Andrew Zimmern is best known as the host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. But before he was traveling the globe eating glands, connective tissue and anuses, he was an acclaimed chef, writer and expert in Chinese cuisine. The new season of his Travel Channel program premieres later this month and, in anticipation of that, he chatted with us about a wide range of topics.
When we started our conversation, Andrew was in an editing room helping his producers identify meats from an episode filmed in Argentina. He pointed out thymus glands and sweet breads as easily as you or I would point out our friends in a photograph. During the rest of our discussion, we touched on subjects ranging from his iron constitution to the American culinary psychology to just how educational his television program actually is.
So what are Andrew Zimmern’s favorite foods? What is the one thing that he absolutely cannot stand eating? And what other Travel Channel host does he have a not-so-secret crush on? Andrew Zimmern shared it all with us.Mike Barish: Most people know you as the guy who eats crazy things. But what are your creature comfort foods? Are there simple things that, at the end of the day, just make you happy?
Andrew Zimmern: Oh god, yes. Black licorice; really, really, really good cinnamon lollipops. I’m a nice Jewish boy from New York. Matzo ball soup or chopped chicken liver or brisket or something like that is my go to meal. I have a 5 year old boy. I have a rekindled love affair with Cap’n Crunch. That I thought died with my college pot smoking, freakazoid days.
MB: It’s common for people to say, “This tastes like chicken.” Is saying “x tastes like chicken” the lazy way to describe wild foods or do you notice similarities in the way certain things taste?
AZ: I will tell you that frog has more in common with chicken just as iguana has more in common with chicken, snake has more in common with chicken. It’s all of those reptiles fall into the “taste like chicken” category. The reason is that they are very lean, white fleshed meats with a fairly benign flavor. Chicken has a deeper, richer, better flavor than those animals because the lack of fat in those animals. Fat is flavor in many instances. Those reptiles have a very thin, tinny sort of flavor that halfway through the chew the flavor evaporates. There’s nothing left. It’s how blindfolded I would always be able to tell I’m eating a reptile. I think that generations of people said, “oh, what’s it taste like?” “Kind of like chicken.” Now it’s a joke. “Tastes like chicken.”
MB: Do you think people actually dislike a lot of the things that you’re eating or they just can’t get past whatever psychological block they have?
AZ: No. Well it’s certainly more the latter, but I will also tell you that the biggest reason is the 3rd item: they’ve never tried it. When I’m in Chile, and I’m with Mapuche Indians and we bleed out a lamb, and they stir some lime juice and cilantro and onion into fresh lamb’s blood and take a spoon and pass the bowl around while it’s still warm, that’s hardcore. I don’t know who gets to have that experience. I’m sure people are shocked. I was shocked, and I was there. I knew it was coming, and I was shocked. What I do for people is that I can sit there and show them with pictures and tell them with the sound of my voice what the experience is like and what’s happening.
I think that a lot of people practice contempt prior to investigation.
MB: Where do you think that fear comes from and have you found that it’s uniquely American?
AZ: Oh it’s not uniquely American at all, although the rest of the world is more familiar with being more open-minded. Our country is the only country in the world, let’s just talk about food for a second, that eats from the center, expensive cuts of the animal regardless of how much money you make. We just come up with different grades of meat to separate the steaks that poor people eat from the steaks that rich people eat. It’s ludicrous. All we do is porterhouse and strip loin and rib eye. We don’t eat the hooves and the head and stuff except when we grind them up and put them in hot dogs and don’t tell people what it is. We eat boneless, skinless chicken breast. We take shrimp and throw away the head and the shell, where all the flavor is, and freeze the meat from the tail and worship that as if it is some kind of iconic ingredient. We’re the only culture in the world that does that. It’s completely backwards.
MB: But there are adventurous Americans, yes?
AZ: I think the best news in the whole world is that recently there has been a spate of reportage, I’ve even blogged about it, Tweeted and Facebooked about it, of all the different people who are taking pictures of their foods or documenting their food life.
MB: The food porn.
AZ: Correct. Flickr has a billion pictures that people download every year of what they’re eating. I think it’s the greatest thing in the whole world because people get on the internet and are like, “Oh my god, that’s tongue? That looks good.” That many people can’t be wrong.
I find it really interesting when I’m in China, donkey is a very common meat. It’s as common as beef or lamb, especially in the region that Beijing is the central hub to. Donkey meat is delicious. If Americans tasted it blind, it would be the most popular new meat in our country. It’s lean, it’s delicious, it tastes like veal, it cooks like beef, the skin is edible, it’s just glorious. It’s a certain species of the smaller donkey, and it’s just amazing. It is delicious. We can’t get people to eat goat in this country.
