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Nation Magazine Cruise Diary: The Case of the Forbidden Flambée

11/30/2005 07:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The annual Nation magazine Seminar Cruise sailed a couple of weeks ago from San Diego for seven days of panels, talks, and stops in Cabo, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. The 450 subscribers on the cruise were not just liberals and progressives, but also people with an activist bent, always ready to organize a protest. I was one of the eight speakers, and our duties included hosting nightly group dinners. The first night, and at my table, when the crêpes flambée arrived, they were not flaming. They were just lying there.

As the host of the table, I complained to the waiter, who said, “we are not allowed to flambée the crêpes at the table any more.”

Why not? “Too dangerous,” he said – adding, “terrorism!”

I reported this to Robert Scheer at the next table, one of the featured speakers, whose syndicated column appears at TheNation.com. He said, “they are afraid terrorists will attack the ship with flaming crêpes suzettes?”

But the waiter was firm: “It’s against the law.”

It seemed unlikely this prohibition would be part of the USA Patriot Act, but I checked with our resident expert on the food portions of the Act, another of the featured speakers, Calvin Trillin, The Nation’s “Deadline Poet” who writes often on food for The New Yorker.

Trillin told me he was “a little surprised you haven’t heard about this” -- although he did concede that the prohibition on cruise ship crêpes flambée was “one of the lesser known provisions of the Patriot Act.”

Arianna Huffington, another featured speaker on the cruise, founder of the HuffingtonPost.com, explained that the provision was added to the Act because of false flambée threat stories published in the New York Times by Judith Miller.

My table, eight long-time readers of The Nation, decided to take action, and organize a legal challenge seeking to seeking to overturn the “forbidden flambée” provision of the Act. We asked another of the cruise speakers, Georgetown Law Professor David Cole, Legal Affairs editor of The Nation, to represent us – he’s an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has litigated other parts of the Patriot Act.

David asked what the constitutional basis of our challenge would be.

We turned again to Trillin. He suggested that serving crêpes which had not been flambéed “could be considered ‘cruel and unusual.’”

We announced our plan to all 450 people on The Nation cruise, after which one man came up to me and said, “if you’re serious about this class action suit, I’d like to join it.

“But I wasn’t sure whether you were kidding.”