The world of food can be refined, sophisticated, profound, and eye-opening. But as you may have learned after waiting in line for 4 hours to get nosebleed seats for the new Star Wars movie, for every light side, there must also be a dark side. Food—and the people who make, sell, and consume it—can also, without question, be gross, sinister, and crime-ridden. This year, we learned that sometimes innocent efforts to share your food with the world are met with handcuffs and fines, while in other instances, seemingly thriving industries are exposed as the work of scammers, swindlers, and grifters.
Let's start with the most unexpected ways that dinner can turn criminal. Our fishing-enthusiast readers were aghast when we shared a story in May about how officials were cracking down on small-scale illegal fishing—by lurking people's social media accounts and fining them for bragging about bagging out-of-season fish. The Department of Environmental Conservation is not impressed with your largemouth bass. (The DEC later clarified that it would not fine people simply for taking photos with fish if they were subsequently released.)
What if your pride and joy isn't a scaly beast, but an unforgiving dish of searing chili oil and Szechuan peppercorns? Han Chiang, chef and restaurateur of the Han Dynasty restaurant empire, recalled to us earlier this year how an old woman once called the police on him because his food was so hot, she "thought that [he] was trying to fuck with her." Sounds like perfect ma po tofu to us.
But what if people really are trying to fuck with you?
A 74-year-old French woman Gilberte Van Erpe went on trial in June after making a staggering €14.5 million via a "magic cheese" scam. Starting in 2005, Van Erpe convinced thousands of Chilean victims to buy expensive kits that she claimed would help them produce a type of magic "beauty" cheese favored by celebrities such as Michael Jackson (RIP), which she said they could then sell to cosmetic companies for a fortune. Not so much, friends. But this pyramid scheme has come to a close.
Perhaps you fancy yourself too clever to fall for a ridiculous magic cheese scam, but do you regularly douse your cooking in fancy Italian olive oil? If so, you could be a victim of merciless criminals, too. Earlier this month, Italian authorities broke up a massive ring that was allegedly repackaging mixtures of low-quality Middle Eastern olive oils and selling them to consumers as the fine, extra-virgin Italian stuff. And even if you dodged the oil sold by the 12 (!) companies involved, the whole olive oil market is rife with fraud, with some estimating that as much as 69 percent of all store-bought EVOOs sold in the US are fake. Yikes.
Back in the States, a father-son crime duo was convicted of running a decidedly smaller-scale but similarly run scam out of the Syracuse, New York restaurant where they both worked. But this one didn't involve bottles of fine European product—this gig saw the pair stealing and selling tens of thousands of dollars worth of chicken wings. In this day and age, can't you just buy a few handfuls of Buffalo wings from a sketchy guy in a truck without having to worry that they were embezzled?! Ugh.
And finally, in Tokyo, a man managed to procure a whopping $250,000 from local supermarkets by claiming that the bread that they were selling was soggy and demanding that they fork over loads of cash. Well… that's one weird, unsustainable way to try to make a fortune.
What other weird headlines will the food world make in 2016? We couldn't tell you, because some of these scams are too bizarre to be made up.
But we're looking forward to sharing them with you, and feeling lucky that we're not reading them from the clink.