Yak Penis, Anyone? An Interview With Andrew Zimmern, Host of ‘Bizarre Foods’

andrew zimmern bizarre foodsAndrew Zimmern insists that yak penis “melts in your mouth.” The author, chef and host of the Travel Channel show “Bizarre Foods” also claims that delicacies like snake and deer penis, live frog heart, lizard sake, cow placenta, squirrel brain, sugar cane rat, wildebeast eyeballs and fried tarantulas are all perfectly edible, if not downright delicious. In Madagascar, Zimmern witnessed a circumcision ritual in which the foreskin was eaten, and, though he estimates he’s eaten 60-70 types of animal penis and testicles, he says he draws the line at eating human flesh (see videos below).

Zimmern, 51, is a native New Yorker and graduate of Vassar College who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction in the early ’90s. He was homeless for a year and fed his drug habit by snatching purses and selling the credit card numbers and passports he found. With the help of friends, he moved to Minnesota, got clean, and turned his life around as a chef.

Zimmern claims he’s never gotten sick from any of the bizarre foods he’s eaten and he’s on a mission to get Americans to expand their culinary horizons. In the new season of the show, which premiers on February 11, he’ll feast on baked muskrat, deep fried pig testicles and fermented fish eggs, among other treats. We caught up with Zimmern to ask him how he stomachs all the crap he puts down his gullet.


andrew zimmernI’ve seen you eat some ridiculous things over the years but find it hard to believe that the one food you dislike is walnuts?

Don’t I get to not like something? I just think they’re soapy and gross. I just can’t stand them.

Are there other foods you won’t eat?

That’s it!

But, some of the things you eat just boggle my mind. In Goa, for example, you drank cow urine and ate a fish that hadn’t been refrigerated for more than a year (see video below). What were you thinking?

Terrible, I know.




Does your producer ever suggest something so vile that even you say, ‘No – I am not eating that!’

It’s extremely rare. There’s nothing that happens in the show that I don’t either create or vet or both. I’m usually the one who finds foods in the field and says, ‘We’ve got to include this.’ This show is driven by my curiosity and desire to interpret cultures through food. It’s not driven by a producer saying, ‘This sounds really gross, let’s use that.’ If there is no cultural relevance to something, if it’s just thrill seeking eating, it’s not in our show.

In this upcoming season, you’ll be sampling deep fried piglet testicles, among other things. How were those?

Testicles of animals are delicious. The larger the animal the faster they need to get from the clip into the frying pan. Smaller testicles – roosters, ducks, geese, vermin – are very, very delicate and creamy and are easier to keep fresh. Pig’s balls are great. An animal’s testicles are just another piece of meat that can be cooked the right way and taste very good or cooked the wrong way and they’re not.

You ate those pig balls at a fair in Iowa?

No, we were on a pig farm, Rustik Rooster, in Iowa. Certain breeds of pigs if you let them grow too big with their testicles attached, the meat will develop a gamey flavor as the animal matures. So when the piglets are young, they snip the testicles. We cleaned them, soaked them in a brine, and then breaded and deep-fried them. They were delicious.

You visited a restaurant in Beijing that specializes in animal penises (see video below). How was that?

We used to be able to eat everything because whole animals went into butcher shops but we’re returning to that in some parts of the country. Ten years ago, you couldn’t buy pig livers or lamb kidneys, for example, and now you can. There’s a renewed interest in snout to tail eating and people are understanding that if we are going to eat meat, we need to eat the whole animal to be environmentally sustainable, and people are seeing how delicious that can be as well.




Americans are pretty much the world’s wimpiest eaters aren’t we?

Extremely so. Not even close.

andrew zimmernI wonder if your show has turned people on to some funky foods they otherwise wouldn’t have tried?

It’s hard to say ‘yes’ without sounding like a douchebag but yes, you’re right. The show has been on since 2007. I had been trying to sell this idea well before that. I am extremely proud of what we’ve been able to contribute to the national conversation about food. The show has had a positive impact on helping to remake taste here in America.

Your show is the only one my 5-year-old son and I can agree on.

You should buy him my book. My son is 8 and all the 5-year-old kids in our neighborhood just devour it. No one counted on “Bizarre Foods” being as popular with kids and families as it has been. There are very few shows that a mom, dad, 5-, 10- and 15-year-old can sit down and enjoy together. “Bizarre Foods” is one of them and I’m very proud of that.

