Scorpions, crickets, larvae and chicken feet comprised the snacks at Friday’s Travel Channel luncheon themed around its Bizarre Foods show hosted by Andrew Zimmern. And yet, I was disappointed that the spread wasn’t bizarre enough.
Don’t get me wrong. These were still unusual additions to my diet, especially when I noticed that the larvae and crickets came in such toothsome flavors as sour cream ‘n’ onion, BBQ, Mexican spice and salt ‘n’ vinegar. I’m ashamed to say that I grabbed quite a few boxes of each. I imagine they’ll go over well with the kiddies when I hand them out for Halloween. Kids aren’t known to be finicky eaters, are they?
My vision of the promised lunch, however, was a buffet table full of sterno-heated offerings such as chicken fried-nutria, 100-year preserved eggs, bird’s nest soup, haggis. I wanted to see my fellow journalists screw up their faces and approach the table with trepidation, tongs in hand.
Unfortunately, the actual lunch was a rather boring affair with a variety of salads and fully cooked, perfectly appetizing chicken breasts and salmon fillets. Not one Rocky Mountain Oyster in sight. Yawn.
Secondly, all of the bizarre side offerings were foods I had conquered before. I’m not a Fear Factor fanatic, but I like to think I have an adventurous palate. I still remember the double take the waiter gave me when I once ordered scorpion at a local eatery. Hey, it was on the menu. But really, crickets and chicken feet are no big deal. Any Los Angeleno can jaunt down to Tijuana to enjoy a taco topped with crickets, or even closer, for dim sum in Chinatown to partake of chicken feet.
More inspiring was a chat I had with the man himself, Mr. Zimmern, during which he was not shy to discuss his food philosophies, a fellow TV chef and his global eating experiences.
Bad TV Chef – "I think that someone like Sandra Lee [of Semi-Homemade With Sandra Lee] is the Anti-Christ. I say that with the most love and respect that I humanly can muster, and here’s why: The idea that we need to seek convenience in our lives and push our family out of the kitchen is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing. We need to open up those doors and spend more times with our families. And the best place to do it is in the kitchen."
Food philosophy – "I don’t understand people who want to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe in Beijing. I mean, it absolutely defies description to me. When I am in a place, I want to see what people are eating."
Conquering durian – "Well, I’ve eaten durian now five times at different places, and it grows on you. Yes, but I’m not a fan of it."
His culinary Waterloo – "Stinky tofu in Taiwan is probably the worst food on the planet … We [went] down to Dai’s House of Unique Steak [in Taiwan], and she has a 14-day tofu. She doesn’t use the two-day [stinky tofu recipe]. ‘The two-day isn’t the real way. That’s diluted. That’s the way young people do it today. That’s wrong. That’s hamburger culture.’ So this putrefied stuff is soaked and has basically turned this into where the whole thing tastes like rotted fish. I had to squeeze down the one bite I tried. I tried it in two other preparations, and I couldn’t even eat it."
Best. Meal. Ever. – "The most heavenly meal I ever had probably was because of the almost impossible ability to duplicate the experience. When I was in Ecuador, we had several different guides. But the lowest guide on the totem pole was the guy who did the most work. He was a Pilchi Indian by the name of Denaldo. On the last day, he invited us to his home. He ran out into the jungle, hacked down a rotted palm tree. There were eight of us. He rounded up 16 big coconut grubs, sauteed them in spoiled pig fat from a wild, feral pig he had shot with a bow and arrow a couple days beforehand. And dug up some plants and roots and boiled them for our vegetables. And we ate it on leaves in the cooking hut of his house."
Favorite snacks – "We’re really into pretzel rods at our house because I eat them, my 2 1/2-year-old eats them, my wife eats them. We’re big watermelon people, believe it or not. We have a child at home and we eat very simply. Something on the grill, stuff like that. We’re big popcorn people. Everyone always says to me, ‘Do you got a big pile of steer testicles in the refrigerator?’ And it’s like, ‘Uh, no because where I’m from, we don’t eat that.’"
Visiting Vietnam – "Vietnam is Bizarre Foods heaven. The great thing about Vietnam is that they worship street food and they abhor scarcity. Again, every part of the chicken is cut up and served there. One of my favorite things there is on the back of the chicken, where the tail feathers are are these triangular pieces of fat that my grandfather called the pope’s nose. Well, in Asia, the first thing I do in street markets is I go to the place where they put seven or eight pope’s noses on a bamboo skewer, brush it with a sweet soy glaze and grill it till all the fat comes out. It’s just crispy, incredible chicken skin. It’s the first thing I eat. I’d have one every day. In Vietnam we had roasted sparrows every day. That wonderful cured pork that’s inside the little spring rolls is actually just spoiled pork and it’s delicious. I love it."
Eating organic – "The hottest trend in American fine dining is locally sustainable organic cooking. Everybody wants to do it. Everyone’s in on that ballgame. ‘I shop at the Farmer’s Market. I do that.’ The rest of the world has been doing that from Day One and never stopped, so in many countries, there’s no word for [organic]. No word for it."
Home sweet home – "The best part of my adventures is coming home to my wife and son. And if my wife’s roasted chicken stuffed with fresh herbs, lemon and garlic is in the oven, it’s a good night."
Are you skeeved out by Andrew’s favorite foods? How adventurous do you get?