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Culinary Artisanry, American Meat, and the Myth of Safety

06/18/2010 06:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Elissa Altman 2012 James Beard Award winner and founder of PoorMansFeast.com

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I've always been an exceptionally honest person, so when I flew home yesterday from a week sampling the most astonishingly fresh, utterly delicious Prosciutto di Parma in Parma, Italy, I knew that there was the possibility that the hunk of culatello I was carrying home -- cryovacked to within an inch of its life-- might not make it out beyond customs.

I declared everything; I always do. I checked off meat on the form that they give you mid-flight; I also wrote "cheese, stagionato" and "assorted gifts," and I gave everything a valuation. I moved my clothes from my small suitcase into a cheap duffel bag I bought just for the trip, and put all the purchases into the suitcase, which I carried onto the plane. My food friends and colleagues called me a fool.

The customs agent--a big fellow who looked remarkably like Baby Huey with a badge--looked over my checklist and waved me off to the side.

"If you have meat, we have to take it--" he said, sweating a little.

"But it's heavily cured, and it's cryovacked," I responded. "It's ham--"

"Doesn't matter ma'am--It's for your own food safety, you know," he said, and instructed me to give it up to another agent, a young woman with a thick Italian accent.

I opened my bag, rummaged around past the six or so pounds of Parmigiana-Reggiano that were surrounding it, and handed it to her.

"I was in Italy five years ago," I said, "and brought back a cinghiale prosciutto for some friends, and had no problem---"

"You must be mistaken," she snapped, "that couldn't have happened."

"Well, it did--" I said, zipping my bag back up.

She smirked a little, and tossed my beloved culatello into a bin. A colleague with whom I was traveling was just ahead of me on line, and she'd bought a chunk of artisanal coppa at the Duty Free market; they confiscated that too, which seemed, well, just a little bit fraudulent. Why sell it if it's not legal? I think she should send her receipt to the government and demand payback.

I was on my way out to the terminal when I saw that Baby Huey looked sad, and even a little apologetic.

"Ma'am, the meat safety standards over there aren't very good. We confiscate these items to protect you, and your health."

I mumbled something about eColi and school lunches, Smithfield Ham, and the American meat packing industry, and walked through customs, furiously angry. Because honestly Officer Huey, if you're really trying to protect me---if you really have my best interests at heart---millions of pounds of industrial ground beef products would not have to be recalled in this country every year, year after year, without fail.

In Parma, artistry, dedication, and downright love goes into producing the region's meat products, many of which have been crafted for millenia using the exact same ingredients. In the case of Prosciutto di Parma, all it takes is pork, salt, and time, and the result--for which you will pay extraordinary amounts in the United States, assuming you are buying the real thing--is nothing short of mouthwateringly glorious. Were the American beef and pork industries to treat their products with the same level of genuine care and affection, customs might be inclined to turn their attention to more dangerous issues than, say, a cryovacked pork product that's been cured for, in some cases, three years.

Exhausted and frustrated, I waited for my partner to pick me up in the terminal, and it was then that I remembered: I had packed a sizable piece of guanciale -- cured, uncooked pork cheek -- in the bag as well, and I still, miraculously, had it. This morning, recuperating from jet lag, I sat down at my dining room table to try and make sense of the hundred or so pages of notes that I'd taken while in Parma. The radio was on, and it was then that I heard the report:

15,000,000 pounds of Spaghetti-Os with meatballs were recalled by the Campbell Soup Company

15,000,000 pounds?
Uh-oh Spaghettios.

Wherever you are, Officer Huey, I hope you're listening: food safety officials have far more to worry about on this side of the pond than little 'ol me and my chunk of ham. If it's safety you want, here's a lesson: take a trip to Parma and watch the region's delectable products be produced with seamless care, time, love, and that one thing that we simply cannot seem to muster when it comes to food production in this country---respect.

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