My favorite moments on the show are those very rare occasions when you find something that even you can’t stomach. Durian is one of those really challenging foods, right?

There are a lot of foods I have a hard time with. Sometimes I speak in code on camera because I’d rather be a good guest, not this TV guy who is making fun of people who are trying to accommodate, entertain or inform us.




Tell us about a few of the things that have been very hard to swallow?

Lots of things, from fermented skate wing in Korea to fresh animal blood, even little things like eating fresh milk right from a cow, donkey, horse, a reindeer, or a camel. Warm, foamy milk out of an animal’s teat is not how people are used to drinking it. There is a mind over matter aspect to this that is always difficult to deal with. But the practice of tasting and acquiring knowledge allows you to say, ‘that’s not that bad’ and then you get pleasant surprises that I think make for a very interesting eating life. Because I’m most often pleasantly surprised, I’ve learned that you really need to try things.




I can’t recall ever seeing you spit something out. You swallow just about everything, right?

I always do. I can count maybe two or three items I spit out. One was a snack food on the streets of New Delhi that was made with putrid water that I knew would make me sick. Another occasion was in the Philippines when someone offered me a rotten chicken intestine that was raw. In the pilot, I spat out my first taste of durian, which was just horrific. And I learned a valuable lesson.

The orchard manager was so hurt because he was so proud of his country’s favorite fruit. It was quickly smoothed over, but I realized that I wanted to accomplish my goal of broadening peoples’ minds and open them up to the idea that we could share ideas about our differences and resolve them if we could talk about our love of food. And I couldn’t accomplish that goal if I was spitting things out.




I hear you, but there’s no way I could swallow some of the things you eat. Bat, for example. How do you eat a bat?

I ate grilled bat in Thailand and Samoa. I loved it! [In Samoa] there was a giant fruit bat; I shot it out of the sky while standing underneath a breadfruit tree.

You’ve traveled to more than 100 countries, many of them pretty tough places. Watching the Suriname episode, that looked like the hardest travel experience. Was it?

Not enough close – it was by far the most strenuous travel experience. The entire experience was absolutely brutal. We travel with a crew and they need a clean place to sleep and regular meals. I love eating a fried turtle stew or wild pig liver in the jungle, but the crew needs to be looked after in a different way and Suriname was extremely hot, hard living. We had a 52-kilometer hike over a 30-hour period through virgin rain forest. It was extremely brutal.

A little over 20 years ago, you were a homeless drug addict in New York. Could you have envisioned then that you’d be able to turn your life into a success story?

Never in a million years when I was a homeless addict and alcoholic living on the streets in 1990 and 1991 did I think that I would get sober or live to see my 31st birthday. I was scooped up off the streets by friends who did yet again another intervention on me. [They] put me into a treatment facility in Minnesota and I’ve been sober ever since. That is the greatest blessing of my life. That I’m alive is good enough but the fact that I’m in a position to have the type of life that I do is extraordinary and it’s why I place so much emphasis on giving back to the community because my gratitude is immense. I’m the luckiest person in the world.

[Photo credits: The Travel Channel]

Got goat? A cultural exploration of the other red meat

goat meatThere are goat people, and then there…aren’t. We’re like dog people, except we can’t carry the objects of our obsession in our purse. There aren’t city parks dedicated to goats.

I grew up with goats because my brother and I raised them for 4-H. When we got our first dairy goat in the mid-’70’s, my mom tapped her inner hippie, experimenting with making yogurt from the prodigious amounts of milk produced by our doe. And while no one in my family could be accused of squeamishness, it was an unspoken rule we’d never use our goats for meat. Although my mom claims it was because she preferred to donate the young bucks to Heifer Project International, I now realize she just didn’t want to see those adorable little kids sizzling on our grill.

Now that I’m older and more gluttonous, I know that goat makes for some fine eating, whether it’s mild, milky-tasting suckling kid, or adult animals cooked down into flavorful braises (think think less gamey mutton). Yet, while a staple in Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean, Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of Europe, goat has never been popular in the United States outside of specific ethnic communities.

