Leavened by Absurdity


Our Daily Correspondent


Innocuous leavening agent, or terrorist threat?

Before today, I’d never done my citizen’s duty by reporting a suspicious package to authorities. I guess I’d never seen anything suspicious enough. And in a place like New York, the bystander effect sometimes doesn’t seem to obtain—even if you did see, say, a smoking suitcase riding the subway, three hundred people would have already called it in by the time you managed to get your phone out, each one of them surely going home to announce to friends and family that he, personally, had averted a bombing. 

But today, I acted. I was in the security line at JFK when I spotted it: an orange can of Davis baking powder. It was unmistakable to anyone who’s done any baking, even if you sometimes buy Clabber Girl because you like the packaging. There it was, standing on the floor, right next to a security cordon and looking, to my eyes, very suspicious indeed. 

No one else seemed to think so. No one seemed to think it was strange at all. They did think it was strange when I got down on my hands and knees, examined it, and observed that the label bore a recipe for garlic-cheddar biscuits. Clearly it was up to me to bring this to justice. 

When it was my turn at the passport-control station, I cleared my throat and said to the young agent, “Um, there’s a can of baking powder on the floor.”

“What?” he said.

“Baking powder,” I said.


The can in question.

I will say this: they acted. He immediately called over a supervisor. “There’s a can of baking soda over there,” he said. (Since no one would be doing any baking here, I didn’t think it mattered if I let the inaccuracy stand; but you only have to make that powder-versus-soda mistake once to know the two are not interchangeable leaveners.) 

They ran a scanning wand over the can. Then someone put on special gloves and stopped screening luggage so they could put it through the X-ray machine. About five TSA agents came over to watch it pass through. I was riveted. Then:

“Nothing,” said an agent, sounding disappointed. “It’s just baking powder.”

They all looked let down. Personally, I thought this was the best possible outcome—so much weirder and more mysterious than some kind of drug or poison. Plus, harmless. 

“Now what do we do with it?” one agent was saying to another.

“Throw it out, I guess,” said the second.

“Who throws out that much baking powder?” said the first one, in genuine perplexity. Which is, indeed, one of the questions. 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.