Have you ever traveled home from Europe with a carry-on full of pungent, homemade cheese? No?
Ever flown cross country with a Tupperware full of homemade fish salad nestled between your thighs? Never?
Are you willing to find out what you’ve been missing? If so, you too can be part of my family’s unofficial culinary exchange program.
I come from a large Italian family. My father was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in his early twenties. Several family members still live in the same port city in Italy’s Puglia region where he grew up.
Whenever a family member, distant relative or willing friend travels to Europe, he or she is asked to bring an extra suitcase full of items our relatives in Italy covet but don’t have easy access to. Our team of volunteer couriers has shuttled items ranging from aluminum foil to Ziploc bags and everything in between.
On the trip home things get really interesting. Those same suitcases are often returned full of our Italian relatives’ homemade culinary gifts, including such savory delicacies as dried salumi, blanched white almonds, grape must and aged ricotta cheese.
My family also dabbles in domestic food transactions. For years, every time I visited my sister on the East Coast I lugged a suitcase full of my mom’s delicious baked goods. Tins brimming with calzones, taralli, focaccia, biscotti – I’ve traveled with it all.
But I drew the line at schlepping fish salad after watching my mom navigate a flight carrying a large Tupperware of her delicious seafood stew. Without breaking a sweat or spilling a drop, my petite, plucky mother caught that container as it tumbled out of the overhead compartment and carried it between her legs the rest of the flight. My mom and her fish salad are the reasons flight attendants now remind passengers to use caution when removing items from overhead bins.
The latest Italian delicacy to traverse the globe is a ten pound package of homemade Italian cheese sent with love to my dad from his sister in Italy. After changing hands several times en route to Chicago, the aroma-challenged package now occupies my refrigerator awaiting its final destination.
These culinary reminders of home fill my dad with joyful nostalgia and fill me with unease. I won’t eat anything that’s been out of a refrigerator for more than 37 seconds. My 83-year-old father prefers dairy products that have endured unrefrigerated transatlantic travel.
While many of you will no doubt see this food exchange as a charming, loving tradition, I’m beginning to wonder. Perhaps there is a good reason some of these food items are not readily available in the United States? Where are those pesky U.S. Customs officials when you need them?
Thankfully, our family’s gene pool has evolved to include iron-clad stomachs impervious to the foodborne illnesses known to level mere mortals. And, just in case, I’ve become an expert at dialing 9-1-1.