In the last decade, however, goat has been getting more respect. Small goat ranches sell meat at select farmers markets nationwide, and amongst culinary cognoscenti goat is all the rage at select, locally-focused butcher shops and high-end restaurants. I’ve noted that goat as a mainstream ingredient is most popular in the Bay Area–something I attribute to the large Hispanic population, the sheer number of farmers markets, and the willingness amongst chefs, ranchers, and consumers to try new things. Ditto in New York, where goat was once reserved for divey ethnic restaurants of the outer boroughs.

Some chefs, like former “Top Chef” Season four winner/2011 Food & Wine “Best New Chef” Stephanie Izard, owner of Chicago’s The Girl & The Goat, prominently feature caprine preparations on their menus, even if most of their colleagues eschew it (fellow Chicagoan Rick Bayless, Mexican cuisine guru/owner of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Xoco also uses goat). Jonathon Sawyer, another “Best New Chef” alum (2010; The Greenhouse Tavern, Cleveland), is also a fan of goat, and utilizes meat from nearby Cuyahoga Valley.

Why is goat meat so prevalent in other cultures, but not our own? Or, as popular TV host/chef Andrew Zimmern puts it: “Goat is like soccer: it plays well everywhere else in the world but the U.S..”

[Photo credit: Flicker user onkel_wart]goat meatThe reason is that goat is one of the most widely (and oldest) domesticated animals in the world. They thrive in harsh environments, on sparse vegetation, so they’re easy, inexpensive keepers. They’re small, nimble, highly intelligent, and fairly disease-resistant, and are thus lower maintenance than cows or sheep. They provide an ample supply of milk–which can then be sold as cheese, yogurt, or butter–and they’re also a source of skin, fuel (their dung), and meat. There are specific breeds meant for meat (the Boer, for example) or dairy (the prolific Nubian), but most animals in the developing world are multi-use, or serve several functions in their lifespan. Once they can no longer bear kids and produce milk, they become a source of food and hide.

Despite the widespread consumption of goat, they’re also a symbol of status and pride for the millions of nomadic peoples worldwide.The more goats (or other livestock) one has, the more affluent one is. These animals are also treated as members of the family, sharing living quarters and often treated almost as pets. Yet their purpose in life is always at the forefront: to provide sustenance and income for the family and community.

As Americans, we tend to anthropomorphize animals, even the ones we eat (think “Babe,” Charlotte’s Web, and the prevalence of cute little lambs on baby clothes). Goats get a bad rap in this country, due in part to their mythological and biblical associations with the underworld or Satan. They’re supposedly smelly, mean, and will eat the clothes off your back given half a chance.

Allow me to clarify. Goats are actually very tidy animals, although uncastrated bucks most definitely stink beyond description. As for their legendary appetite, goats are innately curious by nature, because they’re intelligent. Thus, they tend to nibble, and yes, sometimes your clothing (or, if you’re a journalist, your notes) might be included. But tin cans, nails, and humans are not in their repertoire. The reason goats are widely used for brush and fire control is their ability to eat and digest brambles and other tough plants most ruminants are unable to tolerate. As for their ornery reputation, goats–being very bright–can have personality clashes with some people (usually those who dislike them).

“Goat is Great”goat meat
In June, I watched Zimmern do a seminar and cooking demo called “Goat is Great” at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. The three-day festival of eating and drinking is full of talks, tastings, and demos celebrating the glory of pork, rum, budget and collector wines, and cooking with animal fat, but this is the first time goat has made the itinerary. Naturally, I was first in line.

Zimmern, who is far less goofy and more edgy and endearing in person, began his talk by touting the glories of goat. Not only is it healthy (high protein, and leaner and lower in cholesterol than beef or lamb), it’s affordable, versatile–he frequently substitutes it for lamb–and sustainable, because it’s not factory farmed. “To the degree that we eat more goat, and only a little fish, we slow the impact of factory farms’ pressure on the environment,” Zimmern explained. The best way to find goat is to request it. “Ask your butcher to carry it. Start telling your local farmers markets that you’d like to see it. You’d be amazed at what’s growing and being raised near your town.”

We watched Zimmern whip up three different preparations of goat, based upon dishes he’s eaten on his travels. The first was a tartare, a contemporary riff on a traditional Ethiopian dish, tere sega, which is usually made with raw beef. He seasoned the meat with crushed berbere (a spice mixture of chile and spices), egg yolk, lemon juice, minced shallots, chopped celery leaves, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire, and minced caper.

