When it comes to the frontier of food, Andrew Zimmern is a trailblazer, promoting cultural understanding through the prism of all things food. The James Beard Award-winning chef, TV personality, writer and teacher is perhaps best-known for his globetrotting role as creator, executive producer and host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods series, Andrew Zimmern’s Driven by Food and The Zimmern List.
And now, Zimmern is venturing in a new direction with an original series on MSNBC: What’s Eating America. The series, which premiered in February, delves into a melting pot of significant civic issues and their impact on food. He also has another series in the works slated to air in October on a major lifestyle channel; stay tuned for details.
In between his cultural exploration, culinary pursuits and charitable endeavors, Zimmern took some time to talk with us about what’s on the front burner of life in the food world and how travelers can deepen their experiences through food, including recommendations on some of his favorite food-centric road trips.
AAA World: How did you first become interested in the art of food and exploring destinations through the lens of food?
Andrew Zimmern: When I was a little kid, that’s what my parents did. We ate to travel, and we traveled to eat. And where we were eating, what we were eating was probably the thing that was discussed a lot more before we left for a trip than necessarily what museum we were going to or what tourist attraction we were visiting.
What I found later as I began to get older and became a little more self-aware is that I always heard that noise in the back of my mind that said you are what you eat, and I knew that to be true. And as I got older, I realized that if extraterrestrials landed on planet earth and they wanted to know everything about our culture, the first thing that I would have them look at wouldn’t be our mathematics or music or anything else; it would be our food: what we eat, what our food lives look like. And I realized as I got through college and I was studying history and art history, that the reality was that just as in the study of our history, you can take a look at a historical painting or an Impressionist painting or what have you and decipher what you needed to know about a culture, looking at a bowl of soup could actually tell you a lot more: that the idea of being what you eat is transferable in many, many, many, many ways. That you could flip that on its ear and realize that how we eat, what we eat defines us and tells us more about us than any other cultural pillar.
And so it took me another 20 years to learn how to create content around that idea, but that’s now what I do: is create content around that idea.
Zimmern In Tanzania. Photo by Josh Cogan/Courtesy Of Travel Channel
AAAW: You’ve traveled the world—to more than 170 countries. What are some of your favorite foods and destinations? That’s probably hard to narrow.
Zimmern: Yes, I mean, that’s quite an impossibility. … Let me just back up a little bit. When I was young, it was all about Europe. I wanted to see what European food was all about. Then I graduated to Asia and became obsessed with Asian food because so much of Asian food and culture was new to me, and I was fascinated by it. And I discovered, for example, that Chinese food is the broadest, deepest, widest in terms techniques and ingredients that give the most complex and sophisticated cuisine on planet Earth, followed very closely by Mexico. Central and South America was my next sort-of turn-on.
One of the things that I’ve learned over the last 10 years in my life when I look back at it is that, as a student of history and as a student of what ancient cultures and tribal cultures tell us about our world, that that’s actually the food that fascinates me the most. So for some people, they want to go to Tokyo and eat amazing Japanese food all week. Other people want to go to Mexico City and explore markets. Some people want to go to Paris and eat at Michelin-starred restaurants. I want to go to tribal Africa and see how peoples who live indistinguishably from their most ancient ancestors, how they eat, what they eat, why they eat it to understand more of our global food history and how interrelated we are with food.
So, in one sense, I know that I’m kind of a unicorn that way. Not a lot of people are interested in that, but that’s what interests me the most because I’ve also…been to Japan 15 times and been to China 20 times. I’ve explored a lot of those places, so for most people, I think, especially most Americans, we want to get into the Latin cooking styles in Central and South America. We want to explore Asia. We want to explore Europe. I’m more interested in things like tribal Africa or Mongolia, places on the Spice Route where our earliest food habits were formed.
AAAW: Many people know you for your wildly popular Bizarre Foods franchise on the Travel Channel. What’s the most bizarre food you’ve eaten, and is there anything you will not try?
Zimmern: Well, there’s nothing that I won’t try. Obviously, there are a lot of, sort-of—I call them Dr. Seuss foods that I eat on the road that we just didn’t even know taxonomically existed until I got to the middle of the Amazon rainforest in Suriname and saw a type of bird that was like a wild chicken that the locals eat there that I’ve just never seen anywhere. So, it’s always those sorts of experiences that sit side by side.
