EXOTIC FOOD ADVENTURER Andrew Zimmern—host of the popular Travel Network series,
Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, has literally tasted it all: from grilled reindeer liver in Finland to 3,000-yearold butter in Ireland; from turtle blood sake in Japan to sheep’s head stew in Iowa. Through his travel and his oddball tastings, he has developed a deep admiration and respect for different cultures, values and peoples.
According to Zimmern, his adventures are also his own form of therapy to escape his past as an alcoholic and drug addict—it’s an opportunity, he says, to teach viewers about the importance of patience, tolerance and understanding about the world and its people. Despite the shock value of eating a live octopus in Seoul, South Korea, or some other bizarre menu item in the far reaches of the Earth, Zimmern’s focus is to showcase how travel can be transformative and how sharing native foods with other people is a bonding experience.
In this interview with COMMERCE, Andrew Zimmern shares the many life lessons he continues to learn on the road, sampling the world’s most bizarre foods. An Early Fascination with Food: “My parents were food freaks; my mother learned how to cook in the kitchens and homes of Vic Bergeron, the founder and owner of Trader Vic’s; and my dad, an ad firm executive, hung out with all of the food people of his generation like Craig Claiborne and James Beard. I traveled with my dad all the time and, by the time I was 10 or 12, had eaten my way around the world more than once. I started cooking in high school one night a week when I was in the eleventh or twelfth grade; and from 14 years old and on, my summertime job was working in kitchens. One thing led to another and I have had a 20-year career in food from the time I graduated college to when I started doing television.”
New Jersey Roots: “My mother was born in Avon, New Jersey, and when I’m in the Garden State, I visit roadside diners serving Taylor ham sandwiches, prowl the Philippine neighborhoods of Jersey City and go down the shore and have a great lobster dinner at some clam shack on Long Beach Island.”
America’s Privileged Palate: “Our country is only 240 years old, and I get upset when people talk about American food. Most of our food is from somewhere else. That’s not a bad thing.
We are picky because our country developed very quickly and has been predicated on wealth and convenience for 100 years. At the end of World War I, our lives sped up and Americans became very privileged, which is why in the American supermarkets, all you find are luxury, center cuts of meat wrapped in plastic and portioned for easy cooking. We are really the only country in the world that does that.”
The Road Less Traveled: “I have lived with protected tribes, tasted secret recipes and have been invited to the kitchens of the world’s greatest restaurants. I am one of only a handful of people in the world to have tasted 3,000-year-old butter that came out of a bog in Ireland completely preserved. I’ve had a staggering amount of food and culture experiences.”
Connecting via Food: “You cannot spend time with the Rastafarian people in the jungles of Jamaica and not taste their cuisine. In order for me to understand the “Yatti Man” who I profiled in my Jamaica episode, I needed to eat his food. When I do this, I am living his life for a day and can better appreciate his lessons.”
Local Food Markets: “I learn more spending a day at a local market than I do at a museum. You meet more native folks at markets and witness daily life. Most countries still have central markets where the entire community gathers several times a day. You learn so much about life in that place. I’m usually hungry, and those are the best places to eat.”
Really Strange Foods: “Down in Samoa, I ate a paste made of coral worms that float to the surface from a mile down below in the deep Pacific every couple of years, when the atmospheric conditions are right. The natives scoop them off the surface and cook them into a paste to be eaten with bread. I never knew something like that existed, let alone was edible— or thought I’d be there on a day when I actually could eat it. Another strange food would be the deep water sea squirts I’ve tried. One in particular that I had was in the Mercado Central in Santiago, Chile. It was a giant, basketball-sized sea squirt that looked like a rock.”
Everyone Has Limits, Even Andrew Zimmern: “I will not touch walnuts or raw cookie dough.”
Travel is Transformative: “I can tell the history of a people by staring into the right bowl of soup. Other people do it by studying paintings, dance, language or architecture. But you have to go to the source of interesting foods to get the true experience. Smell the air, walk the streets, talk to the people, and experience their way of life. Travel is transformative. We become the best version of ourselves when we travel.”
A Life-Changing Experience: “My week in Botswana living with the Ju/’hoansi—one of the dozen protected tribes around the world—changed me as a human being. The food was amazing. I got to forage for wild honey, which they do by following the birds that eat bee larva. The village was attacked by a seven-foot black llama that we had to chase and kill. I got to hunt. I became a fully sustainable human being. I also had an out-of-body experience during a tribal ceremony.”
A Deeper Meaning: “Everyone thinks my show is about a fat, white guy who goes around the world and eats bugs. That’s the kind of show people want to watch. The show that I am making in my head, however, is about teaching patience, tolerance and understanding with other people. When I was a homeless drug addict and alcoholic, I was a taker of things and a user of people. The reason I am so generous on my show is because it gives me a chance to show the world that you can be a contributor and a giver, not a taker. I want my viewers to embrace people for who they are, rather than try to change them.”