Next, we watched rock star butcher Josh Applestone of New York’s Fleischer’s Meats break down a goat carcass in record time, to provide Zimmern with some cuts and offal for his remaining dishes (FYI, Fleischer’s does not carry goat at either of its locations, and based on the tone of the employee I spoke with, they’re really sick of being asked this question).

Zimmern also featured an Italian red wine-braised goat shoulder, before ending things with a globally beloved dish: meat on a stick. “All over the world I’ve eaten skewered goat,” he said, before demonstrating a Tunisian twist on Italian spiedini, or kebabs. He marinated chunks of meat, liver, and kidneys in garlic, olive oil, and homemade harissa (a Tunisian chile paste) before grilling them and finishing the dish with lemon juice and parsley.
goat meat
Where to get goat
Ethnic (Hispanic, African, and Caribbean) and halal markets and butcher shops
Farmers markets
Butcher shops that emphasize local sourcing and humane livestock management

What to do with your goaty offerings? Here’s some tips: throw shoulder cuts on the grill, pan fry chops, and braise shank, riblets, and leg steaks. Bear in mind that goat (especially kid) is lower in fat than most meats, so be careful not to overcook it if you’re barbecuing or using other dry-cooking methods.

[Photo credits: Berber, Laurel Miller; carcasses, Flickr user Mr. Fink’s Finest Photos; heads, Flickr user Royal Olive]

Teaching Children Responsibility with Goats

Andrew Zimmern to share travel recipes and tales for Food & Wine magazine

asdf Food & Wine magazine announced today the company will bring TV personality and chef Andrew Zimmern on board for a new weekly column, “Andrew Zimmern’s Kitchen Adventures.”
Known for his willingness to eat just about anything-insects, porcupine, you-name-it-Zimmern will forgo chowing down grotesque eats and instead show off his skills as a home cook. But never fear: the host of Travel Chanel‘s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern hasn’t forgotten where he travels have taken him. In fact, the recipes he makes in his kitchen for the Food & Wine column will be largely inspired by his travels, such as Sweet and Sour Bangkok-Style Chicken with Red Chiles, a dish he first tasted in a small café in Malaysia, or a rendition of Almond and Orange Cake with a Poached Plum Compote, which Zimmern first discovered in Spain in the Seventies.
“I’m excited to share these memories, experiences and recipes with Food & Wine readers,” says Zimmern, who will also share holiday dishes that reflect his childhood memories and family traditions. Although there is a possibility we might try his grandmother’s recipe for Chopped Chicken Liver, we’re hoping he won’t feature beating frog hearts or hen’s uterus in any of his recipes.

Around the World in 80 Hours (of Travel TV): Part 2

Where does the Travel Channel take us? Rolf Potts embarks on a
one-week gonzo experiment to find out

JACKASS COMMENTATORS AND DUBIOUSLY RANKED DESTINATIONS
Day 2, Hour 17: 9:04 am.


The first Travel Channel show of the day has already begun by the time I wake up and turn on the TV. As the picture tube slowly comes into view I can hear some jackass droning on about the gentle wonder of interacting with elephants in Thailand. When the screen finally flickers on I realize that the droning jackass is me.

The show is 21 Mind-Blowing Escapes, which is the Travel Channel’s version of a VH1 clip-show where comedians poke fun at celebrities. Instead of comedians, this show features travel writers; the “celebrities” are places, and nobody makes fun of anything. In addition to Thailand, my commentary pops up in segments featuring Venice, Angkor Wat, the Grand Canyon, and the Greek island of Santorini.

The strange thing about this show is that when I initially did my talking-head interview it was entitled 25 Mind-Blowing Escapes — which means that at some point four destinations were scrapped. Instead of just lopping off the bottom four places, however, the show’s producers seem to have scratched out destinations at random. The country of Bhutan, for example, was originally hailed as the world’s fifth most mind-blowing escape; now, for reasons that aren’t explained, it’s not on the list at all. Hence the inherent arbitrariness of any TV show that ranks destinations like they were NCAA basketball teams. Somewhere in Bhutan, the tourism minister is probably hurling is clipboard against a locker room wall.
During a commercial break, I go into the bathroom to brush my teeth and notice that the
haggard, puffy-eyed face staring back from the mirror bears faint resemblance to the
chirpy, advice-spewing version of me that appeared on 21 Mind-Blowing Escapes. I’m
only beginning my second day of the experiment, but my TV marathon has already begun
to take a physical toll.


