Andrew Zimmern: a man of unusual tastes

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He’s eaten cow spleen in Sicily, fish eyes in Samoa and chicken-fried squirrel in West Virginia. And now he’s coming to Baltimore.

Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern and Bizarre Foods America, is the main draw at the third annual Foodie Experience at the Hippodrome Theatre on Saturday. (We wonder what he could possibly test his stomach with while he’s in town — coddies?)


Zimmern, 50, grew up in New York City and credits his father with introducing him to the worlds of exotic foods and travel. He worked in several top-tier New York restaurants after graduating from Vassar College, but fought drug and alcohol addiction — and lived on the streets of Manhattan for nearly a year — in his early 30s before seeking treatment in the Midwest.

Once sober, Zimmern took a job as a dishwasher at the Minneapolis outpost of New York’s Cafe Un Deux Trois, and when a line cook called in sick, he fortuitously replaced him. In seven weeks, Zimmern was promoted to executive chef. His menu of French dishes with an Indo-Chinese twist caught the attention of local media, who also noted his easy on-camera persona.

Before long, he was appearing regularly as a guest on local TV shows and contributing articles about food to local magazines. These days, he’s a contributing editor for Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, writes for Food & Wine and does an online show for the MSN Network called Appetite For Life.

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He’s also published two books, including a guide for young readers, Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World Of Food: Brains, Bugs And Blood Sausage (Delacorte Books for Young Readers), which was released last year.

Since 2006, Zimmern has been traveling the world as part of his Bizarre Foods series, a show he’s quick to note has less in common with Fear Factor and more in common with a PBS documentary. For him, it’s all about exploring and showcasing the world’s cultures through food.


I spoke recently via telephone with Zimmern — who lives in Edina, Minn., with his wife, Rishia, and son, Noah — while he was in an airport in Atlanta waiting for a flight home.

WJW: Tell us a little bit about your Jewish upbringing in New York.

Zimmern: Oh my God, my family had been in New York City basically ever since the Civil War. The story goes that the Zimmerns were butchers — kosher butchers in the South, in Atlanta — and we picked the wrong side of the War Between The States, and after the South was leveled, they basically walked to New York and made furniture for the next three generations.

Did you eat a lot of Jewish foods growing up?

During the ’60s, when I was in my most formative years with my grandmother, I would go over to her house every weekend and spend the night. The activities she liked most were shopping for food, cooking food and feeding people. I think she was president of the sisterhood at her synagogue, which was right around the corner from Zabar’s. Saturday was “Parade The Grandchild Day.” I remember going to all these great stores on Broadway, eating with her and shopping, and then we would go back and cook. On Sunday, all the cousins would come over for lunch, and I would go back home with my parents.

What would you eat?

Everything from sweet-and-sour tongue to pot roast to Hungarian goulash that one of her housekeepers taught her to make, to chicken liver, roast chicken and matzah ball soup. You name it — everything that is in our canon my grandmother made, and she was a fantastic cook. I still make her recipes to this day.

I’ve read that like any good Jewish family, you’d often go out for Chinese.

Every Sunday night, and we still do. The tradition in my house with my son and lovely wife — who by the way was born into an evangelical Lutheran family in Minnesota and is arguably more Jewish than I am — is that come Sunday night, we are sitting at Shuang Cheng or Szechwan Spice in Minneapolis.

But can you get a good bagel in Minneapolis?

No. But you might get a decent one.

Do you think there’s something to the fact that growing up on what could be considered “bizarre” Jewish foods gave you a taste for your future career?

Oh my gosh, my grandmother made this sour tongue on a bed of red cabbage that was fantastic. But for many people alive today, that organ would not be something that would cross their lips but stay behind it. I absolutely adore tongue. A very good argument could be made that while I always credit my father for giving me the food-centered life that I had, it was my grandmother’s cooking of tongue that gave me a taste for the unusual. I remember going with friends to a deli and they would order roast beef or turkey or maybe pastrami. I would always want to have chopped liver to schmear on some bread and then have a good tongue sandwich because when it’s done right, it’s absolutely remarkable.

How about schmaltz? Did you grow up with schmaltz?

Of course! I still save every type of fat imaginable in little jars and cook with it. I just did a demo last Saturday in Arizona where I actually sauteed some duck testicles in rendered chicken fat. I even used crispy little gribenes to garnish it. I learned the technique for how to render the fat from my grandmother: one slice of onion in the water with all the skins, low heat.

Well, what else would you saute duck testicles in?

Exactly.

Have you been to Baltimore much? Or Maryland?

I do get there. When I did my Appetite For Life series, I stopped there and did a fantastic show. I went out crabbing with some baymen, and went to Chaps [in East Baltimore] for a pit beef sandwich and went around the city and found some food trucks that I liked. My best friend’s wife is actually from Baltimore, and I cook her grandmother’s crab cakes. I always like to go back to the land of grandmothers.

Is there something in particular you’ll be doing while in town? Any place you are looking forward to eating?

No, I’m still trying to figure where I’m going to eat in Atlanta before I fly home to Minnesota. If I’m able to, I’m going to try to drive to Frederick [Md.] to my friend Bryan Voltaggio’s restaurant, Volt. I’m dying to eat there.

