Prohibited Pleasures

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Did you find any contraband in your Christmas stocking?

Between the Department of Agriculture, The Food and Drug Administration, and the  Customs and Treasury departments, there's a slew of delicacies that have been banned in various locales. But if your gift exchange is shady enough, you might have scored this holiday season.

Absinthe
Contrary to popular belief, absinthe is legal in the United States. The FDA strictly limits the level of thujone, a toxic substance found in wormwood, one of the spirit's ingredients. Thujone has long been rumored to cause hallucinations in absinthe drinkers, although this has never been confirmed. The legal version is highly alcoholic (up to 74%) and is usually diluted before drinking.

Caviar
Since 2005, caviar connoisseurs have been forced to make do without the eggs of the wild beluga sturgeon. Until the dwindling numbers of this species can be revived, caviar lovers have to satisfy themselves with the roe of salmon, trout, and other more plentiful fish. Strictly speaking, these substitutes are not true caviar.

Sassafras
The dried root bark of the sassafras tree has been used for tea, as a fragrance for soap, a painkiller, an insect repellent, and­ a seasoning and thickener for many Creole soups and stews. It's best known for contributing the characteristic flavor to root beer, although few can remember the taste of true sassafras root beer. A potential carcinogen, its use has been banned for 50 years.

Foie Gras
Celebrated for its luxurious taste and texture; excoriated for the cruelty of force-feeding geese and ducks to enlarge their livers before slaughter. It's hard to stay neutral on the subject of foie gras. Chicago banned the retail sale of this delicacy in 2006, imposing fines of up to $500 per violations. Since eating foie gras remained legal, restaurateurs skirted the ban by serving the dish under the guise of other menu items, claiming that they were giving away the livers with the purchase of the other dishes. The ineffectual ban was lifted in 2008. California is gearing up to implement its own foie gras ban this year.

Raw Milk/Raw Milk Cheeses
Raw milk proponents tout the superior flavor and nutrition of milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized. Government agencies worry that bacteria present in unpasteurized milk poses a health threat. Raw milk can not be legally sold in about two dozen states, and is limited to direct farm sales in a few others. A few enterprising farmers satisfy raw milk demand by selling 'herd shares'– customers purchase a share in a cow that entitles them to a portion of its milk.

Throughout the US, unpasteurized cheeses can only be legally sold when they have been aged at least 60 days– the period deemed necessary to kill off potentially harmful bacteria in raw dairy products. True cheese connoisseurs feel that we are missing out on the distinct and extraordinary pleasures of young cheeses, such as those found in European countries where the requirement is a 30-day waiting period.

Here are some resources to help you locate and legally transport some of these forbidden foods:

Keep up with the latest legislation with the Food Law Blog.

Think twice before packing that prosciutto– failure to declare food products at border crossings can result in fines as high as $10,000. Consult the US Customs website to learn what you can lawfully transport.

Read The Devil's Picnic: Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit (available through Amazon.com) for a chef's tour of prohibited pleasures.

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