NOTES ON THE SEMIOTICS OF WATERPARKS

Day 2, Hour 18: 10:42 am. Desperate for variety, I’ve made my way down to the Plaza
Hotel gym, where I can watch the Travel Channel while I work the treadmill. The gym’s
aging TV screen is scorched with a faint grid of keno numbers, but for the most part
it suits my purposes. The only problem is that any time I start running faster than 20
minutes per mile I can’t hear anything but the sound of myself clomping along on the
treadmill.

This lends my TV viewing experience a curious new perspective. Right now I’m watching America’s Favorite Waterparks while running nine-minute miles. At the beginning of the hour, when I could hear the voiceover narration, this show struck me as a mildly informative little rundown of aquatic fun-parks in the United States. Without the sound, however, the show has become an incomprehensible video loop of teenagers racing down water-slides, young boys getting into splash-fights, and chubby families bobbing in wave pools. It’s hard to discern one water park from another. Amid the repetitive flood of images, I begin to notice a persistent visual pattern: Nary a minute passes without another shot of some massive aquatic gravity-tube ejaculating a swimmer through the air on a frothy gush of water.

Somehow I suspect a spunky 24-year-old northern California feminist is at this very
moment hashing out a PhD thesis entitled “Phallocentric Fun-Parks: A Lacanian
Symbology of Patriarchal Imagery and Recreational Male Privilege in American Hydro-
Amusement Communities.”

WHAT DO HOSTS DO WHEN THEY’RE NOT HOSTING?

Day 2, Hour 20: 12:55 pm. After nearly two hours of treadmill action I’m back up in my
hotel room, where I’m developing a crush on TV-host Samantha Brown. As I watch her
show, I’m thinking I’d like to marry her for the simple end of diversifying my bloodline
with perky, winsome offspring.

Today Samantha has been cavorting her way through Spain and Italy on a show called
Passport to Europe. At the moment she is learning how to flamenco dance. In previous
scenes she trained as a bullfighter, sampled horsemeat with Italian wine, reenacted a
scene from Romeo and Juliet, and guzzled beer in her hotel room. I like it that Brown is
always drinking on camera. I’m also charmed by her self-deprecating humor, and her raw
exuberance for most everything she encounters.

The weird thing about Samantha Brown, however, is that it’s hard to discern what she
does when she’s not gallivanting off on a weekend getaway to Valencia or Verona. Whereas personalities like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern work as chefs when they’re not on TV, Brown’s main line of work appears to be going on vacations for the Travel Channel. This makes it a tad confusing when she “escapes” to the Tuscan countryside or enthuses about “getting away from it all” at a spa in Baja. Just what is it that she’s getting away from? Isn’t that trip to the spa part of her job?

Hence, while it’s easy to imagine what Bourdain does in his spare time (eat, drink, bang
groupies), or what Zimmern does when he’s not filming Bizarre Foods (eat, sleep, look up adjectives to describe the taste of seared yak scrotum), I’m at a loss to envision what Samantha Brown does when she’s not pretending to go on holiday in front of a TV crew.

A part of me imagines her sitting on the floor of a trash-strewn Hell’s Kitchen apartment, snorting crystal meth and listening to Danzig records while she drills hollow-points into
ammunition for her .50-caliber Barrett M82 sniper rifle.

ANTHONY BOURDAIN DOES NOT SPEAK TRAVELESE

Day 2, Hour 21: 1:55 pm. I’ve noticed that there’s a sameness to the narrative language on all the Travel Channel shows. Since I began my TV marathon, both Andrew Zimmern and Samantha Brown have used the exact same phrases — “vacation paradise,” “land of contrasts,” “it doesn’t get any better than this” — to describe wildly different places and experiences. The words heaven,” “breathtaking,” “dreams,” “treasure,” and “unforgettable” are intoned like Travel Channel mantras, and just today I heard the phrases “hidden gem,” “secret gem,” and “unique gem” on three successive programs.

