Andrew Zimmern Thinks We Need to Remember the Past to Create a Better Food Future
Photo courtesy of The Travel Channel.

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Andrew Zimmern Thinks We Need to Remember the Past to Create a Better Food Future

I spoke with Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods, about why we should care about the world's disappearing culinary traditions.
June 28, 2016, 8:30pm

My first goal in meeting Andrew Zimmern is to stump him.

I'm not terribly keen on finding out how many wolf testicles and milk-fed polyps he eats on the newest season of Bizarre Foods, and I suspect that with ten seasons behind him, he's getting tired of talking to reporters about that anyway.

So I decide to bring him the weirdest thing I could find in my kitchen: a small, shiny dried fruit called doum that I'd picked up in a market in southern Egypt. Produced by the Hyphaene thebaica palm tree, it looks like a rhino turd but hits the tongue like butterscotch with an axe to grind. The dried drupes are often powdered and mixed with water, making a thick "juice" that tastes like a Medjool date fucked a Werther's Original.

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Of course, Zimmern immediately knows what it is. This is the man who has eaten everything.

Seated at The Nomad bar in Manhattan, drinking water (he gave up alcohol more than two decades ago) and picking at fried olives stuffed with sheep's milk cheese, he turns the doum over in his hands and shakes his head up in down in recognition. He looks up at me and says, "This is a little old, isn't it?"

Busted. It's from December, at least, but God only knows how long it sat in that dusty souk. Changing tack, I begin to ask him about the new season of Bizarre Foods, which premiered last week on The Travel Channel, but he looks distracted.

Listen to Andrew Zimmern on MUNCHIES: The Podcast

"Actually, my thoughts were drifting back," he says, plucking away at the shiny rind of the doum. "The Southern Hemisphere's version of this is what are used in Viñales in Cuba to finish wild pigs that they trap. They trap feral hogs, put them in the pen, and feed them these huge things—date palms—and let the animals eat them and sour orange rinds for two weeks before they kill them."

And we're off. This isn't the oddball experience addict that a casual viewer of the show (like me) might expect him to be. Zimmern is someone who is keenly interested in the vast, ineffable, incomprehensible, global web that we call "food culture" in both its mundane and, yes, bizarre expressions.

He talks about how visiting a city like Madrid, which was the subject of one of the first episodes of Bizarre Foods in 2007, allows him to see how a city's food scene can change so drastically in the space of only a decade. "Back then it was not a global top food town. It was a great food city—don't get me wrong—but people weren't saying, 'Oh, you gotta go to Madrid," he says. On the show's first visit there, he visited storied tapas bars serving cocido madrileño and restaurants like Botín, which is literally hundreds of years old.

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"Now there's young chefs like Javi Estévez, who has La Tasquería, and he is serving as a bar snack a baby pig's head, confited overnight and then deep-fried." Zimmern makes a motion with his hands, demonstrating the softball-ish size of the head in question. "You get an ear, I get an ear. We each get a cheek, we pick apart this crispy skin, we have it with some bread. The fat comes out, we crack the brain. I mean, I'm sitting here thinking to myself, 'My god, this is crazy how this town has developed around itself."

I'd expected this. In the course of a conversation with Andrew Zimmern, you'd feel cheated if he didn't mention eating the deep-fried face of a neonatal animal, right? But the "bizarre" in Bizarre Foods is really just a distraction, a foil for Zimmern's not-so-hidden purpose as a documentarian of largely dying traditions.

Come for the baby pig's head; stay for the lesson in culinary anthropology.

By way of example, Zimmern describes his visit to Nicosia on the island of Cyprus, the last formally divided city on earth. One side is administered by Turkey, while the other is full of Greek Cypriots and Greek nationalists who believe Greece should own the whole island. One of the most interesting dishes he ate there was a humble kebab, seasoned with political tensions on either side of the United Nations Buffer Zone.

"We had the chance to go to the kebab place on the Cypriot side of Nicosia that has mostly Greek influence and have this meal, and then take our passports and go through customs and cross this line with guards and barbed wire in what's called the Green Zone, which is no man's land," he says. "We then did the identical meal on the other side, literally walking 500 yards from this Cypriot kebab stand to a Turkish kebab stand on the other side of the border. And the differences were night and day in the food, attitude, people, the culture, what was talked about at the table."

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Islands like Cyprus are key for Zimmern, and not just in the geographic sense. "When I'm directing the research team for Bizarre Foods, I always say, 'Let's look at islands, literally and figuratively.' Sometimes towns in the middle of Iowa exist as islands." These are spaces that, for whatever political or economic or topological reason, serve as time capsules of certain cultural and culinary traditions, even if only for the time being. It's those traditions, however fleeting, that Zimmern wants to document.

But I wonder, not without a hint of nihilism, if we shouldn't just embrace the roiling sea of cultural change that will ultimately engulf these islands. After all, "authenticity" is both a badge of honor and a four-letter insult in the world of professional food pontificating these days. Isn't food a living document of human history, always being erased and rewritten, not etched into stone? I give the example of what Americans might think of as a typical plate of "Middle Eastern" food, in which you could closely read a history of the Ottoman Empire and its exchanges with its conquered lands and people. And then there's the influence of the Colombian exchange, without which Asia wouldn't have the chili pepper. These fusions, exchanges, creolizations are always ongoing.

Zimmern grins at the question, as if he's been waiting for someone to ask it.

"Food retains that history as much as art historians can look at a painting and tell you the history of the people who lived when it was painted," he says. "Look, I'm pro-change. I don't want to bring back the horse and buggy. We have cars, but it's a transitional form of transportation. A hundred years from now, people are going to laugh at cars. Maybe less time."

