The new season of Bizarre Foods offers up some of the best storytelling blended with a celebration of every day Americans doing it right with regards to raising livestock, growing vegetables and crafting cuisine that is representative of who we are, a constantly changing sea of diverse cultures and peoples in a country currently struggling with that very fact.
Andrew Zimmern is a New Yorker who went west, and who has suffered in his life.
He is like a Phoenix risen from the ashes of a life that was touched by addiction, homelessness and daily struggles to survive. Zimmern is an amazing example of how determination, hard work, and enthusiasm can pull someone from the brink of existence to a level of success and personal satisfaction that fuels his career on television as he traverses the globe.
For Travel Channel, he continues with Bizarre Foods, his core show that takes viewers inside lesser-known worlds and introduces us to ethical ranchers like Stan Van Vleck at Van Vleck Ranch in northern California and Donna Cossette and her family near the Pony Express Trail in western Nevada, the premiere episode.
This affable four-time James Beard Award-winning TV personality, chef, writer, and teacher takes us all on a global culinary quest along the historic and short-lived Pony Express Trail, then Hawaii, and even follows the footsteps of William Wallace in Scotland. Zimmern goes to the “Battle of the Bulge” and escape route of the Underground Railroad in northern Kentucky, Spain, The Great Wagon Road in Virginia and Nova Scotia in Canada.
Andrew Zimmern is regarded as one of the most versatile and knowledgeable personalities in the food world.
We spoke to Zimmern about his new season:
Monsters and Critics: We loved The Pony Express premiere. You closed out that episode saying a really interesting thing, that our connections to and our care for our common communities is where American exceptionalism thrives and it means so much. Many people twist that phrase in an arrogant way, but you take it and you redefined it. Can you talk about that?
Andrew Zimmern: I think it’s a very important idea. I mean, we all grow where we’re planted and I think it’s very necessary that we take care of the people around us first and until you’ve done that, you really can’t export those ideas.
I think that, historically, we look at times in our own country where Americans had so much in common, from Westward expansion to the goals and dreams of what it meant to be in America, and also remember, this was a time … even just going back several generations ago, where more people were coastal. 90% of our country’s population was churched one way or another and I mean that in, not in the strict religious sense, but everyone had a spiritual system at work in their lives.
As divided as we were, we had a singleness of purpose and you look at that now, contrast that today, as fractured, and it feels like there are legitimately two Americas, that six months ago was only referenced ideologically, and now it actually feels like if someone told me that the country was gonna divide, and half the nation was gonna do one thing and half was gonna do another, I’d believe it. Nothing would shock me anymore.
And so, these are very dangerous times that we live in. I think the more that we can look back, and learn from the past, or gain perspective, or my real goal, which is just to have more patience, tolerance, and understanding with each other is … We’ve never had a greater need for it.
M&C: Bizarre Foods is so much more than you eating crazy food. I really appreciate is you celebrating people, like cattle rancher Stan Van Vleck and people like chef Patrick Mulvaney, who by the way shares a common thing with you, you both are New York City boys who kind of went West…
M&C: You celebrate these people who ethically raise cattle, or grow food that we eat. Can talk about the people that do it right, like you as a chef appreciate?
Andrew: It’s really easy. We’re doing this story about American exceptionalism and we’re looking back at some of the people that helped build the fifth biggest economy in the world, to me, it was kind of a no brainer.
I think, historically, in the show we’ve always sought out great characters who were doing interesting things that interest me. If it doesn’t interest me, it’s not in the show. So, the show is indeed a great reflection of what interests me. I’m just so, so thrilled that I can continue to have the opportunity to tell those stories on Travel Channel.
M&C: You’ve penned a very emotional and beautifully written remembrance of your friend, Anthony Bourdain. One of the things that you wrote about him was that he celebrated the “Davids and not the Goliaths.” I got a sense that you kind of share that ethos…
Andrew: Oh sure. We [Bourdain] have a lot of overlap. Both of us are most at home, in the humblest of circumstances, talking to real people doing real things, and sharing real food.
At the same time, we both loved a great weekend in Paris, a great weekend in Rome, the thrill of Rio, the crazy nightlife of L.A. We’re both extremely hungry for real people, real relationships, and real life, and putting those stories on the screen.
It’s so much more fun to talk about the Davids than the Goliaths. In my twenties, I learned really quickly, more fun, more fascinating … I love a challenge. So, celebrating small over big is a really easy thing, for me, to get behind.
We both believe, very strongly, in telling stories about culture through food as a way to make this planet a more interesting place, a more understandable place, and a better place.