What can audiences expect during your show in Baltimore?

Usually the way things go, I like to do the preliminary material that everyone is curious about: How I got to be the type of food guy that I am; what I value about the food experience; what I see as the state of the world looking like in terms of our food systems; and why I worship the transformative power of travel.

It’s a short talk, but it sets the stage for when I talk about why I eat the things I eat or cook the things I cook and the message that’s behind them. I don’t do it for shock value. I have a very serious message that I try to communicate. I want people to understand that alternative proteins are something that we need. It’s a must-have. We can’t keep eating the same foods. We are killing ourselves and our planet. Our economic sustainability is now in question because of that. It’s a massive issue.

Is there a central message you hope that people take away?

Yeah, our world is getting flatter with every given day, and knowing how people eat in Canton, China, is just as important as knowing how people eat in Canton, Ohio. That’s not a clever little line from a media darling. Dining well in America and eating healthfully, and eating with balance and doing so economically for a family has become a class issue in America. That’s a very dangerous development. The way the food systems have been compromised, children have never been fatter or less healthy. Adults have never been less healthy, yet the people at the top of the 1 percent, so to speak, are able to have access to all this wonderful food information and have never been healthier. That’s a horrible development in our society, and I believe there are prescriptive ways that you can learn by looking at other cultures and traveling and living a globalist lifestyle that can help us save our planet.

It’s a very serious message. I have a very entertaining presentation. I’m not a doom-and-gloomer. I’m very optimistic. But I think that we need to get into action about this stuff.

Is there a particular region or society that Americans could emulate to hopefully accomplish those goals?

I don’t mean to sound trite or have an easy answer, but I spent a couple weeks with [a tribe] in Botswana, and this is a people that has no crime or illness, everyone is essentially trained as a doctor or lawyer, architect or engineer. They have no personal possessions and they share everything, and when you ask either a 12-year-old boy or a 40-year-old woman or a 75-year-old shaman, ‘What’s the most important thing to do in life?’ they look at you and only speaking in clicks and whistles will explain to you that all you have to do in life is love other people.

Seems pretty simple.

Yeah, pretty moving experience for me. I’ve never forgotten that.

Shifting gears, I have read that the only food you don’t seem to like is walnuts? Is that right?

Can’t stand them.

That seems to me pretty random.

Well, they’re soapy. Why would anyone eat that stuff when there is a perfectly well-roasted pecan in a tray sitting next to it?

In your book The Bizarre Truth, you wrote that the strangest food you had ever encountered is piure, a sea squirt found in Chile.

There are a handful of foods represented by the piure. These are foods that I never knew existed before. That particular sea squirt lives 2,000 feet beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean only off the coast of Chile and it’s the size of a giant, basketball-sized rock that you can actually cut into. It’s filled with hundreds of pulsating red, oyster-like organisms that you eat. It was like a bad Star Trek episode.

You eat them raw?

Yeah, with some lemon juice and salt. If you ever see one, they are quite tasty.

I’ll keep a lookout for those. I had read also that your most memorable food day was in Paris, which on the surface seems not as bizarre as some other destinations.

I’m not sure I’ve had a day that’s beaten it. I started out the day at Poilane Bakery and went to a couple of Paris’ best pastry shops. By 11 o’clock, I was having a private lesson in molecular gastronomy from [French chemist] Herve This, who basically created the movement. Then, I went to three three-star Michelin restaurants back-to-back-to-back, with the chef dining in their kitchen then sitting out in the dining room and eating a couple of courses with them. It’s really, really difficult to beat that day.

Then you are eating k’lia [rotten meat] in Morocco the next day.

You brought up one of a hundred experiences you could have inserted in there. Another would be wandering the night market in Taipei, Taiwan — just as exhilarating.

Back to the k’lia. I watched that episode and it looked like you were close to spitting that stuff out.

Well, it’s rotten mystery meat cooked in its own fat and stored in a less than sanitary situation. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.

But it’s an important food in their culture.

Exactly.

So besides those times when you have to eat k’lia, do you have the greatest job in the world?

If I don’t, I don’t know who does. Often people talk about [chef, author and TV personality] Tony Bourdain and me in the same sentence. He gets to spend more time late at night at bars, sipping great whiskey and talking to more pretty girls. I get to spend a little more time with a handful of the world’s lost tribal peoples, and from where I am sitting, I would have to go with me.

I don’t know anyone else who’s ever been filmed while a medicine man beat him with a guinea pig.

It’s interesting to me that the head of the anthropology department at the University of Minnesota called me a cultural anthropologist, and I disagreed with him. That was the first year my show was on and he said, “You’ve only made 15 or 16 episodes of your program, and you have spent more time with tribal peoples than some tenured professors at major research universities have, who’ve spent their careers trying to access.” I realized that very moment that I had something very special going on. And I try to take that very seriously. It’s the thrill of my life to have had those experiences.

Andrew Zimmern will appear at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center in Baltimore on Saturday at 6 p.m. as part of the third annual Hippodrome Foodie Experience. Call 410-547-7328 for ticket information.

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