Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern: Mickey Melons and Haggis

| November 5, 2009 | 6 Replies

The EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival not only has country kiosks with their wide samplings of dishes, but the festival also brings in dozens of visiting chefs and speakers including many celebrity chefs and television personalities.  October 30th and 31st, Travel Channel Personality Andrew Zimmern attended the festival, and he sat down with myself and Teresa Echols of the DIS Unplugged to talk about his thoughts and experiences at this year’s festival.  You can listen to our interview after the break.

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to listen to the complete interview with Andrew Zimmern.

Andrew Zimmern is the host of Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” and his newest show “Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World”.  He is also the author of the new book “The Bizarre Truth: How I Walked Out the Door Mouth First…and Came Back Shaking My Head” just released Fall 2009.

David Parfitt:
Andrew, how has your visit to Walt Disney World been?
Andrew Zimmern: Magical.  This is our third time here, and we just adore it.  There’s nothing I don’t love about Walt Disney World.
DP: Well, I was going to ask if you were a Disney fan.  So I think that answers that question.
AZ: Yeah, huge, actually last Christmas was the first time I’d ever been here, I’d never been here as a child.  I just found it fascinating that when I was here with my son and my wife, I think I had the best time of anyone.  Now that he’s another year older, I think his joy has eclipsed mine finally this trip, but, yeah, we’re huge Disney fans.
DP: This is a fun time of year to come down too, being down here for Halloween.  You’re not a stranger to Florida either.  One of your recent episodes of “Bizarre World” you were here in Florida.
AZ: We shot an episode of “Bizarre World” down here that was just absolutely crazy.  It was nuts.  I love the content that I produce for Travel Channel and for my book life.  The professional content that I’m responsible for is so joy-filled because I get to uncover hidden tribes and cultures and it’s twice as fun when you can do it in your own backyard right under other people’s noses.  Most people in Florida don’t know about Countyline Dragway where you can just race whatever car you drive up to the parking lot, and you can do it against the cops or other people.  They don’t know that you can go to Lips in Fort Lauderdale and have a gospel brunch hosted by drag queens that’s family filled.  It’s a miraculous kind of place.  Tarpon Springs, the sponge diving capitol of this side of the world, is now booming again after the 40 year tidal issues that diminished the sponging trade, and the old-timers there who are Greek immigrants still sponge dive in the ancient helmets.  Things like that are just spectacular, and, of course, the food that goes with it.
DP: I remember that part of the episode where they were putting the helmet on you and you were having trouble with claustrophobia.  I was right there with you.  My wife also has big problems with claustrophobia, and I was thinking there’s no way you would ever get her in that.
AZ: It was extremely difficult.  In the program, we show them putting the helmet on me twice.  I actually did it three times.  Because they did it once for 10 seconds, once for about a minute, and finally left it on and I tried to go over the side.  So I kind of warmed up to it a little bit, but it’s petrifying besides being claustrophobic.
DP: Sounds wonderful.
AZ: It’s fantastic.  But see, I do it so you don’t have to.

DP: You’ve really turned the term bizarre into your brand.  However, I noticed during your television shows, you’re trying to redefine that term bizarre, and asking your audience to think about what they consider bizarre.  Would you agree with that assessment?

AZ: Yeah.  Actually, I’ve had about 17,000 interviews, and I always have to tell people that I’m redefining the word bizarre.  So you’ve hit the nail on the head.  You know, it’s a TV show, and I wanted the title to also be thought-provoking.  So when the show first rolled out, we had a bit of a gap between what we were trying to do and what our audience was perceiving.  Once 3, 4, 5 shows rolled out people realized that if they thought about it ‘wow, they’re saying this is a bizarre food or world, but that looks really similar to what my grandmother put on our plate when we were younger.  That looks really similar to my Uncle Henry’s house, or that’s really similar to what we thought was delicious when we visited Mexico or Thailand or Australia or China or London.’  So the idea of being able to alter people’s perspective by using a term that conjures up a pejorative connotation for folks right away and realizing – you know something, bizarre is beautiful, what’s weird to one person is everyday, commonplace fare to another.  I think that’s the most important part of our show.  Number one I love telling stories from the fringe, I think they’re more interesting, but, I think, more importantly, and we really believe this, by going around the world and sharing the things we have in common even if they’re strange to us – we all love food, we all love adventure, we all have some sort of belief system, even if your belief system is to not have a belief system – that’s why we explore spiritual pathways in our show and try to do it in a lighthearted manner, but we want to show people that as the world’s getting flatter, the more we celebrate the things we have in common, the less time we’ll spend talking about our differences.  And I think that’s really important.

