The Smuggler

Nothing tastes as good as contraband cuisine.

By Elissa Altman

Published on March 9, 2010

Sometime in the summer of 1958, before I was born, my father was deemed a threat to Canadian national security. He was not a dangerous man, nor was he Canadian. He had relocated from New York City to London, Ontario, as a salesman for a knitting machine manufacturer called Knit-King, a job that required him to fly frequently across the border. This suited my dad, an ex-World War II fighter pilot who loved to be in the air, just fine.

My father's last stop on every trip to the States was Brooklyn, to visit his parents. One night, after wistfully describing his longing for foods cooked in chicken fat—particularly salami and eggs, that delicious breakfast scramble so beloved in New York Jewish homes—his mother helped him pack his suitcase. In it, she buried a jar of her homemade schmaltz so that he could cook those dishes for himself, on his own little electric burner, in his own little kitchen, in another country.

The airport authorities found it. It was hard to miss: my grandmother had secured the lid with a wax paper-and-rubber band seal, but it had leaked; by the time Dad touched down in Toronto, his suitcase was drenched in chicken fat. The authorities informed him that it was illegal to transport certain foodstuffs across the border; chicken fat was surely one of those foods, they said, even though it wasn't on their official list.

My grandmother was outraged when she heard the news. At the end of her son's next visit she hid a jar of gribenes—fried chicken skin cooked in schmaltz—inside a cordovan wingtip. It was confiscated. Weeks later, customs officials discovered chopped liver in his toiletry bag. This time, they issued him a fine, promised to deport him should he be caught again, and told him, politely, to have a nice day.

Dad complained to his mother about the problems she had caused. Aside from the threat of deportation, his laundry bills were unreasonably high, and on at least three occasions his entire travel wardrobe wound up smelling like her apartment after Sabbath dinner—not a good thing for a lonely bachelor. She was convinced he would starve, but she promised to stop packing his suitcase with clandestine, leaky foods. And so the next time he faced those Canadian customs guards, he had nothing to fear.

"You do understand by now, Mr. Altman, that transporting certain foodstuffs across the border is illegal and considered a breach of national security?"

My father nodded, smiling. "There's nothing in my suitcase, gentlemen, except for my clothes. But feel free to look."

One of the customs agents opened the bag and promptly seized a three-pound kosher salami carefully hidden by my grandmother in a pair of her flesh-colored support hose. Rubber-banded to the meat was an oily note: "So you shouldn't go hungry. Love, Mom." Dad was held in custody and questioned for several hours that day.

Years later, my father would never say whether his hasty return to the States shortly thereafter was the result of his actually being deported as a security risk. But his repeated run-ins with those customs officials did have one clear consequence: for the rest of his life my dad made a sport of his dealings with airport security. He got good at outsmarting agents and mastered the art of the bluff; well into his seventies and in airports all over the world, he transported everything from entire wheels of Gruyere from Switzerland to Scotch eggs from London to frozen apricot-filled palačinky crepes from Prague.

I happened to be with my dad on his final international trip. At New York City's JFK Airport, on our return from Paris, a customs agent made the usual inquiry. "Are you bringing anything illegal back into this country? Any firearms? chemicals? Foodstuffs?"

My father shrugged. "No, son, I'm not."

The agent unzipped Dad's carry-on and pulled out a stash of travel brochures and maps. Then a smile spread across the man's face; buried at the bottom of the bag, tucked inside a red striped tube sock, was half of a 12-inch-long garlic saucisson.

The agent held up the contraband meat. "Where is the rest of it, sir?"

"I ate it on the plane. Am I in trouble?"

The agent tossed the sausage into a bin filled with confiscated Camembert, foie gras, and the like. He shook his head and waved us through the checkpoint. "Be more careful next time, sir."

In the taxi on the way home, my father marveled, as he always did, at the beauty of the skyline at night. After a while, he flipped open a tiny Opinel cheese knife he'd somehow secreted from Paris in his back pocket, removed the other half of the sausage from his telephoto lens case, and leaned forward to share a slice of it with the driver.

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