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The snacks worth smuggling
Dangerous chocolates, cheeky cheese, and other treats to sneak across the border
Hello, Snackers. Don’t tell anyone, but I brought some good stuff back from my travels. It’s … [looks both ways] … illicit snacks.
The last time I traveled internationally, in early 2020, I got in trouble when I arrived back home. My offense: accidentally bringing into the USA a banana from the hotel buffet in Minsk. I’d meant to eat it as a snack on the plane, but I forgot and the beagle at MSP sniffed it out. No big deal, happens all the time—they just made me put it in a special bin for contraband food.
There was also the time, back in 2008, when I intentionally didn’t declare food when I was coming home from France. It’s not that I was worried about getting into trouble but that I just didn’t want to take the chance of being asked to toss it, because my box of possible contraband was a dozen pains au raisin and pains au chocolat from a lovely patisserie on the Left Bank. The took up an inordinate amount of space in my backpack, but it was absolutely worth the weight and (very minor) potential for trouble at customs to share the almost-fresh Parisian pastries with friends the day I arrived home.
Today, we’re talking about people who have gotten in a bit more trouble for sneaking snacks into places they’re not supposed to be, or so The Authorities say.
(We’ve previously covered various criminal and potentially criminal acts previously on Snack Stack, including snacks that broke the law and snacks that featured prominently in court cases and one of my favorite posts the ridiculousness of banning students from selling snacks in schools. But this is the first time we’re looking at smuggling.)
Why Americans Are Smuggling Fruit Roll-Ups Into Israel
Cocaine. Foreign currencies. Firearms. All contraband that customs agents are trained to catch.
But hundreds of pounds of Fruit Roll-Ups?
Welcome to the age of TikTok-influenced smuggling.
Because of a recipe that spread widely on the social media platform, Fruit Roll-Ups — the American-made fruit leather snack that has been passed out to children at baseball games and slumber parties since the 1980s — have become an obsession in Israel, where a shortage means smuggling in the snacks can be highly profitable.
This was a real Wait…what?! moment (I love those) and made me wonder about other examples of people smuggling snacks. It turns out there are a ton of examples—people love snacks, but governments aren’t always fans, for reasons of taxation or public health concerns or, you know, just to be ornery.
Here are a few of my favorite examples, along with some bonus stories I found as I went down the rabbit hole.
Choco Pies in North Korea
Manufactured by South Korea’s Orion Confectionery, the pies were first given to North Korean workers by their South Korean bosses in lieu of cash bonuses, according to the Guardian. (Cash bonuses were banned because they were considered to be a symbol of capitalism.) Choco Pies were so rare and delicious in snack-deprived Pyongyang that the workers at the complex located just north of the demilitarized zone started selling them on the black market for up to four times their regular price in South Korea, where they are widely available. As recently as 2010, nearly 2.5 million of the sweets were traded on North Korean black market every month, according to the Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean paper.
Swedish candy in Denmark
Skat, the Danish tax authority, revealed that every other kiosk that it has inspected sells smuggled candy from Sweden.
The reason behind the appetite for illegal Swedish candy stems from a high sugar duty amounting to 17.75 Danish kroner ($3.15) per kilogramme, resulting in brisk illegal cross-border trade.
"Candy is our biggest challenge right now," Skat's Lars Klamer told Danmarks Radio (DR) on Monday.
Cheese in the USA
Sneaking cheese from France into the USA is … kind of a common thing, I think? I haven’t done it—I stick to importing pastries, as discussed later in this post—but it’s common enough to have been the subject of a full feature in Vogue:
While there are some phenomenal, domestically produced raw milk artisanal cheeses that are made in accordance with the FDA guidelines, cheese obsessives still want the extra-good stuff and are finding their own ways to get their hands on it. Some are lugging back their oozing raw milk Brie in their suitcases. “My friend brought cheeses back from France that we can’t get here, so I bought them off her,” said one fromage lover, who requested that her name be withheld from this article.
The driver, who was only identified as "a female U.S. citizen," was traveling from Mexico into El Paso, Texas through the Paso Del Norte border crossing. She allegedly declared to the CBP officers that she was transporting 10 wheels of cheese that weighed around one kilogram (2.2 pounds) each. Those cheeses were located in the trunk of the vehicle, but officers noticed another 50 wheels of cheese in the backseat, underneath a blanket.
And here’s a humorous personal essay, published a good 10 more years ago (I think?) in National Geographic Traveler about an American in Paris:
I tell her it is a gift for a friend in California and ask if she can wrap one up. She asks when I am leaving. Tomorrow, I tell her. "Then I will deliver it to your hotel. What time do you leave?" When I ask her why I can't just take it with me, she sighs, looks at me sadly, and says it is simply not possible. That is when she delivers the bombshell: "You know, of course, this cheese is illegal in your country," she says. No, I tell her. I did not know.
