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Andrew Zimmern on His New Book and 'Democratizing the Idea of Food'

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Photo: Travel Channel

Andrew Zimmern may be famous for being willing to eat anything from insects to testicles, but the Bizarre Foods host does much more than that: He owns a food truck, AZ Canteen, that has been serving up goat burgers/goat sausage/tongue sliders everywhere from Minnesota to Miami since August. He has a podcast that recently, delightfully referred to Yelp as a "forum for uninformed morons." The seventh season of his show Bizarre Foods premieres on the Travel Channel on February 11. And on top of all of that, he has just released a new kids' book called Andrew Zimmern's Field Guide to Exceptionally Weird, Wild, & Wonderful Foods (buy on Amazon). Below, Zimmern explains why exposing kids' to unfamiliar foods is so important, discusses his expanding goat burger empire (which will soon have brick-and-mortar locations), and talks about the truly weird food that's being eaten in the US every day. Jello salads, anyone?

zimmern-field-guide.jpgWhat makes a food weird, wild and/or wonderful?
I think it's like the Supreme Court definition of pornography. It's hard to define, but you know it when you see it. This book has such an obvious group, we have brains and haggis. Things like that are sort of obvious. And then you have things like circus peanuts. People have wondered for a long time: what the fuck are those things? Even doing my research on the gosh darn things, it was like really? Marshmallows?

I think the litmus test is fairly broad. We actually wrote enough to fill two books and pared them down. We came up with quite a lengthy list. We could have included a lot of hoofed animals, but we tried to pick ones that I also have personal experience with. These are a lot of the foods that I like. Wildebeests, for example. I don't know anybody in a food book who's ever written about wildebeests. But having hunted them and eaten them on several occasions, it's become a favorite of mine.

What didn't make the cut?
There were lampreys and certain types of eels and things that we wrote chapters on. When you write a book, you want to have a little flush and let the editors have some play with it. Let them take a stab at packaging the book for the younger readers. This is my first book really geared toward that broader, roomier audience that includes children. I think from a how-to-make-it-work standpoint, as a writer I needed to include a broader list of items and then let my editors go to work. And at the end of the day I always felt this book would have a part two. I wasn't afraid of extra material.

So why did you decide to write a book for kids?
Well, being a dad started it. As I was making Bizarre Foods over the years, my best moments are when I was with other people, and the best other-people moments I've ever had were with kids. There's something really fun for me about talking about food and travel and exploration and culture with young people. So much so that — I guess this was like three years ago, I made a kids' special, the Bizarre Foods kids' special, which was a wonderful experience.

I started to see [kids] at public speaking events about five years ago. I turned to my wife and said, gosh, look at how many families are here. And we realized that the ratings were not reflecting the realities in the living rooms, which was that the biggest segment of Bizarre Foods fans were families. That mom and dad could watch a show that was funny and at times ribald and educational and entertaining and 12-year-old Julie and 8-year-old Bobby could watch it too. Everyone could get what they wanted out of it. And we started to see those young-young kids that started with the show mature.

So I wanted to make something for kids today like the coffee table books my parents had in their apartment in New York City. I could lie on my stomach in the living room and while they were, you know, having a scotch and soda and waiting for dinner to get done, and get excited about the world of travel and food. [The book] was purposefully designed to be like the Guinness Book of World Records. A kid will pick it up and read it cover to cover, adults will pick it up and read it cover to cover, but they'll just experience it in a different way. It will appeal to children of all ages. I think that was the toughest part, was writing for all the different audiences that the book is finding.

The Guinness Book of World Records — I always talk about that book. I read it when I was little, stared endlessly at the pictures of the world's tallest guy, whatever. And I didn't read it the same way that I would in subsequent years when I was 18 or 19. And when I see it in doctors' offices or wherever copies pop up, that I get my hands on it, you thumb through it in a different way. I think kids are going to read it with a little more awe and fascination than adults, you know, it was purposefully written for that audience. I made sure to not make it a One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish concept and push adults out of the running for taking a look at this thing. Reading it with their kids, sharing the book with their families the same way they share the show.

What's really hysterical is that I sent out 150 copies of the book a couple weeks ago to a lot of chef friends of mine and people in my business life and was just kind of like, here you go, here's my latest book. These are whole groups of people who do not have kids. I'm talking about chefs friends of mine who sent me back emails like "Oh my god! It's so fantastic, I couldn't put it down." And I was like, "You know it's written for kids, right?" And then you could feel the silence in the digital space. And I think it catches a lot of people by surprise. It doesn't come out on the cover and say, hey! It's a kids' book! I'm finding adults digging it in a bigger percentage than I thought they would, which means I was successful, because I wanted to make sure I didn't marginalize the adult reader.

