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Yak Penis, Anyone? An Interview With Andrew Zimmern, Host of 'Bizarre Foods'
Zimmern, 51, is a native New Yorker and graduate of Vassar College who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction in the early '90s. He was homeless for a year and fed his drug habit by snatching purses and selling the credit card numbers and passports he found. With the help of friends, he moved to Minnesota, got clean, and turned his life around as a chef.
Zimmern claims he's never gotten sick from any of the bizarre foods he's eaten and he's on a mission to get Americans to expand their culinary horizons. In the new season of the show, which premiers on February 11, he'll feast on baked muskrat, deep fried pig testicles and fermented fish eggs, among other treats. We caught up with Zimmern to ask him how he stomachs all the crap he puts down his gullet.
Don't I get to not like something? I just think they're soapy and gross. I just can't stand them.
Are there other foods you won't eat?
But, some of the things you eat just boggle my mind. In Goa, for example, you drank cow urine and ate a fish that hadn't been refrigerated for more than a year (see video below). What were you thinking?
Terrible, I know.
Does your producer ever suggest something so vile that even you say, 'No - I am not eating that!'
It's extremely rare. There's nothing that happens in the show that I don't either create or vet or both. I'm usually the one who finds foods in the field and says, 'We've got to include this.' This show is driven by my curiosity and desire to interpret cultures through food. It's not driven by a producer saying, 'This sounds really gross, let's use that.' If there is no cultural relevance to something, if it's just thrill seeking eating, it's not in our show.
In this upcoming season, you'll be sampling deep fried piglet testicles, among other things. How were those?
Testicles of animals are delicious. The larger the animal the faster they need to get from the clip into the frying pan. Smaller testicles – roosters, ducks, geese, vermin – are very, very delicate and creamy and are easier to keep fresh. Pig's balls are great. An animal's testicles are just another piece of meat that can be cooked the right way and taste very good or cooked the wrong way and they're not.
You ate those pig balls at a fair in Iowa?
No, we were on a pig farm, Rustik Rooster, in Iowa. Certain breeds of pigs if you let them grow too big with their testicles attached, the meat will develop a gamey flavor as the animal matures. So when the piglets are young, they snip the testicles. We cleaned them, soaked them in a brine, and then breaded and deep-fried them. They were delicious.
You visited a restaurant in Beijing that specializes in animal penises (see video below). How was that?
We used to be able to eat everything because whole animals went into butcher shops but we're returning to that in some parts of the country. Ten years ago, you couldn't buy pig livers or lamb kidneys, for example, and now you can. There's a renewed interest in snout to tail eating and people are understanding that if we are going to eat meat, we need to eat the whole animal to be environmentally sustainable, and people are seeing how delicious that can be as well.
Americans are pretty much the world's wimpiest eaters aren't we?
Extremely so. Not even close.
I wonder if your show has turned people on to some funky foods they otherwise wouldn't have tried?
It's hard to say 'yes' without sounding like a douchebag but yes, you're right. The show has been on since 2007. I had been trying to sell this idea well before that. I am extremely proud of what we've been able to contribute to the national conversation about food. The show has had a positive impact on helping to remake taste here in America.
Your show is the only one my 5-year-old son and I can agree on.
You should buy him my book. My son is 8 and all the 5-year-old kids in our neighborhood just devour it. No one counted on "Bizarre Foods" being as popular with kids and families as it has been. There are very few shows that a mom, dad, 5-, 10- and 15-year-old can sit down and enjoy together. "Bizarre Foods" is one of them and I'm very proud of that.
My favorite moments on the show are those very rare occasions when you find something that even you can't stomach. Durian is one of those really challenging foods, right?
There are a lot of foods I have a hard time with. Sometimes I speak in code on camera because I'd rather be a good guest, not this TV guy who is making fun of people who are trying to accommodate, entertain or inform us.
Tell us about a few of the things that have been very hard to swallow?
Lots of things, from fermented skate wing in Korea to fresh animal blood, even little things like eating fresh milk right from a cow, donkey, horse, a reindeer, or a camel. Warm, foamy milk out of an animal's teat is not how people are used to drinking it. There is a mind over matter aspect to this that is always difficult to deal with. But the practice of tasting and acquiring knowledge allows you to say, 'that's not that bad' and then you get pleasant surprises that I think make for a very interesting eating life. Because I'm most often pleasantly surprised, I've learned that you really need to try things.
I can't recall ever seeing you spit something out. You swallow just about everything, right?
I always do. I can count maybe two or three items I spit out. One was a snack food on the streets of New Delhi that was made with putrid water that I knew would make me sick. Another occasion was in the Philippines when someone offered me a rotten chicken intestine that was raw. In the pilot, I spat out my first taste of durian, which was just horrific. And I learned a valuable lesson.
The orchard manager was so hurt because he was so proud of his country's favorite fruit. It was quickly smoothed over, but I realized that I wanted to accomplish my goal of broadening peoples' minds and open them up to the idea that we could share ideas about our differences and resolve them if we could talk about our love of food. And I couldn't accomplish that goal if I was spitting things out.
I hear you, but there's no way I could swallow some of the things you eat. Bat, for example. How do you eat a bat?
I ate grilled bat in Thailand and Samoa. I loved it! [In Samoa] there was a giant fruit bat; I shot it out of the sky while standing underneath a breadfruit tree.
You've traveled to more than 100 countries, many of them pretty tough places. Watching the Suriname episode, that looked like the hardest travel experience. Was it?
Not enough close - it was by far the most strenuous travel experience. The entire experience was absolutely brutal. We travel with a crew and they need a clean place to sleep and regular meals. I love eating a fried turtle stew or wild pig liver in the jungle, but the crew needs to be looked after in a different way and Suriname was extremely hot, hard living. We had a 52-kilometer hike over a 30-hour period through virgin rain forest. It was extremely brutal.
A little over 20 years ago, you were a homeless drug addict in New York. Could you have envisioned then that you'd be able to turn your life into a success story?
Never in a million years when I was a homeless addict and alcoholic living on the streets in 1990 and 1991 did I think that I would get sober or live to see my 31st birthday. I was scooped up off the streets by friends who did yet again another intervention on me. [They] put me into a treatment facility in Minnesota and I've been sober ever since. That is the greatest blessing of my life. That I'm alive is good enough but the fact that I'm in a position to have the type of life that I do is extraordinary and it's why I place so much emphasis on giving back to the community because my gratitude is immense. I'm the luckiest person in the world.
[Photo credits: The Travel Channel]