It’s been a decade since Andrew Zimmern went from chef, freelance journalist and radio personality to worldwide food advocate, travel icon and eater of all things “exotic.”
And as the host of Bizarre Foods, Bizarre Foods America and Delicious Destinations, he’s known for some pretty bold food beliefs.
With Bizarre Foods returning to Travel Channel this week (Tuesdays, 9/8c), we caught up with the two-time James Beard award-winner to chat about the new season, his bouts with substance abuse and why an adorable pet to some is a mouthwatering meal to others.
“In America, if we were eating more horse and donkey and rabbit and goat and guinea pig… if we just took one or two meals a week from those animal groups and added back into the food stream those meals taken away from the world of pig and cow and chicken, it would be a radical quick fix to some of our food problems.”
So there’s a new season of Bizarre Foods. Can you give us a preview of the places you’ll go, the people you’ll meet, and the things you’ll eat?
Sure. We’re doing eight episodes in this mini half-season where they have it structured on the Travel Channel. Senegal, Madrid, Shanghai, Okinawa, North Carolina… and the Bronx and Stockholm and Cyprus are the eight episodes that begin airing in June. Along the way we tell the usual fantastic culture food stories and really explore each given place and their culture through the food that the people are eating.
What do you say to people to put aside their hangups and try things they consider bizarre that are actually completely normal in other cultures or regions? Or at the very least what do you say to people that allows them to treat these cultures’ foods with respect?
You make an award-winning TV show for 11 years and you try to talk about it wherever you go. My idea with Bizarre Foods from the get-go is to teach people about having patience and tolerance and understanding about other people’s cultures and the cultural choices they make.
One thing [no one] in America would [do is] go to their local Piggly Wiggly or Publix or Giant Eagle or whatever and go to the butcher and say: ‘Goddammit Charlie I want you to get fresh rice field rats in here! Where’s the fresh snake meat?’ That’s just not gonna happen in America. But I thought that by showing people I was eating those things and that they are delicious and that to other cultures this is just food, maybe then they would be OK with rabbit, and small fish with the heads on, and maybe the occasional chapulinas (grasshoppers), or frog—all of which are very delicious, accessible, nutritious and superb.
What do you think makes it OK to eat a rabbit or a horse—animals that while perfectly delicious and valid protein sources are also beloved pets to some—but when it comes to dogs and cats even the most adventurous eaters feel terrible revulsion?
Dog and cats… neither are very delicious, at least to me. Food is a very subjective thing. Rabbit and horse are delicious. I have absolutely no qualms about eating somebody’s pet. Or their perception of pet; that’s a cultural totem. And rabbit and guinea pig are eaten all over the world… and those are common house pets. And both I find delicious in an unending number of preparations and styles. Horse is fantastic.
In America, if we were eating more horse and donkey, especially, and rabbit and goat and guinea pig… if we just took one or two meals a week from those animal groups and added back into the food stream those meals taken away from the world of pig and cow and chicken, it would be a radical quick fix to some of our food problems. Both decentralization, moving away from factory feedlot farming, and diversification of our diet is crucial to repairing our food world.
If we got more people to eat donkey, it’s just absolutely delicious meat. It tastes like veal and eats the same way; it’s just buttery and superb. An excellent, healthy red meat that’s low in cholesterol and low in fat. I just wish more people would eat these animals. It would take pressure off other parts of our food system that desperately need to have the pressure taken off of them.
The issue with what is thought of as pets in America is always humorous to me. In Spain or Italy or any one of dozens of other countries where horses are commonly eaten, you have people that also keep them as pets, also keep them as working animals. And they also don’t have a problem slapping a piece of their meat onto a grill. It’s food.
In America, our unusual attachment to them is because of our unusual detachment from what our food system is really about the last three or four generations. The same cloying and saccharine notions about what we should or shouldn’t eat are the source of the same problems that allows us to put six ounces of center cut beef on a white styrofoam plate and shrink wrap it in plastic and throw it in the refrigerator section of the supermarket. It’s desensitizing us to the point where, horror of horrors, chickens actually run around and you have to cut their heads off and bleed them and blanch them in hot water and put them in a plucking machine and dress them and clean them and refrigerate them and lo and behold it becomes a chicken to go into your oven. I mean people are just detached from their food source.
Once you understand it all and once you actually participate in it you begin to actually have what I call ‘right-size relationships’ with your food. You become less sensitive about the horse and rabbit issue and you become a little more sensitive about the chicken, pig and cow issue. I just think that so many people when they say our food system is out of alignment, they’re just repeating things other people say. And some of those people who have proxy arguments for a repair of that food system do more damage than good.
Out of the people you’ve met in your travels from ambassadors to poor fishermen on the fringe, who has been your biggest hero so far?
A guy named Jama, a fisherman in Madagascar, who has the toughest, most miserable life from afar. And for weeks knowing I was gonna spend a day with him I couldn’t wait to ask him if he was happy. And I asked him and he looked at me and said: ‘What do you mean? Of course I’m happy, why wouldn’t I be?’ This was a man who owned one pair of shorts, rusty metal that he used to cut bait, he fished with hand-lines until he filled up his little canoe, out on an ocean 20 miles from land in 30-foot seas and used one of his nephews and his foot to hold a piece of wood with a cloth on it so they could get a little more speed and sail home with a boat full of fish. You know 40 to 50 pounds at a time, that’s it.
Every four of five months his house blew down. He had no real possessions, no money, no healthcare. He just lived in a series of huts on the edge of the jungle that was in front of a beach. The tide would go out and leave his boat on dry land and when the tide came in he’d get in the boat and go to it every day. [Spending time with him was] one of the best days of my life; very humbling.
You’ve said you don’t refuse any type of generosity on the road except for alcohol or drugs. Has this ever offended anyone in a country where alcohol isn’t known to be problematic?
Oh gosh, yes. I’m a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. I haven’t had anything that’s affected me from the neck up except for coffee or prescribed medications for almost 25 years, but there are a lot of places where [after a day] well spent together hunting in the mountains and then enjoying a meal around fireplace is, as men, you sit down and you drink. And some of the former Soviet Republics, Central Asia… very macho. There’s some real offense taken.
I try to be gracious and it’s sometimes more important for me to be a gracious guest than anything else. And at times in certain places around the world I’m the first white man these people have ever met—let alone a white American man—so I take my role as ambassador very seriously. The alcohol issue is one that sometimes people don’t understand, but I have learned that by telling them I’m allergic it takes a little bit of the sting away.
Your bouts struggles homelessness, the law and substance abuse: Do they ever feel like distant memories or will they always be as fresh in your mind?
Well some of them are so traumatic and such big deals, some of those elements are so big to me, still, they really are like yesterday. And then there are parts…my sobriety anniversary is in January and I remember on my anniversary thinking, wow holy crap really was it 24 years ago? I purposely keep those memories alive by working with others and trying to carry the message to alcoholics and drug addicts that there is another way to live, and I take a lot of pride and personal joy in being a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. So what used to be my greatest shortcoming, what used to be the chain like Marley had in Scrooge, my albatross that was always dangling from my neck, is now my greatest source of strength.