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The Controversial Foods Debate

Roberto Badin A raw-milk Camembert, aged under the U.S. minimum of 60 days.

Photo: Roberto Badin

You might be one of them. Remember the Spanish chorizo you "forgot to declare"?The South African biltong jerky you smuggled home in your knapsack?It seemed so harmless and surprisingly easy: around the globe, there’s a whole cottage industry set up to help you breach American health codes. Buy a round of genuine raw-milk Camembert at the Paris cheese shop Alléosse and tell them you’re headed aux États-Unis; the fromager will triple–vacuum-seal it and send you off with a wink and a smile. Traditional, wormwood-based absinthe—the favorite drink of Paul Verlaine and Oscar Wilde—has been banned stateside since 1912, due to (widely refuted) reports that it causes convulsions. But log on to U.K.-based site eAbsinthe.com, peruse an array of gorgeous, green-glowing bottles, and within days you can have absinthe delivered, miraculously, to your door. The company will even refund your money if the bottle is intercepted.

Perhaps I associate with a dissolute crowd, but I know hardly anyone who hasn’t sneaked some culinary contraband across the border. A bartender friend returned from China with a Dopp kit full of Sichuan peppercorns, the spicy red berries that are an essential ingredient in Sichuan cuisine and, more relevant to his purposes, in dark-and-stormy cocktails. Because of infestation risks, they’re banned for import unless they’ve been heat-processed—but, of course, the untreated ones taste better.

Me, I smuggle home mangosteens. These cue ball–sized fruits, native to Southeast Asia, have a hard purple shell and a snowy-white, segmented interior—imagine a lychee crossed with a clementine. The taste is sweet, tart, and drop-dead delicious. But since the mangosteen is a potential fruit-fly carrier, it hangs tantalizingly out of reach for Americans: a true forbidden fruit. Would I crave it so intensely if it weren’t one?Probably, but the pining sure is part of it.

Thanfully, there are a handful of iconoclastic chefs, farmers, entrepreneurs and sybarites working to expose misguided food laws in America. They see our eating habits being increasingly dictated by craven fusspots, killjoys, and moral alarmists, and they’re determined to stop the madness. This isn’t just a contrarian impulse, a case of eating-to-be-bad. No. The lure of "forbidden foods" is not necessarily in opposition to health, purity, or rectitude. Indeed, with some foods, an illicit version can be healthier than the FDA-approved one.

Consider Spain’s legendary ibérico ham, long blocked for export to the United States (the USDA had no system in place for approving Spanish slaughterhouses). It was our loss: with its intense, nutty flavor, jamon ibérico is shockingly good. Roaming freely in the cork forests of southern Spain, Iberian pigs eat a natural diet of mushrooms, roots, and acorns that’s high in beneficial vegetable fat, which makes for a healthier animal—and, ironically, a much healthier product—than most ham sold stateside. But take heart: one Spanish company has finally won approval to produce ibérico for the U.S. market. The first shipments of lomo, salchichón, and chorizo, sold under the "Fermin USA" label, began showing up here last summer. (Whole legs of ibérico de bellota, the most coveted variety, are expected by summer 2008. The price per leg?$2,000.)

"We need to get back to some simpli­city and common sense," Steven ­Jenkins, one of America’s leading cheese experts, insists. "Unfortunately, it’s 2006, every­thing’s regulated, everyone’s under scrutiny—it doesn’t bode well. All these bureaucrats are going to ruin all the food in favor of nobody ever getting sick."

Jenkins is a champion of traditional farmstead cheeses—"serious cheeses, made by people rather than machines," and, just as important, made from unpasteurized milk. This poses a problem. Since 1950, the FDA has required all raw-milk cheeses, imported and domestic, to be aged at least 60 days, by which point the lifespan of all pathogens will have theoretically run its course. Otherwise (in the case of younger cheeses, like Camembert or Epoisses), the milk must be pasteurized.

To Jenkins, this is anathema to good cheese making. "Pasteurization kills most of the flavor molecules," he says. "Besides, many health incidents blamed on raw-milk cheeses were subsequently found to be the fault of pasteurized cheese from a factory."

It was through Jenkins that I learned of a dairy farmer who’s cleverly showing up the law: Mary Falk, owner of Love Tree Farm in Grantsburg, ­Wisconsin. Falk is crafting a soft, chalky specimen from the raw milk of a Jersey cow and aging it for just six weeks, 18 days fewer than the legal requirement. Ergo, this cheese—about which Jenkins raves, "I’ve never tasted anything so good in my whole life"—is illegal to sell for human consumption. Which is why Falk sells it under the label Fishbait.

As long as customers are warned that this beautiful wheel of creamy goodness is for catching trout, not eating (nudge-nudge, wink-wink), Fishbait is legal. But is it safe?Consider that the FDA allows store-bought milk to have a maximum bacteria "plate count" of 20,000. Love Tree Farm’s milk averages fewer than 5,000—and it retains all its natural vitamin content. Yet raw milk is illegal in almost half of the country.

As always, loopholes exist. There’s now a growing trend toward "cow-share" collectives, set up by dairy farms, that, in exchange for a modest buy-in, provide members with raw milk and yogurt. Like Fishbait cheese, this is quasi-legal: most state laws prohibit only the sale of unpasteurized milk. But the cow’s owners—in this case, all 417 of them—are perfectly entitled to consume it.

Certain restrictions are essential, obviously. One can’t argue with the UN’s caviar-trade embargo: Caspian and Black Sea sturgeon are being drastically overfished, and the survival of the species is at stake (though there is some irony in keeping the beluga alive so we can kill it later without remorse).

The wave of pending legislation against trans fats (hydrogenated fats that elevate bad cholesterol) is equally well-intended—and, for lawmakers, surprisingly audacious, considering the average voter’s affection for doughnuts. Last September, New York became the first city in the nation to set forth a virtual ban: soon every restaurant item will be held to no more than a half-gram of trans fat per serving.

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