Ah, the joys of international travel: sampling charcuterie, nibbling salami, spending quality time with local hams. For me, it started out innocently enough: A shrink-wrapped prosciutto for my father purchased from a butcher in Rome. “Molto bene, signora, to bring on plane,” he assured me, and to be perfectly honest, I had my doubts. But the butcher seemed so very sincere in his promise that the ham was perfectly legal to transport over country borders—who was I to argue? Just to err on the side of caution though, I wrapped my cured pork treasure in deep layers of newly-acquired merino sweaters, and boarded the plane with fingers crossed.
Back in JFK, my eyes glazing over as I surveyed the bags on the luggage carousel, I noticed my husband side-stepping away from me. Far away. All the way to the other side of the baggage carousel. Then I noticed that headed my way to say hello was an adorable beagle with floppy ears, droopy eyes, an official Customs badge, and a stern-looking Customs Agent handler.
Nearly every carnivorous traveler I’ve spoken with has their own version of the hidden suitcase ham—and all profess to not really being entirely clear on the relative illegality of what they’re attempting to bring home through customs. I have to assume though, that when someone tells me they stuffed jambon from France in their Uggs (thinking the sheepskin lining would mask the scent), that they’ve come to terms with their duplicitous nature—at least, when it comes to comestibles.
Here are two cases to consider. AG, a South African who works in international public relations (none of my sources were willing to go on-record with their full names, what with being smugglers) says that when she’s spending time in the States, she misses biltong—South African beef jerky—almost as much as she misses her family. All visits to her native Pretoria begin with a trip to the butcher (“the best in South Africa,” she says) who double-vacuum-seals his prized meat snacks for her. Then her mother, a willing accomplice, puts the biltong in gift-wrapped boxes with diversionary notes that say things like “Don’t Open Until Christmas” or “For Your Birthday, No Peeking!” “That way,” AG admits, “if I get caught with a shirt-box full of meat, I can feign ignorance.”
LS, a native of Italy, has a multi-pronged plan of attack to get his beloved salumis back home with him. His first step, like AG’s, is the vacuum sealer (invaluable to all ham aficionados without borders). Then there’s the elaborate packing: First the meat is ensconced in socks, then camouflaged in layers of clothing and jackets, striated like a lovingly prepared lasagna so that prying X-rays won’t be able to pick out the salumi’s oblong shape among the intricate layers of clothing. Does it work? Last year, when LS arrived in the United States, he was pulled aside by a customs agent. Thoughts of savory cured meats tossed aside to rot in the garbage filled his head, but no, it wasn’t his contraband meat that flagged him—it was his resident card, which had expired. The salumi survived, a great victory; one largely undimmed by the $700 fee for the residency violation, and the stress-induced indigestion from the customs false alarm.
But what happens if your ham is found? AT, a chef in New York, couldn’t resist the perfect guanciale, purchased near the location of her sister’s wedding in Piedmont. “I really thought it was okay because it was sealed, and that it couldn’t be smelled because it was vacuum packed,” she says. Alas, she was wrong on both accounts: Back in New York, one of those meat-seeking beagles on the beat approached her, and when pressed by the handler about the content of her bags, she says “I gave up an apple I had been carrying for my son, and I thought they’d go away.” But the dog kept hanging around, and the handler kept asking if AT had anything else. “She looked me straight in the eye,” she recalls. “And I couldn’t lie.” So she gave up her Italian bacon, and looked on with regret as they threw it in a giant garbage bin. “It was just painful to watch it get thrown away.” Still, even in her failure, AT was lucky: Customs can also levy fines for that stowaway charcuterie of $300 or more.
My ham, as you’ve probably guessed, wasn’t legal to bring back into the country—actually, almost nothing from the butcher shop is, no matter how delicious or hard-to-source. (The official word from the Customs and Border Patrol website is a useful rhyme: “if in doubt, keep it out.”) Still, I pulled it off—maybe it was the rotting banana peel or the leaking bottle of olive oil in my bag that threw the beagle off the scent; maybe it was an inadvertently popped button on my blouse that distracted the Customs Agent’s attention. Either way, I got it back in. And it was delicious.
NOTE: We at SAVEUR don’t encourage you to break the law, no matter how delicious the bounty.