Daily Archives: Thursday, May 7, 2009

SAG & the No Spice for Chile Campaign

It was all Eileen’s idea. You know the one, the garlic mule (and it turns out she has priors: her pecan smuggling attempt went awry, but she’d learned the ropes by the time she moved on to rhubarb jam). She spilled the beans at bearshapedsphere and now wants the rest of us to do the same. Ok. I’ll come clean. I incited a failed intercontinental spice smuggling incident. There, I’ve said it. It’s off my chest at last. Now I can tell my sad tale.

Chile is an island.  Ok, so it’s not an “island” island, but it is a body of land hemmed in and cleft unto itself by mountains and desert and ocean and ice… Sounds biblical? So ask “The Maker” (or geographer) of your choosing about it. In terms of being separated from the rest of the world, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find another place as isolated as Chile that wasn’t surrounded by water on four sides! At least that’s how SAG sees it. Any bug that enters the country has the potential for devastating this agricultural paradise, and the powers that be will do just about anything to prevent that. In fact, back in the early 1990s, airline crews would fumigate the cabin before allowing the passengers to disembark (I kid you not). No one was allowed into the country without an unhealthy dose of Raid & Lysol (or some such equivalent) sprayed through the cabin!

If you’ve ever been to Chile, you already know about SAG. It’s the Servicio Agrícola Ganadero (Agricultural and Livestock Service), whose job it is to ensure that no undesired apples, oranges, pecans, or garlic, enter Chile without the proper authorization. Don’t even think about that putting that uneaten banana from the plane into your bag. In Chile you can do time for that!

So, once upon a time and way back when, my brother came to visit and I asked him to bring me spices. The basic Chilean salt, pepper, “ají de color” (flavorless red powder) and ubiquitous yet unappetizing “aliño completo” (complete seasoning) just didn’t do it for me. I was in chili withdrawal. I wanted Indian food. I wanted SPICE! So I sent a long list of ingredients I needed to replicate the flavor-filled dishes learned from fellow grad students from around the world, and he complied.

In those days when the airport was new, those who waited could clearly see those who arrived as they came through customs. “There he is!” we shouted, and he waved as he handed over his luggage for inspection. Out comes the assortment of spices and we all watched in disbelief as the agent ripped open bag after bag of packaged spices–MY spices–and dumped them into the trash. My brother—who spoke no Spanish—wondered what kind of a weird country he had just walked into. I was foaming at the mouth and finally barged past the guards and insisted that the agent explain himself.

“No seed items are allowed into the country ma’am.” I couldn’t believe it. Sure, they were from India, but they had passed inspection into the United States first! If they were good enough to enter the US, they should be good enough for Chile, ¿no? No. He cut me no slack. Rules are rules, and if the US is lax, that’s their problem. No potentially fertile seeds enter Chile. Period. He let me keep anything ground or roasted, but adios to those delicious whole chilies and pungent mustard seeds. The final insult: he doused them with rubbing alcohol. No one would appreciate their heady aromatics, their mouth-numbing delights.They were to be burned at the end of the day. Such a waste! Imagine the aromatic smoke that would lend no hedonistic pleasure. Such a shame… and such  sorrow… no spice for Chile.