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In a jam

(post, Joan Menefee)

On any given day in North America, there are thousands of anxious or downright angry people in airport security checkout lines. They are kicking carry-on bags that stand a 50-50 chance of getting gate-checked at the last minute. They are playing with their smart phones or trying not to fight with their children. They know they should feel compassion for the TSA personnel ushering the human glacier (of which they are each just a drop of ice) through the ingenious multitude of devices designed to probe person and baggage, the better to prevent bad things from happening very high in the sky.

I was one of those people at the end of December. Keen to celebrate a friend’s wedding in Vancouver, British Columbia, I booked a ticket that sent my husband and me from Minneapolis to Chicago (yes, backwards to go forwards) to Vancouver. I went up in the air with my eyes open and certainly met with nothing catastrophic or even truly awful during any leg of the journey. Nonetheless, I didn’t enjoy myself.

I was reminded by the trip that there’s little positive correlation between airports and food, despite what Jerry Honeywell has to say in  The Famous Airline Cookbook.

I haven’t actually eaten an airline meal since the carriers started charging extra for them. I nosh during layovers, either a packed lunch or fast food. This trip, we spent 20 dollars on OK subs in Chicago and sat in an area depopulated by a security-door alarm that went off every two minutes. We passed most of lunch discussing the fact that the enforced gate check of our carry-on luggage on the flight from Minneapolis to Chicago made us regret not bringing maple syrup for our soon-to-be-married friends, since our little bags had been slung below in the hold after all.  

Ah, yes. That whole “liquids on airplanes” problem. 

Since 2001, I have been experimenting with the best ways of preparing sticky substances in glass bottles to be tossed at baggage-handler velocity. In the old days, I would just carry syrup destined for West Coast friends and family (along with knitting needles, scissors, and a little pocket knife) on the plane.  

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="We measured: The allowable amount of jam on a plane is approximately 1/4 cup — and don't forget the zippered plastic bag."]

Knowing nothing about plastic explosives, I can only assume that this measure is necessary. What I didn’t learn until this year, however, is that more than liquids are governed by that three-ounce-limit-in-a-transparent-plastic-bag deal. 

In Vancouver, we bought smoked salmon and jam for our loved ones. I made sure the salmon wasn’t from the North Atlantic (having endured that embarrassment before). The 250-milliliter jar of blueberry jam proudly bore the word “LOCAL.”

It wasn’t until we had checked in for our return flight and were headed toward the customs desk that my little brain started working. I said to the Canadian equivalent of the TSA greeter, “Jam’s fine, isn’t it?”  

Like a simp, I had assumed that the airline regulations were all about viscosity — that if you could pour a substance, it was verboten. Water and syrup and shampoo: pourable no-no’s. But jam was innocuous, clinging to its jar like a baby.

“As long as it’s under 100 milliliters and in a plastic bag,” the greeter said, smiling supportively.  

“But jam’s not a liquid,” I said, my hands closing around the base of the jar, which seemed suddenly enormous.

“Anything spreadable,” she said, “must be checked.” 

Sometimes my power to make inferences based on very few data points can be a major liability. I handed the jar to her all hang-dog, my husband doffing his shoes, sadly watching our little drama unfold. 

She took the jar and assured me that I could check my bag if I wanted to keep the jam. I shook my head and pushed onward, a mite sullen, I admit.  

I wish now that I had asked her to take the jar home to her own family. For what most bothers me about the situation is imagining thousands of such jars being dumped in a landfill on the outskirts of Vancouver. As the plane taxied, I saw a tide of delectable butters and jams and patés, some of them homemade, lining plastic bins or chucked straight into garbage cans. 

I know that it was in my power to check the regulations more carefully in advance. The waste could have been avoided. I am sadder, but hopefully wiser.

It fascinates me that the things that might camouflage bombs are the delicacies that make our crusts less dry — spreadables and lubricants, concentrated forms that we naturally turn to when we want to give our friends a taste of what we found when we went away. 
I think it would be a lovely piece of performance art to gather that contraband food and make a rich, heady meal of it. If I did such a thing, I would name it The Airport Security Cookbook.

reference-image, l