And then she sees the problem: I am a dupe. A rube. A cheese mule, as it were. I have been asked to carry nine ounces of an illegal substance, something I know nothing about. So her mission is clear. If I am to go through with this, first I must learn what I'm dealing with. Before she will sell me the Epoisses, she insists on giving me a crash course in French cheesemaking (most of which I have already revealed to you).
Kinder Eggs in Canada and the USA
Update to this one: It's satire. I, uh, missed a note about that at the bottom of the CBC page. Wishful thinking, I guess—I really wanted it to be true!
People dug a 500-foot tunnel to sneak these chocolate treats across the border to the USA. From the CBC in 2014:
Three Canadian women are being held in a Seattle detention centre after an elaborate Kinder Egg smuggling ring was uncovered. Border officials have seized more than 6,000 chocolate eggs containing tiny toys such as a little plastic horse that is also a whistle.
The Italian confectionary is popular in Canada but illegal in the US where small plastic items, like a wind-up, walking piece of cake or a raccoon playing the trumpet, are considered choking hazards. This has created a lucrative black market, a source of increasing tension between the Harper and Obama governments.
Spam in South Korea
Spam is legal and popular in South Korea these days—but the origin story of that popularity goes back to smuggling. From the BBC in 2013:
There are lots of restaurants specialising in it, but the most famous line one particular street, just around the corner from a US military base.
One of the restaurants there is run by Ho Gi-suk.
She claims to have invented Army Stew back in 1954, when someone brought her smuggled spam, sausages and bacon from the local army base. Mrs Ho made them into a spicy soup, and the rest is history.
"Back then," she tells me, "there wasn't a lot to eat. But I acquired some ham and sausages… the only way to get meat in those days was to smuggle it from the army base.
Sugar packets in San Francisco
Back in 2018, San Francisco Chronicle writer Peter Hartlaub tweeted this story of his son’s efforts to use an approved snack as a hiding spot for something else:
Bonus: Fresh produce at Sing Sing
We’ll end with two stories that aren’t actually about smuggling, but are nonetheless related to our broader topic today.
Since last year, the farm stand has been open every third weekend outside the walls of the Ossining prison — with volunteers handing out free bags of fresh produce that visitors can bring in to their loved ones.
But as of Monday, visitors are no longer able to bring the fresh produce inside. A recent order from New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or DOCCS, restricts people from mailing or bringing care packages of food to people in prison.
That’s kinda messed up! Let people have some fresh carrots or an apple!
Bonus: Fast food in the Marshall Islands
To be clear, this one is not any different from the millions of people who bring edible souvenirs home from their travels, like the time I flew home from Paris with a dozen fresh pains au chocolat in my backpack to share with my friends.
But just as any resident of France might find it odd to carry pastries halfway around the world, I was startled to see someone with a cart full of American fast food when I arrived in Majuro, the main atoll in the Marshall Islands, where I traveled a few years back for book research. Quoting myself:
At the Majuro airport, a young Marshallese Mane in a navy blue tracksuit pushed a cart with large boxes full of sandwiches, easily a hundred of them, fresh (or at least fresh-ish) from the Subway on Kwajalein.
Kwajalein is another atoll in the Marshall Islands and it’s dominated by a U.S. Air Force base (the American military legacy in these islands is long and harmful). The base, like many of its counterparts around the world, has American fast food chains, which don’t have outlets elsewhere in the Marshall Islands. I mean … look what happens if you search for Burger King in the region:
That one (1) result? That’s Kwaj.
So if you live in that area—by which I mean a whole giant swath of Micronesia—and you have a craving for some Subway or a Whooper, as so many of us do now and then … you’ll have to get help from someone with access to the American military base on Kwaj.
As I said, not smuggling. But also not easy.
One FINAL bonus: Banana ketchup
Sorry (not sorry) but I kept finding interesting stories that I HAVE to share with you. This last one is an obituary from The New York Times and it has nothing at all to do with smuggling in any way, but it came up in my search and wow, wow, it’s fascinating.
When Americans colonized the Philippines in 1898, they introduced elements of their cuisine, and ketchup became a popular condiment. But it was expensive to import, and tomatoes would not thrive in the tropical Philippine climate.
So Orosa set about making her own version.
Banana ketchup, which she created in the 1930s, is smoother and more viscous than the tomato version, making it a bit harder to shake out of the bottle. The concoction — made of hardy local saba bananas, sugar, vinegar and spices, with a dash of red coloring to make it look more like the imported version — is now a staple on the shelves of Philippine grocery stores.