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Food Mules Beware


Australian expats are furious over Vegemite confiscations by U.S. customs agents.
Hanging on to a jet-lagged Aussie’s stash of loamy, brown yeast spread is clearly an act of spite — because there’s no way customs workers are sitting around in the break room eating it and laughing.
It’s part of a food crack down, apparently officials have decided to open the eye they used to close on the cheery, yellow-capped jars for “personal use,” as if it were some kind of drug.

Just the smell of Vegemite makes me lose the will to live, but I side with the antipodeans on this one. Because it doesn’t make a difference where you come from, all expats smuggle food from home.
Americans bring canned cranberry and rubbery cheddar cheese to countries like France, even though they reportedly have a decent local cuisine there. An English friend nervously hauled a large carry-on bursting with fresh Cumberland sausage (apparently peas and mash can’t be eaten without them) and was surprised when Italian customs agents examined the case with nary a snicker.
You don’t know what comfort food is until there’s no Jello or chunky peanut butter available. It’s not really about the food, it’s about bringing stuff you’re used to having every now and then. Or maybe, like a child’s frayed favorite blanket, about stuff you feel you need. Even though you don’t.
My worst moment was probably Cape Verde, a de-facto Italian enclave off the coast of Senegal.
It was hard to act cool while going through customs with a boulder of Parmesan, that cornerstone of the Italian cupboard, and an entire leg of cured prosciutto in a duffle bag.
Just keep smiling and moving along and hope the customs agent doesn’t ask: you’ll have to tell him that friends of friends who live there have decided they can’t live on goat cheese alone and begged you to bring supplies. Be relieved at his head shaking and amused aside in creole to his colleague.
After that, I vowed never to cross a border with pockets bulging with foodstuffs again. It didn’t last very long.
I am a seasoned food mule, albeit an anxious one. I usually stash saffron packets, Amedei chocolate and dried porcini mushrooms into corners of suitcases when going to the U.S., plus oddly-named mints and candies — packs of “Frisk” breath mints and chewing gum named “Brooklyn” or “Happy Dent.” I always sweat the customs desk, then arrive, take the stuff out and wonder why I bothered.
While one wouldn’t naturally go looking for sympathy and understanding from a custom’s officer, it’s sad to think of that little pyramid of Vegemite growing rapidly in a warehouse corner somewhere.

Share  Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 7:29 AM | Permalink

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