In the introduction to the book you write about "democratizing the idea of food...presenting a level playing field where candy, headcheese, scatological treats, brain-sucking zombies and stinky cheese bugs are all treated as equals." Can you explain that idea a little bit?
I think it's really important. Not only for environmental sustainability reasons, but cultural and economic sustainability as well. Over the course of the last 100 years, and most noticeably in the last 15, we have shrunk the global buffet that we eat from as human beings. For example, in Bizarre Foods, in Vietnam, a grandma cooked us a family meal and the kids get up and leave mid-meal. Grandma turns to me and says yeah they're running off to the Jollibee or the McDonald's or whatever it is.

We have lost touch with the part of our lives where we took from Mother Nature what it was giving us. Not just seasonally in terms of vegetables, but in terms of game meats in the Fall, how we harvest animals and all the rest of that. I am not advocating that we turn back the clock. I'm not trying to bring back the horse and buggy era. But when we set up production of a handful of foods and increased our bloodlust for things like tuna fish, salmon, cod, and only eating chicken, pork beef...I mean people can say they eat lamb all they want, but we eat chicken, pork and beef in this country. When you start to shrink those choices you end up taking so much of what remains that you end up damaging the food system by speeding up production. To remind kids that the world of food is broad, roomy, and inclusive is an idea that I'm really proud of with Bizarre Foods. I'm not telling everyone to eat fermented whale meat once a month. That's not the point. My show, and the point of a lot of my writing in this book, is to try to introduce the idea to people that our narrow view of what food is can hurt us. I don't think that people will run out and start eating wildebeest. It would be almost impossible. But if we can be more curious about it, maybe we'll eat more little fish with the heads on, goat once a week, we'll go vegetarian once a week, and we can start to actually start to make a difference in our world one plate at a time.

And I think your book touches at a larger idea of cultural acceptance. For example, you include hot dogs, which for a lot of American kids seem normal until you start digging into what they are. And then it's like "Well, if hot dogs are normal for me but weird for other people, maybe eating bugs is weird for me but —"
Yes, and the bugs are normal for other people too. I mean look: maybe not in my generation, but certainly subsequent generations Americans are going to have to make some very hard choices about how we harvest.

I do know that in the course of my lifetime, crickets and grasshoppers have gone from something that no one even knew people ate to something that is now on menus in American restaurants and being eaten by Americans. And I think that's a direct result of people like me, adventurous chefs, and the excitement and interest in how people around the world eat. So if I can help fuel that interest with this book, especially with young people, to me that's the difference maker. People are now engaged and interested in this. Readers and viewers and listeners of my podcast are interested in this. That wasn't the case five, six years ago. I mean, La Esquina in [in New York City] can't keep up with the orders for chapulines [fried grasshoppers]. That says a lot. When I'm out doing my thing, on the road, doing demos and cooking things for people at food festivals, and I start making things with ox heart and duck testicles and whatever, people eat it and they're like, wow that's good.

So how much of a shift has there been in reactions, from gross out factor to genuine curiosity, since you started doing Bizarre Foods?
The change has been tremendous. I can't even tell you what a difference it's been from when we started Bizarre Foods to now. And I use that as a barometer because I think our show is one of the first ones that put some of the edgier stuff out there in front of American food and travel television audiences. But yeah, I think it's absolutely dramatic. Night and day. You can see it on American menus all over the place.

There's a lot of stuff that came together at the time: from the economic downturn in the late 80s is when I first started to see inexpensive food start to show up on upscale menus in New York City, where I was working in the late 80s. And you can see people's fascination with these foods. An off cut, like a short rib for example, will get into the American food cycle. And it starts out as a cheap cut, and now short ribs are expensive and hard to source. I remember Sean Brock telling me last year at a food festival, "I have trouble getting enough pigs ears at my restaurant now." And this is the guy who made them famous and put them on his menu and was basically taking them for free from people. It was, you know, we'll sell you the whole hog and give you a couple bags of pigs ears.

Chicken feet: just in Minneapolis, where I live, talking to the folks at my dim sum place, how are you doing with beef tendon and chicken feet? Ten years ago, you couldn't give away those dishes in Minnesota. And now they're some of the first things that are gone from the dim sum cart. There's this local discount grocery chain in Minneapolis, and they had them in the meat section forever. And then they were away for the last twenty years, and they just started selling them again because people are interested in using them again for soups. They want to use them, they want to do stir fries with them, they see people eating it, they see it being consumed on TV, from my show to Tony [Bourdain]'s show to Top Chef to wherever. There is a tremendous real interest in this stuff, and it's being cooked and eaten.

