Andrew Zimmern is best known for eating things like bats, spiders and even rotten fish. He’s the host of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel, where he travels the world to eat exotic dishes. But Zimmern is also a thinker and something of a food activist. I sat down with him at the Austin Food and Wine Festival this past weekend to discuss his ideas about some of the food sustainability and environmental issues facing the world – and Texas.
Q: We’ve seen you eat everything on television from larvae to spiders.
A: Fermented beetle anus. I bet that’s probably the first time someone has mentioned that little piece of deliciousness in an interview.
Q: I was gonna save it for the end. How does one prepare that anyways?
A: Very, very carefully.
Q: Having eaten all of these exotic things, is there anything in the U.S. that we should open our minds to? Things we don’t normally eat?
A: Tons. We could start with my favorite food that isn’t eaten here, which is donkey. This is an animal that grows to maturity quickly, is a very forgiving eater, easy to raise, a disease-resistant species, and it’s delicious.
And you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between it and veal, except that it’s better than veal. It is fantastic, absolutely delicious.
We live in a day and age where we need to expand our food choices out of necessity, because we are strangling the systems that are producing chicken, pork and beef and we are only eating salmon shrimp and halibut and tuna. We know we need to eat more little fish with the heads on them, we know we need to eat game. We know we need to go meatless a few days. If everyone went meatless two days per month, ate venison once a month, rabbit once a month and pick your own alternative protein once a month, fish with the head on it – whatever – the food world would instantaneously self-correct in about fourteen months. It’s staggering to me. We could put away all this argument about grass-fed, corn-fed, food deserts/not food deserts and all that kind of stuff. So, I’m more concerned with us changing the world one plate at a time and we really can do it by voting with our forks.
Q: We have problems in Texas with feral hogs and wild donkeys and other invasive species. Do you think one way of dealing with those problems is by putting them on the plate?
A: You should eat invasive species away. I was down in Jamaica. In the tropical Caribbean basin, there is a fish called a Lion Fish. It hangs out just lurking in seaweed beds and eats other fish’s babies. They are relatively small. The lion fish is only 12, 16 to 18 ounces. So, all they eat are these tiny little fish. They are very, very dangerous. There are also rampant job issues down in that part of the world. Unemployment is double what it is in this country, triple in the case of some islands. Some of these fish companies are now incentivizing local divers and fisherman to collect the lion fish. Now they have divers that are collecting 30 or 40 of them at a time, and diver collectives that are going out and pulling in a couple hundred pounds. You know, Rainbow Fisheries, a distributing company in Kingston, is now putting this fish, which is, by the way, delicious, on plates around the island. Not only is it taking care of the invasive species issue, it’s also supplying jobs to the country. So, it’s culturally sustainable, it’s economically sustainable and environmentally sustainable. That, to me, is a success story.
The dangerous part to me with doing this in Texas, with everyone running around and shooting wild hogs, is: where has the hog been and who is testing the meat? It’s slightly different when you are diving for fish in the Caribbean. What the animals are eating is quantifiable in the water, in and around the Caribbean, while less quantifiable around here. But with the right testing systems, it can be done. Look at what they are doing here in Austin at Broken Arrow Ranch by putting USDA, FDA inspectors out into the field in a butchering station. Why not do the same thing and let hunters bring their animals to this station where it can be inspected and put into the food system? At the very least, why aren’t we serving this healthy protein to hospitals, jails and schools? Places where the Texas state government and the Austin city government are struggling, trying to serve protein to a disadvantaged community. Why aren’t we doing that?
They’ve tried this with nutria in and around New Orleans and it worked really well, except that the pejorative nature of eating rat kind of got in the way. But it wasn’t the testing; it wasn’t what the animals had eaten or the quality of the meat. So, I think that you raise a great question. I think that we can solve it by eating it.
Q: Another issue that we have here is drought. The last two years have been some of the worst ever. Do you see a way that we can balance the needs of urban and rural populations, both cities and farmers and ranchers, without hurting one side in favor of the other?
A: It’s the great issue of our time. This is part of the conversation that we have to be having. There are people smarter than me that need to be roped into this issue, because it’s a monstrous problem. It’s why, when I talk about food and we talk about this whole cult of food celebrity, and people start to poo-poo it, I’m like, “No! This is great because finally you have people like the chef who were brought in here that are willing to stand up and discuss these issues.” That’s why these issues are going mainstream. Feeding ourselves, and its impact on the environment and the impact on jobs, it’s what [former U.S. House Speaker] Tip O’Neill said, “All politics are local.” I mean, how we feed ourselves is very, very important. I have never, ever heard of a revolution taking place because somebody took away a top ten recording from radio play. I can name a hundred revolutions that have taken place because people couldn’t feed themselves. And I think that if political America, techno-America and all the other Americas that I think could throw some bandwidth at this issue don’t wake up and smell the pork sizzling in the pan, they ought to. This is simply the great issue of our time.
Q: Texas, like many states, also has issues with obesity. What do you see as a good solution to those types of problems?
A: One of the most criminal things in the whole world is watching parents at the Texas State Fair with children who weigh 90 pounds when they should weigh 50, and the parents are handing them hot dogs smothered in cheese, rolled in a tortilla and deep fried and put inside a slice of pizza because it’s fun gimmicky food. To me, I had a hard time intellectually separating that from someone who would sell beer by the bottle outside of a grade school. It is an extremely testy, controversial issue.
The solutions have to be multi-platform. I do believe it is a combination. I believe that some things need to be legislated. And I do think that there should be some punitive issues at play.
But the fact of the matter is, that a lot of those parents are trying their best. I’m a parent. My kid did not come with a manual; it’s the hardest job I’ve ever had. We have created an atmosphere in this country where eating well is a class issue. People are time-poor and that’s affecting their ability to cook and do things with food, more than the financial issue. The secondary issue, because I think money is the tertiary issue, is access and education. So, if we can change those first two, I think the money issue takes care of itself, because I think we finally have found a way without commoditizing food to offering up inexpensive solutions to people. We just need to educate them the right way and take away this notion of it being a class issue.
Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a great example. We are putting money into the farmers at the beginning of the season so that they can help themselves and make the economics work for them and we are giving fresh food to folks. We can just tell them what to do with it and make it endorsable with the food stamp program and stuff like that, like the one at Crescent City Market in New Orleans. And their gospel is spreading, where you can double down on food stamps up to 50 bucks. It’s something that a lot of us have been talking about and popularizing. Those folks who started at Crescent City Market are saints. And they’ve hit on a very natural, easy solution. It’s the way it should be.