This type of language belongs to a distinctive media-dialect called “travelese,” a word journalist William Zinsser coined in his 1976 book On Writing Well. “Nowhere else in nonfiction do writers use such syrupy words and groaning platitudes,” Zinsser noted. “It is a style of soft words which under hard examination mean nothing.” At the time Zinsser was alluding to print-based travel journalism, and 35 years later the overwrought cadences of travelese continue to plague magazine, newspaper, and guidebook writing.

The thing is, for all the consumer travel articles sopping with words like “quaint” and “wondrous,” the print world offers plenty of verbally disciplined, literary-minded travel reportage by writers like Peter Hessler, Tim Cahill, Susan Orlean, Pico Iyer, Kira Salak, Gary Shteyngart, and Paul Theroux. Unfortunately, travel television does not appear to offer a comparable respite from its more mindless tropes: Almost without exception its program language is indecipherable from that of its commercials.

In saying this, I certainly don’t absolve myself from the equation. I’ve gone years without ever using the word “majestic” in a print story, but I used it twice in less than one minute of airtime on 21 Mind-Blowing Escapes. Beyond that, I described Venice as “romantic,” Angkor Wat as “magnificent,” and the sunset at Santorini as “magical.” Back when I was being interviewed for the show, I’d also pointed out logistical hassles and tourist hordes at all three places — but those simply aren’t the kinds of details that make it into TV clip- shows about travel destinations. Indeed, if the Travel Channel doesn’t seem to convey much critical or intellectual substance, it’s probably because television itself is a medium that doesn’t tolerate nuance and reflection.

The network’s sole exception to this phenomenon is Anthony Bourdain, whose No Reservations is at once counterintuitive, given to opinionated perspective, and self- aware of its limitations as a TV show. Yesterday Bourdain guided us off the sun- dappled tourist-trail to visit the eateries of “the three most fucked-up cities in America” — Baltimore, Detroit, and Buffalo. By the end of show he had done a fair amount of rust-belt dining, but he’d also given the audience subtle lessons in socio-economics, immigration history, and urban planning. In Buffalo, he refused to discuss hot-wings (“you can have Al fucking Roker describe them to you on some other show,” he said). Today’s Miami-based episode simultaneously skewers South Florida tourist clichés, documentary TV fakery, and the basic assumptions of every other food-travel show on television. A running joke of the episode is Bourdain’s stubborn avoidance of Miami’s most stereotypical cuisine-culture; he eventually relents during the final moments of the show. “I’ve finally done the Cuban thing,” he quips in the concluding scene, “satisfying my network masters’ request.”

YOUR MEDIA CRITICISM WILL DO YOU NO GOOD HERE

Day 2, Hour 31: 11:20 pm. I’m nearing the end of another full day of TV viewing. A show about amusement parks, Extreme Terror Rides: Death-Defying Drops, is flickering on my screen. According to my notebook, this is the eighth hour of programming today that has been dedicated to water parks or roller coasters.

Back when I was gearing up for this Travel Channel marathon, my primary guidebooks were media-studies classics like Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations, Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, and Todd Gitlin’s Watching Television. My hope was that these readings would help me understand the far-flung televisual landscape, lend my travel- TV analysis a postmodern flair, and make me sound smarter than I really am. Most of these writers argue that television is more about creating feelings and sensations than communicating information or conveying reality — and that has certainly been the case with what I’ve seen thus far.

The problem with my pre-trip media-theory research, however, is that I geared my expectations toward a cross-cultural mode of travel that doesn’t seem to exist on the Travel Channel. For example, I had hoped to harness the insights of science writer Bill McKibben, who pioneered the art of marathon-TV analysis in his 1992 book The Age of Missing Information (which contrasted a full day of multi-channel television programming with a full day spent in nature). When McKibben analyzed travel shows 20 years ago, he noted the irony in the fact that the Travel Channel aired a special on Nuremberg without highlighting the city’s notorious reputation for Nazi rallies in the 1930s. “Three things make Nuremberg famous,” the Travel Channel chirped on the day McKibben was watching, “its Christmas market, Nuremberg gingerbread, and the Nuremberg sausage.”

