6 Brazen Acts of Culinary Thievery

John Ueland
John Ueland / John Ueland

By Gabe Luzier and Caitlin Schneider


The potato came to Europe in the late 1500s, but it wasn’t met with a warm welcome. Disregarded by most, it was first used only to feed livestock. But Frederick the Great of Prussia saw the tuber’s potential. Sure, potatoes tasted bland, but they were versatile, cheaper than bread, and easy to stockpile. He introduced them to his army in 1744 and later freely distributed them to peasants during famine. The people weren’t convinced. In fact, the town of Kolberg was so put off that it responded in a letter: “The things have neither smell nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?” To change public opinion, King Frederick employed some reverse psychology and established a royal potato field patrolled by soldiers. Soon, curious citizens were slinking around at night with stolen potatoes to plant in their gardens—exactly what Frederick wanted.


Thomas Jefferson knew how important healthy farms were to his fledgling nation, and he didn’t mind getting his hands dirty to keep his country strong. By summer 1787, the American rice industry was starting to crumble. The rice was mostly grown in swamps, and the stagnant water was a breeding ground for mosquitoes that made nearby workers sick. During his tenure as minister to France, Jefferson found the farmers’ solution: a dry, upland variety of rice grown in Italy. There was just one problem: Italian law forbade “the exportation of rough rice on pain of death.” Jefferson, however, used his power to declare the rice independent, secretly filling his coat pockets with the unhusked varietal before making for the border.


By 1848, the West had been enamored with tea for almost two centuries. The trouble was, hardly anyone outside of China knew how to turn the raw ingredients into the beverage Britain was downing by the potful. Enter Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist-turned-spy. Britain’s East India Trading Company contracted Fortune to go to China and infiltrate a green-tea factory in the Wu Si Shan hills. China’s interior was forbidden to foreigners, so Fortune donned a Mandarin disguise and posed as an official from a faraway province. The ruse worked! Fortune would later reveal the tea production secrets to the rest of the world. Perhaps more shocking, however, was the discovery he made while undercover: The Chinese were unknowingly poisoning the British. Believing that English tea drinkers preferred their green tea bright green, manufacturers had been adding Prussian blue pigment and yellow gypsum to British shipments. Fortune recognized the deadly additives and helped put an end to the practice!


Tabasco is arguably the most widespread hot sauce this side of the Rio Grande, but its origins are somewhat murky. Tabasco was founded in 1868 by Edmund McIlhenny, who first sold the spicy stuff in used cologne bottles. His company has been the lone producer ever since. But rumors have long swirled that McIlhenny stole the famous formula from a purported friend, a man named Colonel Maunsel White, who supposedly had a “Concentrated Essence of Tobasco [sic] Pepper” of his own. (White believed it could fend off cholera.) The Tabasco company concedes that White did produce a pepper sauce years before McIlhenny but argues that it’s just a coincidence and that the men never met. Despite the denials, the saucy rumors remain to this day.

5. Lobster Lifter

In 2008, a cook at Brooklyn restaurant Junior’s was caught with his tail between his legs. A few tails, actually. A coworker noticed 40-year-old Raymundo Flores stuffing lobster tails—15 in all—down his pants and securing them with bandages. Flores was charged with petit larceny and criminal possession of stolen property. The fact that his clothes smelled like a clambake made it easier to swallow the fact he lost his job, too.


Dairy may be perishable, but that doesn’t make it any less attractive to thieves. In 2009, a duo in New Zealand was caught stealing 20-kilo blocks of cheese from a train. During the ensuing car chase, the couple tried throwing off the cops by tossing boxes of vacuum-packed cheddar out the window. More recently, an Illinois man stole an impressive 21 tons of Muenster valued at around $200,000. It turns out, cheese is one of the world’s most “high-risk foods.” That doesn’t mean it might make you sick—it indicates how likely it is to be stolen. According to a 2011 report from the Center for Retail Research, about 4 percent of the world’s supply has been pilfered!