Sometimes you can’t bring the taste of travel back home. We learned the hard way by trying to bring in a large block of mountain ham from Spain. Mind you, this was the choicest grade of jamón ibérico (from acorn-fattened black-footed pigs), and priced accordingly. The salesperson at the factory in Jabugo assured us that it would go right through U.S. Customs because it was vacuum-sealed.
When we declared the ham, Customs promptly confiscated it as if we were smuggling uncle Guido’s homemade country sausage. You can argue the validity of the policy all you want, but Customs people do not make policy. They only enforce it. One of us was already tired of pungent Spanish ham anyway.
To avoid disappointment, costly or not, it is a good idea to have a working knowledge of the USDA and FDA regulations that U.S. Customs will enforce.
Meat is not welcome. In theory, this even extends to canned meat and meat derivatives, like sausages in tin cans, soup mixes, bouillon cubes, or jerky snacks. By contrast, most fish and fish products are welcome—even dried salt cod, should you wish to really foul up your luggage.
The regulations on bringing cheese into the U.S. are complex, but in the absence of extensive paperwork, Customs officials use a rule of thumb: Firm and hard aged cheeses are fine. Soft and runny cheeses are not. Fresh cheeses like ricotta and feta are out of the question.
Most fresh fruits and vegetables are no-no’s at Customs. In theory, many of them are permitted if you can prove where they were grown. In practice, they are almost universally confiscated. An interesting exception are fresh truffles. Truffles are OK—as long as not a speck of soil clings to them. Soil is strictly forbidden without a special import license.
In theory, the restrictions on food are supposed to protect American agriculture and ensure that foods meet U.S. health standards. Dry goods in general are OK, and they are the easiest to pack. Spices and condiments take up little space in your luggage, and they often concentrate some of the essential flavors of a cuisine. Customs frowns on rice from Asia and Africa, but we have never had a problem bringing home Italian and Spanish rice for making risottos and paellas. Specialty flours are no big deal. Ditto dried mushrooms and chile peppers.
This being the government, the rules are subject to constant change and there are many, many exceptions. For a full run-down on the regulations on any given day related to any product and any country of origin, see the databases at the Animal and Plant Heath Inspection Service of the USDA.