If the Travel Channel hasn’t glossed over many foreign destinations in the past two days, it’s because it hasn’t shown many foreign destinations. Of the 31 television-hours I’ve experienced so far, I’ve spent less than two hours outside of the United States. Thirteen hours of programming have been dedicated to American junk food, 11 hours to American amusement parks. If visual media provides us with a grammar of seeing the world, as critic Susan Sontag once suggested, the Travel Channel appears to be telling us that the world doesn’t stretch very far beyond the local fun-park or burger stand.

[Read more of Rolf Potts’ series Around the World in 80 Hours here]

Around the World in 80 Hours (of Travel TV): Part 1

around the world in 80 hours

PRELUDE

Day 5, Hour 77: 9:53 pm.

Twenty-three hotel floors above the gritty neon splendor of downtown Las Vegas, I am nearing the end of a bewildering travel experiment: For the past five days, I have been watching the Travel Channel for the entirety of my waking hours, without ever changing the station or (save a few key occasions) leaving my hotel room.

My goal has been to create an intensive, vicarious televisual adventure — to glean five days’ worth of travel experiences from the glowing parameters of a single TV set and figure out what the Travel Channel might be saying about how one should see the world.

In the 77 hours since my experiment began, I have witnessed many wonders. I have, for example, seen three grown men shriek like schoolgirls while locked overnight inside a dubiously haunted English inn. I have learned that ants in the Ecuadorian Amazon taste like lemons, that Gulf Coast raccoons taste like turkey, and that Andean guinea pigs taste like roast pork shoulder. I have learned that nachos are not authentic Mexican food, and that the Japanese have invented a toilet that can both wash and blow-dry your ass. I have seen two separate shows that sing the praises of deep-fried Twinkies, and I’ve heard the phrase “like a party in your mouth” used to describe the culinary merits of three separate food products. I have seen a restaurant full of Americans cheer like hockey fans while watching two guys devour a 10-pound pizza in less than an hour.

I have also watched commercials — more than 2000 of them in the course of five days. According to the tally marks in my notebook, I have been invited to visit Jamaica 16 times, been warned 51 times that my existing health insurance might not be adequate for my retirement needs, and thrice been asked to ponder how Cheez-It is able to bake so much cheesy goodness into such small bites.

I have left my hotel three times in the past five days, and been nearly robbed once.

In exactly 7 minutes (once the guy who ate the 10-pound pizza finishes eating a 4.5-pound steak), my TV marathon will culminate with two back-to-back episodes of a show called America’s Worst Driver, which — like many shows on the Travel Channel — doesn’t appear to be about travel.

Brandishing my notebook, I stare at the screen with a fatigued sense of resolve and ponder the events that brought me to this moment.

I.

WHY I CAME TO VEGAS TO WATCH TV FOR A WEEK

Day 1, Hour 2: 10:37 am. I am currently watching a show called Food Fun Factories. Its tagline is “hit the road and put your taste buds to the test,” which (given the content of the show) seems to infer that you should plan your vacations around the manufacture of junk food. On the screen, a man dressed as a jellybean is hugging a small child at a Fairfield, California, candy factory.

Since I don’t own a TV, I am viewing the action on a 24-inch RCA that sits atop a cream-colored cabinet in Plaza Hotel suite 2333, Las Vegas, Nevada. At $22 a night, it was cheaper to fly to Vegas for the week than it was to rent a comparable hotel room 10 miles from my Midwestern home. My room smells faintly of cigarettes and features a king-sized bed, late-’80s-style muted beige neo-Greco décor, and a synthetic potted plant that probably gets taken outside and hosed down once a year. The casino auditorium downstairs advertises a nightly extravaganza called “The Rat Pack is Back.”

I’ve been intrigued with the Travel Channel ever since I started making my living as a travel writer twelve years ago. Sometimes I’ll catch snippets of its programs when I’m staying in American hotels, and in recent years I’ve occasionally appeared on the network as a talking-head commentator (primarily on a pair of countdown clip-shows about international destinations). These fleeting Travel Channel appearances haven’t done much to deepen my understanding of the network (they were filmed by an independent production company), but they have attracted more attention from long-lost friends and family members than all of my books and travel articles combined.

Indeed, the Travel Channel has built up a significant viewing audience since its inception in 1987, a truth borne out by its $975 million valuation when the Scripps media conglomerate bought a controlling stake in the network one year ago. Given this popularity, I’ve begun to wonder what kind of message the Travel Channel is sending.

