneak in 30 pounds of chickpeas and popcorn with green curry leafs. Chickpeas are the main ingredient in the Punjabi dish chana masala, a popular street food cooked with onions, tomatoes, cilantro, coriander, turmeric, chili powder, cumin, and lime. Chana masala is a good source of inexpensive protein for a country that boasts as many as 500 million vegetarians. Customs and Border Protection prohibits the Indian legume from entering the country though, to protect against the introduction of plant diseases and insect pests outside their borders.
Dubbed “Operation Flying Turtle,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service busted a Japanese turtle smuggling ring in Los Angeles in 2011, arresting two men for trying to bring 55 live turtles into the country, hidden in snack food packages. Turtle hot pot stew (suppon nabe) is a popular Japanese dish with a storied history dating back to the first century. It is said to bestow sexual potency and stamina in men, provide health benefits for cancer patients, and was even favored by Japanese emperors in the Imperial Palace. Though the importation of live turtles for consumption is banned in the U.S. to protect against non-native species in local habitats, the dish is rumored to be available at certain late-night spots in New York City and Los Angeles, if you know where to look.
This forbidden fruit is illegal to bring into the United States because its poisonous seeds can induce vomiting, seizures, and even death. But in Jamaica it is a staple, eaten alongside salt fish as the country’s national dish. Its history is deep and closely tied to national identity—the fruit originates in West Africa and is said to have come to Jamaica on slave ships. Away from home, cravings for the pear-shaped fruit are so strong that hundreds of people are caught each year hiding ackee in legal Jamaican fruit import containers, and women have been known to hide Ziploc bags of ackee under their dresses to elude airport metal detectors.
(Cocaine-laced) Goat Meat
Last year in New York, a Trinidadian man was nailed at John F. Kennedy International Airport for trying to bring large packages of goat meat into the country, a good that’s banned by U.S. Customs to safeguard against disease. After Trinidad and Tobago abolished slavery in the early 1800s, Indian immigrants filled a mass labor shortage in the sugarcane fields. The spices they brought with them became a hit with the locals; goat roti and goat curry, made with those South Asian herbs, are now two of Trinidad and Tobago’s most popular dishes. As for the traveler at JFK, it likely didn’t help that hidden inside the already prohibited meat was something even more illicit: seven pounds of cocaine.
In 2009, a San Diego mother of five was stopped at the Mexican border coming back from Tijuana with 149 pounds of unpasteurized Mexican wheeled cheese hidden in her car. Cheese first arrived in Mexico as a result of Spanish colonization and the introduction of milk-producing animals transformed the local diet, spawning a rich tradition of regionally diverse cheeses, which are still prepared by families using safely guarded, generations-old recipes. The late Mexican journalist and poet Junto Sierra once said, “The grocer, not the conquistador, is the real Spanish father of Mexican society.” As a repeat offender (she was arrested five years earlier for smuggling marijuana across the same border crossing), the mother was slapped with a jail stint, fine, and probation. However, she earned sympathy from a Customs and Border Protection supervisor, who told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “The people want a taste of home…you can’t get (it) from the Vons queso Oaxaca. It’s just not the same.”
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