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Sure, but do we need to lament the loss of one tradition if it's replaced by something else? Can't we appreciate the horse and buggy without romanticizing it?

"I'm Jewish, and we sit shiva, and one of the reasons that we do it is we need time to put the death in perspective," Zimmern says adroitly. "My mission is not so much to lament the loss, although when certain things disappear, I believe the loss is lamentable. I think it's sad if a species is fished into extinction, or that my son may never see a herd of rhinoceros move across the savannah in central Africa or see lowland gorillas in the wild. I mean, that's something to lament. And the change that it represents is something that we need to be a lot more aware of from an instructional and prescriptive point of view."

NORÐRAGØTA, FAROE ISLANDS - SEPTEMBER 11 Host and chef Andrew Zimmern poses for a portrait with a ram's head at a family run Varmakeldugarðurin farm in Norðragøta, Faroe Islands on Sept. 11, 2014. As seen on Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods America. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images for the Travel Channel)

Photo courtesy of The Travel Channel.

He continues: "Is the world going to suffer very much if one of the dozen species of Mediterranean lemons is no longer farmed anymore? Well, probably not. But is the idea of a disappearing fruit species with an incredible fragrance and a very unique eating quality and a skin that isn't waxed and an oil that when you just touch the lemon, it stays on your hand—is there a feeling or a human expression or something that makes us more in touch with other parts of our humanity and our history? Is there something lamentable there in its loss? Probably. My job, the way I see it, is to document those things, so that if people would like to have a choice to go and see this last bottle of water in the desert before someone else drinks it and there's no more, they should."

Zimmern gives the example of a kind of primitive cookie he encountered once in Rome—twice-baked with a little bit of wine and the barest amount of sugar—and then, remarkably, again in a small shop in Cyprus. Both bakers made these cookies independently of one another, and their recipes will likely turn to dust with them.

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"Their kids don't want to be bakers and have that lifestyle and be solitary and lonely in this little shop on this quiet little street that's not doing a lot of business," he says with a twinge of regret. "When [the baker] and her husband die, that's it. Shop's gone. And no one's making those items again there. It's not so much that I lament it, because I grieve it, and there's a grieving process that ends up with acceptance."

For Zimmern, these dying traditions also serve as teachable moments in an era of human history when we're more disconnected from our food than ever, more alienated from one another than ever, despite the globalized network in which we live.

He mentions, for instance, the disappearing coffee break culture of Italy and France. "[In the past], five times a day we'd go down to the little store on the corner and have a short coffee together, and instead of talking about work, we'd talk about our kids, we'd socialize. We were a more productive unit because of these coffee breaks," he says. "We've taken away short coffees and now there's Starbucks. So people are arriving in Italian and French offices with a 24-ounce cup of coffee in a cardboard cup and they're sitting at their desk and they're hunkering down to work."

He emphasizes that he's not pointing his finger at Starbucks per se, but rather how we interact with food and one another through food. "There's a productivity issue, there's a relationship issue. I'm not saying, 'We need to give tax incentives to all the bar tabac shops in Paris so that they can stay in business.' I mean, they're going. They're going. But what it says about us and the story that we tell from it might allow us to take a break in a different way."

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Of course, telling workers to take five coffee breaks a day or exhorting single parents to find more time in the week to cook homemade meals is easier than it sounds.

Zimmern doesn't disagree. "Eating well in America has become a class issue," he says. "[People] are time-poor, they are impoverished, they are overwhelmed by life. Life is not treating the majority of people in our country very well."

He also admits that food media is not doing enough to combat this—both the glossies that sell an Instagram-perfect fantasy of a beautiful brunch spread and the travel show that goes to places that many people can't afford. "I'm not making a political statement here; I'm making a very practical cultural assessment. In some cases, you're selling a solution to people that they can't access. You are giving the right advice to the right audience but at the wrong time in their food life."

There's no simple solution to this problem, of course, but Zimmern knows that doing nothing isn't an option. "I believe what [Michael] Pollan and [Mark] Bittman and all those people are saying is correct. We do need to get off the internet, we do need to share more meals, we do need to cook them with our loved ones in our communities. But I think the way we get them to do that is with baby steps, because people are phobic about change because they've been marginalized and they're scared," he says.

"This is the greatest country in the history of the world, and at no time have we romanticized and fetishized food to the degree that we do. And yet we can't seem to feed all the citizens of this great country. That's not shameful to me—that's criminal to me."

Leaning back in his chair at The Nomad, Zimmern admits that he, like many of us, is "a lotus eater."

"I mean, guys like me and Tony [Bourdain] and Alton Brown and all the other folks who are doing this at a very popular global level—and a lot of the people who you guys are turning into food travel stars now—are pleasure-seekers when it comes to food," he says. "It gives us joy and it gives us happiness, but that's new."

But Zimmern knows that food must be about more than just pleasure-seeking. He seems to constantly be reminding himself of that, taking stock of what once was lest we forget it once it's gone. After all, lotus eaters don't want to remember.

"I am speeding ahead and I'm just bumbling around, making mistakes right and left—at work, with my family, being imperfect everywhere because I'm a human being," Zimmern says, almost confessionally. "But there are these moments of grace when I'm telling those stories and I feel like I'm really doing something that's contributing to the world instead of taking something from the world, pointing out that these things exist and there's importance there and here's why. And you decide what you want to do with that information."

Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern airs on Tuesdays at 9 PM ET/PT on Travel Channel.