Smuggling Contraband

TIJUANA, MEXICO – Having gone all the way to the birthplace of the Caesar salad, there was no way I was going to leave without trying one from the restaurant that invented it, at the Hotel Caesar. But I’d already eaten lunch, a spectacular one at that, of vegetable soup, a steamed taco and carne asada at the appropriately named La Especiál.

The salad solution: takeout!

I secured the salad no problem, but then how to get the Styrofoam container in the white plastic grocery bag through US Customs? The website of the Department of Homeland Security says that the decision to allow fresh fruits and vegetables into the country “depends on where you got it and where you are going after you arrive in the United States.” Salad from downtown Tijuana: iffy, I figured. Who knew a Caesar salad could have implications for homeland security?
So I was nervous as I approached to the line snaking from the San Ysidro Border Station. I waited on the sidewalk.

And waited.

I figured a Midnight Express moment probably wasn’t in the offing, but I was concerned that the salad would be confiscated, the way I once lost a broom at LAX after schlepping it from Shanghai to Xian to Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Waste of 48 cents, that was. Apparently brooms have sorghum in them. To this day, I have never heard “sorghum” used in a sentence in any other context.

I waited some more.

Worrying that the salad would spoil in the late afternoon sun.

After about 35 minutes, I finally made it inside the customs building and had to really strategize.
I considered hiding the salad in my messenger bag, but that was out because it would have to stand on its side and would surely leak all over. In any case there was so much garlic that even heavy canvas couldn’t contain it. I considered trying to stroll casually past the guard with one hand holding the salad behind my back, but that seemed sure to arouse suspicion. Eating it was out – I was still full. Other options exhausted, I steeled my nerve and resolved to walk through with it as if I did this all the time.

Shifting on my feet.

All the other lines moved faster. Of course.

Some 15 minutes later, I reached the counter. The customs agent zeroed in on the salad.

Agent: “What’s in the bag?”

Me: “Leftovers.”

Agent: “Is it cooked?”

Trick question! Something they train you to ask in DHS training, no doubt. Can a salad be considered cooked? Since I’d come this far, I decided to go make the proverbial run for the border.

Me: “Yes.” Calm…calm.

Agent: “What is it?”

Me: “Salad.”

Agent: “Go ahead.”

And just like that, I was waved across the border and safe in San Diego. Free at last, free at last.

That night, I arrived at my hotel and opened the package. The salad had grown a bit soggy and the flavors had melded together, but it was garlicky and heavy, constructed of entire Romaine leaves and really satisfying.

Salad tastes so much better when you’ve earned it.

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