The only thing that Andrew Zimmern loves more than food: unusual food. As the host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods America, Zimmern regularly ventures into the country’s nether regions to discover and explore its craziest dishes. And in his new book, Andrew Zimmern’s Field Guide to Exceptionally Weird, Wild, and Wonderful Foods, he’s doing the same thing for younger audiences. As Fall For Food begins, we caught up with him to discuss the usual: pig’s feet, beetle butts and mutant birds.
MADE MAN: How did you first get into strange foods?
ANDREW ZIMMERN: I don’t think of it as strange food nor do the people that are eating it. They think of it as food. That is the exact central question the show has always posed: why is what’s strange to one person commonplace to another? And the answer is anthropological, sociological and cultural. But we all love food. Someone may ask, how does an old, white, bald Jew from NYC run around the tribal world eating fermented pig’s foot and beetle anus? And the answer is, usually somebody’s grandmother has made it and it’s quite good.
America is the only country that doesn’t feed kids what adults eat. Everyone seems to think that you have to steam a hot dog, cut it up and put it next to a pile of macaroni and cheese instead of giving children what Mom and Dad are eating.
MM: What’s the most bizarre food you’ve ever been presented with that ended up tasting totally unremarkable?
AZ: Most of the “blood” foods don’t have a strange taste, like blood sausages, blood puddings, liver, kidney and lung. It’s very mild, and it’s surprising to me that people object to it without trying it. That to me is the ultimate human failing: contempt prior to investigation.
MM: In Bizarre Foods America, has it been difficult to find unusual foods in this country, as opposed to foreign lands?
AZ: No. In five years I made 100 shows in other countries, and I kept thinking to myself there’s so many great stories back home. We have such a great ethnic landscape, cultural diversity and geographic diversity that we’re missing out on the country that has maybe the most stories that we like. So the network thought it was a good idea if we turned our cameras on America for a while, and this is the result.
MM: So you have no problem finding bizarre foods in America?
AZ: I could shoot a show in your kitchen.
MM: What country’s food has surprised you the most?
AZ: There’s such different extremes. I’ve gone to certain African countries and lived in a tribal environment for weeks at a time, where you hunt and forage for your food every day—that’s had one set of surprises. I remember walking into a restaurant in Vietnam and seeing an animal that I had never seen in my life. It looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book! It was called a “kasu” and it was half-goose, half-swan. It was just terrible.
MM: Your new book is written for readers 8 and up. At what age is it OK to allow your child to eat animal brains and insects?
AZ: When they’re born. My son eats both and he loves them. I would remind your audience to pick a country: Argentina to China, South Africa to Morocco, Finland to the Philippines. In all those countries, the babies, once they are taken off breast milk and are eating solid food, eat everything that their parents eat. America is the only country that doesn’t do that, and it is a huge cultural and health problem. Everyone in America seems to think that you have to steam a hot dog, cut it up and put it next to a pile of macaroni and cheese instead of giving children what Mom and Dad are eating.
MM: So what do children in other parts of the world eat?
AZ: Little kids in tribal Alaska eat seal and deer meat and tiny fish with their heads on, grilled or smoked. It’s the same with children in Korea, Japan, Morocco, Nigeria, Argentina and Chile. In my show we always include a family eating together, so that we can show Americans, “Look at those kids and see how happy they are eating tripe or grilled heart.” I’m not asking Americans in Kansas to go out and eat lamb intestine, but my point is that young people will eat all sorts of things.
MM: Any tips on how to become a more adventurous eater and how to find unusual foods in your hometown?
AZ: Go eat in ethnic restaurants. If people just remember this little thing—every week try something you‘ve never eaten before. It’s really simple. Eventually, you’ll bump into all kinds of wonderful things you’ll like. I have friends that are obsessive golfers and they always go to the putting green or the driving range, even in the offseason. That’s because they want to be a better golfer. If you want to be a better cook or better eater, enjoy food more, practice food more.
MM: Do you feel like food has gotten better or more adventurous over the past 10 years?
AZ: Oh gosh, yes. Food has gotten much more varied. What used to appear crazy to Americans is now being eaten by Americans and is more popular than ever. That’s a great thing. I think the biggest need that we have is to decentralize our food system. Eat more locally, so we can feed our planet a little more safely for coming generations.
MM: What direction do you see food headed in the next 10 years?
AZ: I’m an optimist. So, I hope that we are going to re-regionalize and re-localize food again. Five years ago there were just a handful of companies providing seventy-five to eighty percent of the food in this country, and we need the opposite of that. We need to go back to running family butcher shops. We need to have family farms, smaller-sized farms providing our food. It’s healthier for the environment, it’s more sustainable for our farmers, it provides safer and better tasting food, and it’s economically and culturally sustainable. What has happened in the last fifty to sixty years in our food system has to be undone. It has to be.
To see all of Andrew Zimmern’s projects, go to andrewzimmern.com.