How's the food truck going?
The food truck is going great. In fact the truck is now down in Miami, then it's going to New Orleans for the Super Bowl, it'll be with me in Austin at Austin Food & Wine, and then it'll make it's way back north again to Minneapolis. We're going to expand the trucks this year, both the mobile — as in more trucks — but also exploring brick and mortar options.

The truck has been so successful, and I think part of it is because there's a known personality behind it. But the product is great. We're entertaining offers on brick and mortar, we were talking to somebody yesterday about the potential of putting AZ Canteen into airports, into stadiums. It's a great fit. And the goat sausage and our goat butter burger are — I didn't think they would be the number one and number two best sellers, but they are. They're just fantastic products and people have really taken to them, it's really exciting.

So when you talk about expanding, do you mean regionally, around Minneapolis? Or on a larger scale than that?
We're going to put trucks on the East and West coasts. When you start talking about great places for a sausage and burger experience, it's sports stadiums, college neighborhoods, airports. This is a fantastic menu, it's a great concept, there's nothing too edgy about it, it's good wholesome food, and people are really excited about it. I mean you were talking before about people getting into different foods. People eating goat is kind of like soccer. The whole world loves it, but Americans are just getting to know it. And once they experience it, they fall for it. Our third best seller is our tongue slider sandwich. It's crazy.

Yes, you used to have to look pretty hard for tongue if you wanted some.
It used to be the oddball deli had tongue. Someone's grandmother would order a tongue sandwich and the rest of the family would recoil in horror.

So tell me about the new season of Bizarre Foods.
The new season of Bizarre Foods starts February 11 with 20 brand new episodes. We've got, I don't know, 14 in the can? And another six or seven to shoot, something like that. I just got back from shooting in Hawaii. It's going to be a great season. We just had one of our best years ever. To have a show that's been on for seven years and still have it be successful, it's rarefied air. I can't believe it. I pinch myself every day.

And you're still in the States, like last season?
This season is in the US. We're actually talking right now about where the next season that is as yet unshot should be. I'm itching to get back out of America. We turned our attention to the United States because there are so many incredible stories here that we weren't covering, and I was like we have to do something in America. The network said let's do a special season. It was just going to be a one season deal and then we go back overseas, but the first season was so successful and the stories were so great.

You know, we shot the Bizarre Foods episode of New Orleans and went into the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. It was almost indistinguishable from being in Vietnam, to be in the Vietnamese community in New Orleans. And you see that in so many communities across America. I think Americans, ever since the days of de Tocqueville, have always wanted to see stories about themselves. We've got big ego in America. Americans, you know, we're all we ever think about.

I saw you tweeting about being in Wisconsin, Iowa. What drew you to these places that are often overlooked by other food shows?
Our Wisconsin show is one of the ones I'm proudest of. When you see it and you're like Bizarre Foods: Wisconsin, what is that? What would that be? That doesn't sound very interesting. It's one of the funniest, most entertaining episodes. Wisconsinites are such goofballs. And I mean that in the most loving way, as someone who lives in Minnesota and has for twenty years. Those are the shows I'm always proudest of.

Our Iowa show will blow your mind. Because nobody knows what Iowa looks like, and you get into these little farming communities, and the food traditions and the stuff that sticks in those places is ridiculous. We're in a church basement in a 500 person town in central Iowa, and they're seasoning jello salads with uncooked Lipton noodles. So it's crunchy, like a salad topper. That's going on in America!

The food in these communities that people haven't seen before — you know, our challenge when we go into cities like New York and New Orleans and LA and San Francisco is that a million people have told stories there before. It's difficult for us in the sense that I don't want to be derivative. I don't want to do the same thing other people have done. Or approach something that everybody should do in the same way. Right? It's so much more interesting and more fun when I go into Arkansas, Iowa, Wisconsin. These are all places that are showing up in the new season. Nobody has shot TV there. I was just looking at the Ozarks show that we shot in Arkansas, and taking people out fish gigging and squirrel hunting and to a rabbit cook off and things like that. And the characters, it's just unbelievable.

It shows people what a diverse food life is. When you see little kids in Arkansas chewing on squirrel legs and rabbit and offal of all kinds, you really realize how jaded we are in certain parts of the world. Even in Minnesota. I mean my kid has a pretty diverse food life, but you really realize — there's a lot of hunting in the Arkansas show, and I'm with this family. It's bear one day and rabbit the next and squirrel the next and venison the next and wild boar the next and ducks and geese the next. They never buy meat from the supermarket.

And those are the kids who will see a little bit of themselves in your book.
Well exactly. It's kind of the same as gas regulation. If we increase the miles per gallon requirement, if we increase it by three miles per gallon, we'd cease our dependence on foreign oil. I really believe that if we could change just two or three meals per week out of 21, we could solve a lot of our food problems. And by showing these stories and showing people how other families are doing it, I hope some families will say you know, we can do this too.

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