AAAW: Many people may not know that you have a new show on MSNBC: What’s Eating America. Can you tell us a little bit about the show and why you think it’s important for people to tune in?
Zimmern: Yeah, I think it’s the most important content that I ever created. So, we live in a very complex world. So, the idea is what we talked about at the top—we are what we eat, show us what we eat and I’ll show you who we are—all that kind of stuff and the fact that I’ve always used food as a lens through which to view everything, teach everything, talk about everything. The most important issues of our time are now civic issues, issues about public health, about voting rights, about climate change, about health and wellness with food, about our food resources here in America, about immigration. Who are we as Americans, and what do we stand for? And I realized that a lot of people were only hearing those stories a handful of ways. One was through misinformation. The other one was in newspapers, and the other one was watching TV news. I do a different type of storytelling. I’m a cultural explorer. So by going out and telling stories about climate change, by talking to farmers and oystermen and food executives and whoever it was that we felt could add to the conversation, that to me was something new and different that I hadn’t seen, and I felt that the time was now for us to be looking at these stories. They never had more importance.
We’re actually seeing species disappear—mass extinction of species occurring right now, species that will not come back, and it will affect our food chain. You can’t eliminate 60 percent of the insects and bugs in this world and not understand by talking to any biologists the trickle-down effect of this—what we eat, how we’re able to grow it and what its impact is on our food sources. You can’t have water warming and temperature warming at the rate that it has over the last decade creating year after year the hottest year on record for a decade and not have it impact our food system. And when people hear a scientist being interviewed in a newspaper or on a website or whatever, I think some people tune it out, but nobody these days is tuning out food. Food is something we swim in every day. It’s the new rock, so let’s tell those stories through food, and it’s been very successful I’m very proud to say.
Zimmern found a new friend at the Iowa State Fair. Photo by Sam Johnson.
AAAW: You’ve also recently written a children’s book:
Zimmern: The stories that I told my son. When I was young and I was traveling a half-hour out of New York City, we would lose all our radio stations—this is in the mid-60s with my father—and so he would tell me long stories, and these stories would go on for hours. And he would make them up as he went along, and they were usually fables that involved a young hero named the Andrew Goodheart who only did good things. I did the same with my son. I told him stories every night before he went to bed. He would have reading time where he read his books, and then he would turn out the light and I would tell him a story. The series of books, first volume, was my attempts to entertain that same age group with storytelling that they could relate to that was fun and exciting.
AAAW: AAA members are avid travelers. What are some of the best ways that they can enrich their travels through food experiences?
Zimmern: Be more curious. I tell people all the time to cook recipes that they’ve never cooked before if they want to learn about food. I would encourage people to try new restaurants in different neighborhoods, new cuisines. People all the time tell me that they like food, and then they tell me, oh, they love food, and then they tell me that food is their thing, it’s their hobby. And I say, ‘When was the last time you went to a new restaurant or cooked a new dish in [your] kitchen?’ and they look at me like I’m crazy. And I say, ‘Well, you can’t really love food that much then.’ Experimentation, curiosity, adventure, remaining teachable—those are the four hallmarks I think of food pursuits that broaden our lives, and I would encourage people to follow those four ideas.
AAAW: What’s on your short list of must-try American foods and the best regions to enjoy them while road-tripping through The States?
Zimmern: Where do you want to start? I think several of the great food trips of my lifetime in the car have been going down the Blues Trail through the South and through Mississippi and eating at all the great honky-tonks and barbecue places and meat-and- three [restaurants] that that road trip has to offer. Going from Virginia and driving south and west on an angle down towards Lockhart, Texas—if you draw a line from Washington, D.C., down to Lockhart, Texas, and go down through what’s called the Barbecue Belt, one of the great road trips for eaters to sample all the different regional styles of barbeque. Route 66 is another one. Take Route 66 out of Missouri, and head west to California—a fantastic road trip to see what the center of the country is eating. The Pacific Coast Highway with all of the regional seafood with small detours inland, say in Central California where the grilled tri-tip steak is legendary. I think those are all fantastic road trips that a person can take.
AAAW: It’s no secret that you’re super-busy these days, but when you get some downtime, how do you like to spend it?
Zimmern: Cooking in my kitchen for my family, reading books and catching up on old movies. I spend my life on the road, so I like to be a homebody.