This week marks the launch of the Travel Channel’s newest series Bizarre Foods of America with Andrew Zimmern. For the first time, this intrepid eater is spending the entire season in the United States, exploring the weird and wonderful things your neighbors are eating. He continues his quest to simultaneously educate viewers and to make them squirm a bit by eating blood pizza and raccoon in New Orleans, duck testicles in the Twin Cities, going squirrel hunting in West Virginia, and takes some lessons in meat glue. He called in from a stop at boutique butcher shop Lindy & Grundy while filming his L.A. episode, and with the sound of saws swinging in the background, we chatted about the new season.
Why devote a full season to the U.S.?
It has always fascinated me, the ethnic enclaves around this country, especially how waves of immigration would keep food honest. And at the same time we found that there was an insane level of curiosity about domestic locations. Whenever we would do them they would rate extraordinarily well. There was a fascination that Americans have with seeing pictures and stories about themselves. It dates back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s time. I mean, we are, in America, we are obsessed with ourselves. So I decided to merge all those things together and do a domestic season of Bizarre Foods.
When I’m in tribal Africa eating grilled, wild, giant porcupine people are fascinated with it, but there’s a little bit of a disconnect, I imagine. To them it’s good watching, but it’s not possible to be doing. I am obsessed with food and with eating. So to have the opportunity to sit on a street corner in a suburb of Louisiana and have a Vietnamese grandpa make me duck blood pizza the same way his grandparents made it for him when he was a kid in Dien Bien Phu is to me what a food life is all about.
What makes someone want to eat a bizarre food?
It’s like a painter wanting to know about more colors and more types of canvas or other types of media. It’s like a musician with different instruments or notes that can make certain new sounds. The second thing that I found most interesting as a closet intellectual is why is it that in our country when you say the word “bat’’ nobody thinks it’s possible to eat one? But in northern Vietnam or Cambodia or the Pacific Islands, you say the word “bat’’ and everybody gets excited and the children start running for the kitchen. It’s a cultural thing. And that intersection of what makes food possible to me is the most central part of why we do what we do -- to examine that question and be able to tell stories about a culture through the food to me is what it’s all about.
you’ve got to remember, what’s weird to some people is wonderful to another.
Famously I sat in Africa one day and had a tribes person insist that Americans were crazy because we let milk rot and then dried it into little squares and ate it. And, you know, if you told Americans that there were people who thought cheese was disgusting they would laugh at you but there are a lot of people who do think cheese is disgusting. And, you know, that’s fine.
Favorite things you discovered in the U.S.?
I got to go gigging for frogs and crayfish and cook up a bunch of rabbits and the rest of the stuff that we trap with my friend Don Link in Rayne, La., at his traditional family farm.
I got to go to Austin, Texas, and taste some of the world’s greatest barbecue, and spend some time with farmers like Sebastian Bonneu who raises his pigeons and his rabbits and his chickens and his ducks with an eye for how they’re going to be cooked and actually changes his feed seasonally so that his skin crisps up and is more golden than his competitors.
I got to go fishing in Minnesota Lake country with a bunch of guys who go out at 1 in the morning to shoot 50-pound monster carp with bows and arrows. And then I actually got to eat one, a fish that most people consider inedible and liked it because there’s a guy who finally figured out how to smoke it, skin side up, to purge it of all of its fat.
Ever refused to eat something?
Only two times. I was in a slum in Delhi and we were eating street food and there was brown sludgy water coming out of a spigot in the wall. I knew that would be a trip to the hospital. I [also] passed once on some moldy chicken intestines.
Ever had an adverse reaction?
I had some bad cumin on our first trip to Morocco and I got a virus from it. And other than a couple of bouts of nausea at night from some bad mussels on a family visit to Portland, Maine, those are the only two times I have gotten sick on food in the last six, seven years.
The first odd food you ever tried?
I was about 2 and finally had my little teeth set. I ate what I think is probably the most disgusting, bizarre food of them all: It’s called a commercial American hot dog. The government has laws that protect the companies who make them from telling us what’s in them.
Usually when I’m at the baseball game with my son at Target Field in Minneapolis and I’m sitting there watching the game and some guy chewing on a huge foot long hot dog will come walking down the aisle and he’ll say I’ve got to tell you, some of the stuff you put in your mouth... And he always ends up talking about things like eating raw water buffalo with lime juice fish sauce and toasted rice powder with fresh Thai basil and some, you know, Chiang Mai episode that I did and he just can’t believe that I would just eat raw food like that, you know, in the middle of a jungle. And I remind him that, you know, that animal was super fresh, it was delicious, you know, I knew what it drank, I knew what it ate, I knew where it came from. I butchered it myself and that’s more than I could say for the, you know, ground up nightmare that he’s holding in a bun.
I’m not so much of a food Nazi that I can’t enjoy a commercial-grade hot dog at the ballpark. But that to me is a food that is just beyond odd.
Places with the best stories for you to tell?
I think that the reason that there are a lot of stories for me to tell in Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Central Florida, the Carolinas is that people there are still connected to their food source, always have been. They honor food, they didn’t have to join this (now to tell) movement because it was on trend because a magazine told them to check it out. They have always been doing it. Everyone in Louisiana knows how to cook. You can walk into a family house and build five kitchens in the back yard and grandma, grandpa, mom, dad, and the kids, you can put them all into a room and say go ahead and make me lunch and every single one of them can do it. I think it’s something to be proud of. There are just more good food stories to be told in those places.