Interview With Andrew Zimmern: Travels in a ‘Bizarre World’
Travel Interviews: Joshua Berman asks the Travel Channel host about his new show, his book, and the impact of globalization on culinary diversity
09.15.09 | 10:22 AM ET
Chef, food writer and burly culinary adventurer Andrew Zimmern is best-known for his Travel Channel series “Bizarre Foods,” which chronicled his travels around the world in search of moose cheek jelly, cow urine smoothies, fermented fish stomachs and other wild delicacies. After 48 episodes, the show has just morphed into a new series, Bizarre World, which airs Tuesday nights. It makes sense: Zimmern has always insisted that the popularity of his food show was about more than just watching a bumbling bald guy eat bugs and get spit upon by witch doctors. There’s a serious backstory behind each dish, he says, “like a bonbon wrapped in entertainment.” So it would also make sense that Zimmern has authored a new book about his journeys, The Bizarre Truth. I traveled and dined with Zimmern last winter during his first forays to Central America. We chatted over a few local dishes, including raw bull testicles in Nicaragua and gibnut stew in Belize. I followed up later by phone.
World Hum: I’ve watched the definition of “bizarre” morph and change while traveling with you.
Andrew Zimmern: That’s intentional. We like to say, “It’s a bizarre world, and we all call it home,” because what is familiar to one person is completely unfamiliar to another. Down here, for example ... the whole country eats gibnut, so the fact that there are restaurants serving what is, essentially, a giant rodent on the table would be extremely strange to other cultures.
So anything unexpected is “bizarre”? What other kinds of stories are you looking for?
If [the locals] do it and it is a part of the culture, I want to try it. It’s about the practices of people and culture, whether it’s food, medicine, the arts—did you know some of the greatest street dancers in the world are in Turkey? They’re obsessed with hip-hop culture there, they compete internationally and follow gymnast regimens ... I do not want to be “Ripley’s Believe It or Not”—just because the man who puts bumblebees on his face lives in Kentucky doesn’t mean I want to do a story on it when I’m in the area.
In his book “Home Cooking in the Global Village,” anthropologist Richard Wilk examines whether globalization is causing culinary diversity to disappear “under a monotonous food landscape of burgers and fries.” Do you think that is happening?
Absolutely! Absolutely, culinary diversity is disappearing. In our country, we have a very similar problem even though we lack the food history or the food culture these other places do. We’ve been asking people to return to “farm-to-table,” “sustainable,” “natural,” “localvorism”—these are all buzzwords right now in our culture—but the rest of world has been eating that way for thousands of years! We were the first culture to steamroll our own food.
Tell me about your new show. How exactly did “Foods” change to “World”?
When the “Bizarre Foods” Ecuador episode came out, and we had that scene with the witch doctor, you know, doing his mojo on me [a village shaman “cleansed” Zimmern by spitting fire on him and beating him with a live guinea pig], people responded more to that scene than to anything we had done before or since—and it was a non-food moment. In “Bizarre World” we take the exact same approach to finding cultural oddities as we do with the food stories—underwater hotels, restaurants made of ice in Finland, any pattern of unusual behavior with cultural antecedents. The “Bizarre World” concept allows us to incorporate non-food stories in as much as 50 percent of each show. We want to show parts of the culture [our viewers] haven’t seen before; we want to show what the country looks like in an immersive way that people wouldn’t normally see by themselves.
Where are you going with “Bizarre World”? What countries? What can we expect?
Rwanda, Belize, Finland, Bali, Greece ... I’ll be living with the bushmen tribe in the Kalahari desert. In Cuba, our story arc includes music and dance, religion, government restrictions, a country stopped in time—these things affect everything. For example, there are lobsters in Bay of Pigs, but you can’t harvest them. There are also “suicide cows”—you can raise cattle, but you’re not allowed to butcher them without a government permit, so if you’re a farmer and you’re starving, you push your cow in front of the train.
Your first book, “The Bizarre Truth: How I Walked out the Door Mouth First . . . and Came Back Shaking My Head,” was just released by Broadway. What’s it about?
The book is a collection of my travel stories from the road. Having been around the world several times, I’ve had the opportunity to do some comparative cultural studies—and I use that term loosely, I’m not an anthropologist and I’m not a sociologist, but when you’ve seen people cooking grubs in 15 different countries around the world and you’ve seen how people react to them, both visitors and natives, you get a chance to put these stories into silos. The book is organized according to these themes that emerge—like disappearing cultural elements, or things that were once popular that are no longer popular. [I tell the story of] the last bullfighter restaurant In Madrid, and the last conch diver in Tobago—things that the modern world has brushed aside. I think there’s a lot to be learned from these people and their stories.