Editor’s note: “My First Time" is a series that explores the first time your favorite celebrities did something significant or memorable (so get your mind out of the gutter!).
In this installment, Andrew Zimmern -- the James Beard-award winning chef and host of Travel Channel's “Bizarre Foods” -- dishes on the first time he tasted “weird” food, the food that’s surprised him the most and why, after years of eating the most unique foods on the planet, he decided to host a unique food experience award competition, The Munchies: People's Food Choice Awards.
HLN: What is the first weird thing you remember tasting?
Andrew Zimmern: I think we have to be careful about how we define bizarre. In some countries, what I ate growing up in New York in the ‘60s -- I had gefelte fish at my first Passover -- could be considered weird. Where things really changed for me was the first time I went to Europe with my father in 1968.
I have two vivid images from that trip: We flew to Paris and at 10 p.m., we ended up at a sleepy seafood restaurant in Les Halles. We didn’t order. The server just brought out bigorneau -- periwinkle snails with long silver snail picks -- along with the bread and butter. I had had snails before, but here were steamed, cold ones that you picked out and ate with your aperitif. I loved it! I don’t think I ate anything else that night. For the adults, it was too much work, but for me, it was like playing with Legos.
A week later, I found myself in a small town outside of Madrid in a restaurant in an old Roman aqueduct. Our waiter came by and asked if we wanted pork or lamb. I got lamb; my father got pork. Then they served family-style salads and tapas and about an hour later, our entrées were ready. A platter was put in front of us: Baby roasted lamb for me and piglet for my father.
This restaurant served very, very young animals roasted whole. They were cleaned and prepared but still had little rib cages, little legs, crispy skin, and the seasonings were herby and garlicky -- it was the most amazing thing. My father showed me how to open the jaws and take out the cooked tongue. To me, it was the most delicious thing: So many experiences, textures and tastes on one animal.
I think that trip in ‘68 was the one that flipped my switch. When I was 5 or 6 years old, I was just eating what my dad ate -- sushi wasn’t weird to me, for example. But when I got to see how a whole other culture ate food, I fell in love with the fact that there’s a story behind every food. And it still influences what I do today -- interpreting culture through food.
HLN: What has been the most surprising bizarre food you’ve ever tasted?
AZ: Any chance I get to eat tiny baby birds, I do -- they’re delicious and my preferred way to eat poultry. I’d rather be on the streets of Vietnam and have a stack of fried baby chicklets or ducklings than eat a fully grown chicken or duckling.
The second category is foods I never knew existed. I’ve probably been in five or seven situations where someone has pulled something out of the ocean or rain forest that I refer to as a Dr. Seuss animal -- something so fantastical and crazy that my jaw’s in my lap. The most extreme example of that was eating palolo in Samoa.
I was on a boat with Samoan sailors and at one point they stopped the engine and started jumping up and down with happiness. They took fine nets and scooped this fine paste floating on top of the water. It turns out that every 10 years, when the atmospheric conditions are just right, the coral releases worms that come up to the surface and die because of the temperature and the sun, sink back down, and help regenerate the coral. You can’t even see them as worms -- it just looks like pudding on top of the ocean. The Samoans eat it raw or pan-fry it or smear it on bread. It tastes like sea urchin fois gras and iodine -- it’s superb!
HLN: What draws you to bizarre foods? Most people tend to stay away from cow blood or reproductive organs…
AZ: When you have water buffalo penis soup put in front of you in a little village in Thailand, you don’t want to offend your host, so you dip your spoon in, and it’s the most delicious thing. The broth is phenomenal, the veggies were just picked and the glass noodles were just rolled. The host nudges you to try the meat -- gelatinous bull penis rings with the flavor of bone marrow but a little chewier, like beef tendon. So you get rid of your American bias, open your mind, and based on its texture and flavor, it’s phenomenal.
So I just chase the dragon and try to get back to that first bowl of soup. I’ve been doing this for a lifetime now and want to keep adding to it -- it’s like collecting vinyl records or first editions of novels. I keep adding to my pile of food experiences. There are only a handful of us in the world who are privileged to do the things I’ve done.
HLN: Is the hunt for food experiences what drew you to hosting The Munchies: People’s Choice Food Awards?
AZ: No. For a long time, I’ve had the goal to start a national conversation about food that’s fun and informative and raises the level of discourse in the country about the things we like. General Mills had the same goal and we finally teamed up together. I was tired of food lists and contests that didn’t source expertise. I thought that a populous vote could be meaningful.
So we created The Munchies to have a conversation about food and we do it by having a team of 26 food experts putting together and refining a list of nominees across categories. We then put these choices out in front of the people, which is an amazing process because if you’re a bus driver in Joplin, Missouri, you don’t get to vote for The James Beard restaurateur. And all the donations go to Feeding America -- a hunger relief charity, which is very important to me.
HLN: The awards are honoring 20 categories of the best food experiences in America, from best restaurants, to chef, to food trucks -- do you have any personal favorites?
AZ: I have some real favorites -- tiny, out-of-the-way places I wish everyone could visit. There’s a hamburger place outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bobcat Bite. Look it up. They’ve been grinding meat for 65 years. The chef makes a fresh order of green chili every 30 minutes. They use a local bakery for the buns. They have without a doubt the most amazing burger I’ve ever had. And I’ve been to 95% of what’s on everyone’s best list.
HLN: What is your favorite place in Atlanta?
AZ: My second favorite burger -- Holeman & Finch. It’s great and everyone goes there for the burger, but I happen to think that they have the preeminent collection of artisanal ham. I think what Linton Hopkins has done by putting Restaurant Eugene on one side of the driveway and the ham bar on the other side is genius. Last time, I had a 12-course dinner at Eugene, walked around outside for 15 minutes, then spent the rest of the night eating ham and hamburger at Holeman & Finch.