MB: Right, right. Would you say the biggest hurdle for people is the psychological, the taste or the texture?
AZ: The biggest issue with America is the psychology of it. I was in Thailand, and a lot of places that I travel to, the people eat bats. Here in our country, our kids are brought up with vampire mythology and Halloween mythology where bats represent disease and scary things and all the rest of that. If we didn’t have those messages in our culture, we would be eating foods like bats (assuming that there were edible ones around).
MB: Do you look back at the popularity of Fear Factor in the last decade where eating those things was seen as a challenge that merited winning thousands of dollars? Is that the psychology?
AZ: No, I think Fear Factor was the result of the net of it all. They were playing off our difficulties with psychology. What bugged me about Fear Factor – and believe me at one point before I had my job on Travel Channel and that show first came out, I was like, “I could win that show. Are you kidding me?” – they preyed on the worst fears in our psychological profiles. Not only did you have to eat the worms, but you had to lie in a coffin covered with them. You know what I mean? Those kinds of jeopardy shows where they put you in a difficult situation, I think, exploit that psychology. The fact that people had such a problem with it proves the point I’m making.
MB: Everybody watches you eating all these foods and most of the time having no problem eating them, but how is your GI tract afterward? What has caused you the worst bowel difficulties after the fact?
AZ: What a delicate way to phrase that question.
MB: I did my best there. Thank you.
AZ: I was given the job of hosting this program because I actually lived that way. All they had to do was send the TV crew with me and send me to a couple of more exotic places that I couldn’t afford to go or had time to go on my own. I say that to answer that question because by the time I got to filming my adventures, I had already been around the world a dozen times. I had never gotten sick. I don’t think if I was a person who had a lot of food-borne illness issues, etc. that I would even say “yes” to the offer. I don’t get sick. I’ve built up some resistance. I’ve eaten enough things in enough places. I even drink the water in countries where I tell other people not to.
I’ve had two nights in the last five years where I’ve been up all night sick, wrapped around the toilet. Both of those nights were in U.S. cities after eating seafood that when it went down my mouth, I was like, “oh that’s a bad mussel” or “oh that clam may come back to hurt me.”
MB: Anthony Bourdain takes the piss out of you fairly frequently on his show and in interviews. Do you guys have a good relationship? What do you think about him lobbing jabs at you every now and then? Is that a sibling rivalry relationship?
AZ: Yeah. It’s so funny. I think it’s also that those kinds of things are the most reportable, funniest bits. We both give each other a lot of crap in our shows. I think he’s been lucky enough to say them under circumstances where the lighting is better, and it fits within the context of what they’re doing. I’m always yelling at my editors and producers, “God, I said that funny line.” We both give each other a lot of grief in our shows. That’s very much sibling oriented. We’re very friendly off-camera. Last time I was in New York, my wife and I were with Tony and his wife. We’re friends.
MB: What would you say is more detrimental or more dangerous for people: eating things that you eat or the amount of fast food that Americans regularly eat?
AZ: Not even close, the amount of fast food. Not even close. I go to a lot of sporting events with my son. We’ll be sitting there, and I’ll get recognized and somebody comes up to me and they’re eating a hot dog or a bratwurst because we’re in Minnesota. They say to me, “I can’t believe some of the stuff you put in your mouth. How can you eat that barbecued pig snout?”
My response to them is, “when I was in the Philippines, and they butchered that pig and took the snout and grilled it, steamed it and grilled it again, chopped it up and made that snout hash and I ate it, that meat had never seen the inside of a refrigerator. It had never seen pesticides. It had never seen growth hormones. That was fresh, gorgeous porky pork the way God meant it to be eaten. And it was delicious.
The pork that you’re eating, sir, is ground up, it’s five years old. It was liquidized. It was ammonia-ized. It was food processed.It was loaded with filler and chemicals, and the government says they don’t have to tell you 25% of what’s in it. What’s worse? To me, it’s not even close.
The diet of the average American is universally mocked and ridiculed for good reason. Our culture has created a part of a food life for many Americans that is unconscionable. Our show is entertainment, but there is a very graspable message in Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern that I think is the most important message of anything we do.
MB: And what’s that?