We’ve lost a great storyteller and a great mind when it comes to bringing people together and celebrating the things that we all love at a time when we actually need him [Bourdain] more than ever. It’s very sad on a lot of different levels.
M&C: You have a seven-episode season. We kick off with the Pony Express. What are the others?
Andrew: I did the Underground Railroad. Did you mention the Captain Cook show? I love that show. Captain Cook, the greatest navigator of his age, discovers, by accident, I believe, the most isolated archipelago of islands in the world, the Hawaiian islands. Relatively soon to become our 50th state.
He sails in during the months of the fertility god and he’s greeted like a king. He leaves a month later. There’s a storm at sea, his ship is damaged, he sails back in three weeks after he leaves, but he’s now in the time of Lono, the war god. So, he’s seen as a interloper and as an enemy and within two weeks he’s beaten to death in the surf of the same bay that he sailed into greeted as a hero.
What he sets in motion, a chain of events that literally almost wipes out one of the most sophisticated indigenous cultures on the planet. The Polynesians who settled Hawaii could sail 120 miles in a day on flexible rafts made of wood and string that they made themselves. Their farming techniques, their aquaculture, their subsistence … When Hawaii had a population of many, many, many tens of thousands, totally self-sufficient, on the island.
Now, it’s an island where they have to import 90% of all their food. Something is backward. So, we can learn a lot by looking at what I call the Hawaiian Renaissance which is the re-booting of indigenous culture and a new-found respect for the traditional ways of doing things.
M&C: They also have a huge homeless problem. Some say worse than Southern California.
Andrew: They do. Drugs, alcohol, and poverty have hit everywhere pretty badly. Hawaii, because of the weather and the consistent weather, allows homeless people to live outdoors.
The circumstance of weather on homelessness is an often overlooked … As someone who was formerly homeless themselves, and lived on the streets for 11 months in New York as an active alcoholic and addict before I got sober 27 years ago, weather impacts your homelessness in any city.
Rain and cold drive people indoors where programs that they wouldn’t ordinarily have access to can access them, get people off the streets, start to get some people well, start to do some good activism within the homelessness community, and start to make a change. In Hawaii, that is not the case.
M&C: You celebrate the Hmong in Minnesota on your socials. There’s a huge refugee community in Idaho, Syrians, Congolese, Senegalese, that I would have never known unless I lived here. How does it all impacts American cuisine, and you as a human being, and as a chef, if you had any commentary about refugees?
Andrew: Well, as Americans, we inhale other cultures first through our mouths. We fall in love with Senegalese food, for example, in Idaho before we fall in love with Senegalese people.
Look at the most popular food in America, is arguably Mexican food, right? You can get great Mexican food in all 50 states. You can get great Mexican food at the North Pole. It’s just a fact, but yet we have this problem with Mexican people in our country. I think that’s criminal. I think it’s a national embarrassment. It’s shameful.
The world is made up of people, it’s not made up of tacos. One of the great things about sanctuary cities, and immigration, and refugee management, when it’s done the right way, is that it supports what this country has always been about for hundreds of years, which is assimilation and allowing people to land here and expand here.
That pursuit of the American Dream is what makes us special and different from so many other places in the world, historically, over the last couple of hundred years.
Now, to take that away from us through government policy, I think, is abhorrent. We live in very scary times.
M&C: About the things that you’ve accomplished in your career, you’ve got so many awards, so much notice, so much success, and you’ve lived through addiction and homelessness. You’ve been on both sides of the coin in life. What are you most proud of, professionally, that you’ve done?
Andrew: I would like to think that I have helped decrease the level of animosity in this country and helped to increase the level of acceptance of other peoples and cultures in this country.
I think my work, by no means am I done yet … If I can at least be one small footnote in that great group of people who have tried to increase our levels of patience, tolerance, and understanding in a world where we always seem to be defining ourselves by our differences, then that would be the thing that I’m most proud of.
M&C: What other journeys are we going on with you this season?
Andrew: North Carolina … We did our moonshine and NASCAR show. Oh boy, wasn’t that fun. We traced a route from a deserted motor speedway to Charlotte Motor Speedway on NASCAR race day, but along the way, we also went from the 1930s to 2000-teens and got a chance to meet some old revenuers and some old moonshiners and … Oh, my was that fun.
Really, really great show. Another is the Kentucky show is our Underground Railroad show that was shot in Ohio and in Kentucky.
Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern returns and airs Tuesdays at 9 pm ET/PT on Travel Channel