Andrew Zimmern never met a food he wouldn't try. Actually, amend that. There are only two things that wouldn't touch his lips, so you can imagine. We caught up with the intrepid host and James Beard award-winning chef of the Travel Channel's new series Bizarre Foods of America, premiering 10 p.m. Monday. This time, the St. Paul resident, 50, is leaving his passport at home and delving into the strangest edibles our nation has to offer.
Why did you devote a full season to the U.S.?
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.
What are some highlights of the season?
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. 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.
How do you get over the fear of eating strange things?
In terms of how I get over the fear, I never had any. As a kid growing up in New York I ate tongue at my grandmother's on the weekends and sauteed calf's liver and did all the things that I think we sort of lost touch with in this generation. You've got to remember, what's weird to some people is wonderful to another. I sat in Africa one day and had a [Lawaneka] tribesperson insist that Americans were crazy because we let milk rot and then dried it into little squares and ate it. If you told Americans that there were people who thought cheese was disgusting they would laugh at you.
Have you ever refused anything?
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.
Do you recall 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. 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.
What kind of meals do you eat at home?
Meat and potatoes. My wife [Rishia] is from a Minnesota farm community and my son [Noah] is as adventurous as I am because he doesn't know any other way to eat. The issue I have in our house is that my friends or some farm somewhere will send me a pig's head and I'll throw it on the barbecue and roast it and we'll sit there and pick all the meat off of it and my son rolls them into tortillas and makes little tacos. I dip them in spicy mustard. My wife wants me to cut out the cheeks and put it for her on her plate so that it looks like what she calls normal food.
Roast chicken with stuffing and gravy preceded by as many cherrystone clams on the half shell as I could eat.