AZ: When you broaden out the number of, for example, protein choices in your life, and start eating little fish as opposed to the American way which is just tuna, salmon and halibut and shrimp, when you start to eat 20 different types of red meat, not just two, you then spread out your choices and you ease pressure on farms and take away the power of these giant multinationals that now produces 75% of our food in this country. You actually level the playing field, and you’re eating more, in the words of one of my idols, Michael Pollan, “you’re eating foods that your grandmother would recognize.”
MB: Do you think that some of the goofiness and schtick of your show leads to people to not realize that it is as educational and enriching as other programs? There are educational principles to your show, but because you’re in a loud shirt and you’re kind of yucking it up, people go, “oh it’s just shock for shock’s sake.”
AZ: Yes. I couldn’t agree more. I do that, I wouldn’t say purposely, yeah I would. I do that purposely. When I first pitched this show to Travel Channel, I knew that I wanted to do a show that was 80% entertainment and 20% message and not the opposite because if I did the opposite in that day and age, I wouldn’t have gotten the larger audiences to tune in. The greatest success of my program is that kids, parents and families are addicted to it. I know that in my heart that there is a generation of kids who have watched me since day one who are more open-minded eaters. I think the impact of shows like my show, like Tony’s [Bourdain] show and others like it, in ten years from now is going to be even bigger and more manifest because I think there are a lot of people, and I hear it all the time, the kids didn’t eat vegetables and they made a game of it – Andrew Zimmern would eat that. I get hundreds of those letters a week and emails. It’s very powerful.
Plus, we have a kids’ special that’s coming out this coming year that we made awhile back that people are just going to fall in love with. It allows us to tell that message with a bigger exclamation point at the end of the sentence.
MB: Is there anything that you won’t eat either because you just don’t like the taste or texture? Is there anything that you were more than willing to try and after the fact said, “Okay, good. I tried it and I never want it again”?
AZ: I hate them.
AZ: I’ve tried them a million ways. They just don’t agree with me. They got a bad aftertaste. I eat every other nut on the planet.
MB: But not walnuts? So nutcrackers in the Christmas stockings for you?
AZ: No, can’t stand them.
MB: Another Gadling writer, Aaron Hotfelder, wrote an open letter to you when your show started its second season. It basically said, “I love the show. I love what you do, but every place you go, you’re the only person wearing shorts.”
MB: So, what’s with the khaki shorts?
AZ: Oh my god, that’s hysterical. What happens is, and I’ll just give you an example. You go to Morocco and you’re in the desert. Yes, it is hot and all the rest of that stuff, but you have to remember that I have to carry trunks and trunks of gear and clothing and equipment when I travel. We’re gone 2-3 weeks at a time shooting multiple shows. I’ll be in Alaska one week and then in the deserts of Morocco the next. Television is not a fancy business. I don’t have stylists and handlers and all the rest. It’s me, a producer, a couple of camera guys, a driver, a scout, a PA to carry some gear and maybe a security guy in a dicey area to watch the equipment. So it’s basically a process of elimination: what can I use that I can transport the easiest with the most people? So that’s really what it comes down to. Second of all, when you’re working 18, 19 hours a day and you’re in vans, you go for comfort. So it’s also a comfort thing as well. I just find it really simple. The other thing that we actually talk about and think about a lot is that we have enough distracting stuff on the show. Leopard print type pants and white go-go boots is not – as much as I love to be an individual – it’s maybe a little too distracting. It really is.
I never had to answer that question. It’s a very good one. It’s just because it is easy to travel with, easy to clean and has good pockets.
MB: Are you familiar with the game Fuck, Marry, Kill?
MB: Okay, so Fuck, Marry, Kill and the 3 candidates are: Tony Bourdain, Samantha Brown, and Bear Grylls.
AZ: Oh my god. Oh my god. Well Tony I would marry. Absolutely in half a heartbeat. I’ve made no bones about it. Samantha is a very dear friend of mine, and both of us are very happily married, I would definitely make a run at her if we were both single. She is just an absolute pistol, and I just admire the heck out of her. I adore her. I have very publicly said that I have a huge crush on Samantha. Yeah, so that’s a no brainer. The funny thing about Bear is that if I didn’t know him, I would have obviously put him in the kill category. I love his show. I watch his show. I’ve recorded it since day one. I just think he’s fantastic. But he’s even nicer in real life. He’s one of the nicest, most genuine, good human beings, and I’ve gotten to spend a decent amount of time with him. He’s just a gem of a human being. So I would rather not fuck, marry or kill Bear Grylls. I’d rather just hang out with him.
The fourth season of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern premieres on the Travel Chanel on April 26 at 10:00pm E/P.
Photo courtesy of Travel Channel.