Books

Zimmern relishes each bizarre bite

Think of it as Adventures in Culinary Anthropology, with a sideline in ambassadorial studies.

Just by breaking bread with them, not to mention kidneys, brains and entrails, Andrew Zimmern probably does more to enhance relations between people than do a dozen diplomats.

Host of the popular Travel Channel series "Bizarre Foods," the native New Yorker turned Minnesotan has munched his way around the planet for four eventful years, often in remote places and frequently as the guest of "first peoples." With his companion series "Bizarre Worlds" recently having debuted on the same network, Zimmern lends further dimension to his gustatory gallops with a new book, "The Bizarre Truth: How I Walked out the Door Mouth First ... and Came Back Shaking My Head" (Broadway Books).

He shakes his head in amazement and in appreciation of the fact that genuinely "bizarre" foods are few. They are simply legitimate facets of a culture.

The stories may be more expansive - not unlike his waistline - but the core theme of the book is the same as the shows: Seek out what is authentic, be it giant flying ants in Uganda, raw camel kidneys in Ethiopia or delicacies from Maison de la Truffle in Paris. The maxim applies just as readily to the broader sweep of a culture, for as Zimmern insists, food is inextricably intertwined with belief systems.

Going in with an open mind and open mouth, he discovers again and again the power of food to bridge cultural chasms.

"I cannot tell you how true this is," says chef Zimmern, a staunch advocate of travel as opposed to tourism. "I was in an airport the other day and met a military officer who told me he uses the DVDs of my show to train troops.

"I was stunned. He said imagine this: a Humvee pulls up to a village and a woman comes out of her house carrying a bowl of strange soup with strange parts in it. And he says, 'What if my sergeant reacts with, "Oh, that's disgusting," and they see it on his face? We've already lost the battle.'

"Imagine, however, if the same person gets off the Humvee and the woman lifts the lid off the crock of soup and the soldier says, 'Thanks so much for preparing that, give me a second and I'll come back and try some.' He doesn't even have to speak the language. The difference is night and day.

"The colonel felt this concept came out so well in our show."

This encounter echoes another in the book, in which an academic compliments Zimmern on his anthropology. "I'm not an anthropologist," Zimmern demurred.

"Oh, but you are," said the other. No less than the dean of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota suggested that Zimmern has spent far more time "in situ" with first peoples, an ethnic group inhabiting a geographic region with which they have the earliest known historical connection, than many distinguished academics.

"Hearing this changed the way I look at my experience," says Zimmern. "And it's one of the reasons why I wrote the book: just giving people a glimpse of what it's like to be with some of these people, the tribal people in the Kalahari, for example. There is a tribe there, the Ju'hoansi, that anthropologists all over the world are dying to get into, but the government of Botswana won't allow it. We had the privilege of being there and doing a show, which is my favorite hour of television I've ever made."

While there is no substitute for direct experience, "Bizarre Foods" and "Bizarre World" offer an insider's look at far-flung places in an edifying, if vicarious, way. His goal, and that of his crew, is to make them as vivid and real as possible.

"We take great steps when producing a show to leave as small a footprint on the event or the place as possible. We shoot with a very small crew, with extremely small hand-held cameras and very few lights."

On a recent "Bizarre Foods" episode, this self-described "mooshy dude" navigated a two-and-a-half-day wilderness survival excursion with admirable aplomb. Not that he's ready to replace ex-British commando and friend Bear Grylls on "Man vs. Wild." That said, he and his crew have their share of dicey moments in politically unstable situations, and in the face of hazardous foodstuffs.

"By now, I can tell by smelling it, looking at it or tasting it that one bite is OK and a second bite is a trip to the hospital."

Although in some parts of the world, the mere fact of his presence as a Westerner can skew the experience, viewers still see what Zimmern calls "a nearly undiluted experience.

"For even the most inveterate traveler, to be frank, it is the only way to glimpse life inside a first-peoples environment. We have the added benefit, because we're a TV program, of contracting with governments and cultural preservation societies and universities abroad with people who are already embedded with a certain tribe, to join them on an experience, or have the entree made for us in places where, if you were an ordinary traveler, you might not be allowed to go."

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