Where do we go when we watch travel television? Who do we meet? What do we learn? Since the word television literally means “seeing far,” I’ve decided to tune in for five full days and check out the view.

For the sake of discipline and full immersion, I have resolved not to use my cell phone or the Internet during my experiment. A small plastic cooler holds enough food and drink to last me the week. The only information I’ll take in for the next 78 hours will come courtesy of the Travel Channel.

On the TV screen, the candy factory footage cuts away to a hearing-aid commercial hosted by the guy who played Bobby Ewing on Dallas.

NOTES FOR A TRAVEL CHANNEL DRINKING GAME

Day 1, Hour 6: 2:08 pm. By mid-afternoon the Travel Channel has shuttled me to Alaska, where Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern is dipping a chunk of bowhead whale-flesh into a jar of fermented blubber-oil.

I’m nearing the end of a midday stretch of programming that has featured three of the most popular personalities on the Travel Channel. Zimmern is a jovial, bald, pot-bellied cook from Minneapolis who travels around the world sampling dishes like boiled llama brains and fried deer genitals. Samantha Brown, who appeared at noon on Passport to Great Weekends, is an extroverted everywoman who takes brief, activity-filled trips to popular vacation destinations. Anthony Bourdain, whose show No Reservations aired an hour ago, is a grizzled, articulate, and coolly glamorous chef who travels the world using food as a window into culture.

I’ll talk more about each host’s respective show as the week progresses, but for now I think I’ve learned enough to create a drinking game that will ensure Travel Channel viewers get nice and buzzed by the end of a given episode. Assuming one has a bottle of whiskey on hand, it goes like this:

  • Bizarre Foods: Do a shot every time Andrew Zimmern nibbles on a morsel of, say, pickled gerbil rectum and stares off into the middle distance for a moment before comparing the taste to pork, beef, chicken or fish.
  • Passport to Great Weekends: Do a shot every time Samantha Brown emits a monosyllabic expression of enthusiasm, such as “Yay!” “Ooh!” “Aah!” “Wow!” or “Woo!”
  • No Reservations: Do a shot every time Anthony Bourdain does a shot.

On the TV, Zimmern noshes a bite of whale and compares it to his grandmother’s pot roast. I find myself wishing I’d brought booze with me.

NOTES FOR A TRAVEL CHANNEL DRINKING GAME, PART TWO

Day 1, Hour 13: 9:30 pm. Thirteen hours in, and I’ve just begun my fourth consecutive episode of a show called Man v. Food, which is hosted by Adam Richman, an affable and hyperactive bloke who seems to be channeling his TV persona through the hybrid aura of Jay Leno, late-period Elvis, and Cookie Monster.

The premise of Man v. Food is that Richman travels to a major American city and declares his intention to eat an insanely large food item — say, a 30-pound sloppy joe — in one sitting. For the next 20 or so minutes, Richman visits other popular eateries in his destination city, wolfing down meals in normal-sized portions while continually alluding to the gastronomical challenges presented by the 30-pound sloppy joe. At the end of the episode Richman strides into a restaurant, strips naked, rolls on a condom, and makes wild, passionate love to the 30-pound sloppy joe while a crowd of rowdy locals cheers him on.

Actually, I’m just joking. The host of Man v. Food never technically has sexual intercourse with the food. But if you were required to take a shot of whiskey every time Adam Richman bites into a hot-wing or a cheese-steak and rolls his eyes back with an orgasmic shudder, you would be hammered inside of a half-hour.

TELEVISION FATIGUE, DAY ONE

Day 1, Hour 16 (plus 2): 3:13 am. I wake up disoriented, the TV blaring some wee-hours infomercial about mortgage relief (the Travel Channel only broadcasts original content for 16 hours each day; the rest is given over to paid programming).

I grab my cell phone and squint at the time. Despite the fact that I spent most of the day sitting down, I nodded off from bone-deep exhaustion less than five minutes into the 11:00 pm rerun of Extreme Fast Food.

Watching a screen all day without having the option to change the channel has been an unexpectedly taxing endeavor: My limbs ache and my eyes burn as I get up to turn off the TV for the night. I have 64 waking hours left in my Travel Channel marathon.

[Stay tuned for the continuation of Rolf Potts’ series Around the World in 80 Hours tomorrow]