DP: I agree.  One question I have for you though, do you think this spread, this globalization, while in some ways it is very good to recognize the differences in everybody do you think it’s also homogenizing the culinary landscape somewhat?
AZ: Of course it is.  And that’s why it’s very important for people like myself to be out there and show folks, ‘hey, in Northern Thailand they’re still dispatching a water buffalo and selling the parts under a tree at the place where those two roads come in contact.’  The problem is that 20 years ago there were two dirt roads, and now one is paved, next two will be paved, and soon there’ll be a city, and in a couple more years there won’t be people selling meat that way – under the shade of the tree in a little teeny town with no name six hours north of Chiang Mai.  And I think that’s what’s important, if we let people know what’s out there, they have an option to pursue it on their own.  I think that performs a valuable service too.  As the world homogenizes, so do new things pop up that we were never doing before, from food from molecular gastronomy to lemons and watermelons shaped like Mickey Mouse that you have here in your big greenhouses.  The world moves forward, and I think it’s a lot of fun.  I’m a food guy.

DP: You’re a food guy, and you’re going to be doing some demonstrations in a little bit here at EPCOT.
AZ: Yeah, I’m doing a Thai recipe – a lemon grass and chili wok roasted quail dish, very, very popular in Bangkok.
DP: Sounds great.
AZ: Yeah, it’s good stuff.
DP: Can you talk a little bit about your book “The Bizarre Truth”?  Is this going to be more of your travel experiences?

AZ: Yeah, I thought the first book would be a cookbook.  I thought that would happen 5 or 6 years ago.  Right when I was ready to sign the deal for the cookbook, I signed the contract to do the TV show.  We decided from a business standpoint, let’s wait and see what happens with the TV show.  If it ends up getting picked up, we’ll consider doing a book that’s more about food and travel.  And then the show got popular, and we just kind of waited to release the book when the “Bizarre World” came out.  We knew for a year that “The Bizarre World” would roll out this September.  The idea behind the book is to allow me to tell some behind the scenes stories that there’s no room for when you’re presenting the scenes on the show, and also to talk about my family life and other things that were important to me and influenced me.  I think a lot of people were interested in how I thought and how I grew up and the questions that seem to come up all the time in interviews like this were ones that I wanted to make sure I addressed and wove throughout the book by telling I think fun, interesting stories from the fringe about the things that I’ve seen around the world.  I’ve been told it’s a great read and really funny.  I’m biased.  I think it is.  Yeah, I think it’s wonderful.  If you love food and you love travel, you’ll love “The Bizarre Truth”.

DP: It seems the EPCOT Food and Wine Festival here is a good fit for you as well.  Is there anything in particular that caught your eye here at the festival?
AZ: Well, we were at EPCOT last night.  I just got here yesterday, and we got done and unpacked and everything settled by 5:00 pm and immediately ran out to hit the Magic Kingdom before it closed at 7:00 pm and then ran over to EPCOT afterwards.  I was strolling around, and I love EPCOT, it’s one of my favorite places, it’s a great park.  I remember when we were here last Christmas, and folks said, ‘Oh, you just missed the Food and Wine month.’  I thought to myself, that is a great, great thing.  I’d love to come see that, and then I thought to myself I should really do something there too and present some stuff to folks.  We thought with the book and everything coming out that it would be absolutely perfect.
So last night we’re strolling around, loved the fireworks, loved the Mexico ride, went on the Mexico ride 3 times with my son back to back to back.  What I loved most about what I saw last night in EPCOT is, besides all the staggering offerings that are there 12 months of the year, all the little kiosks with the other countries that don’t necessarily have a chance to have a full pavilion on the EPCOT campus with all the smaller tastes of things.  Walking by the Argentina booth last night and the smell of the empanadas and people lining up and talking about it I just think it’s a great conversation for parents to have with their kids, and what’s great about Disney is it allows people to explore different ideas and cultures and most importantly that’s the mission of EPCOT, and that fits my brand really well.
DP: It does, it really is great to show people that there is more to theme park food than burgers and fries.  There are a lot of different offerings out there, and it seems like a nice fit.

AZ: It’s cool.  We had fun.

Teresa Echols: Well, I want to thank you for introducing haggis to me.
AZ: Oh, fantastic!
TE: I watched the Scotland show, and immediately got on our discussion boards,, to ask anyone if they had ever tried haggis.  Two weeks later I get haggis from Scotland.  It arrives from one of our listeners.  It’s wonderful, but only one of my children tried it.
AZ: I love that.  Well, here’s the interesting thing.  Haggis is one of those foods… For those that don’t know, haggis is oatmeal and the pluck of a sheep or lamb ground up with spices and put inside a casing, often natural – meaning one of their organs, intestines or stomach is used, and it’s boiled.  Historically, it’s probably one of my favorite foods to talk about – because every country in the world has its own version of that dish.
In our ancient caveman days – we were in Spaceship Earth last night, and the very first diorama that you see is the 4 or 5 hunters with spears taking down the woolly mammoth.  When those hunters were successful with an animal, all the meat, all the skin, all the bones, were utilized for food, materials, clothing, crude weapons, cooking utensils… and the meat could be smoked or salted or simply dried in some fashion or left for a little while, you can let meat sit for a little while before you grill it – nothing’s going to happen to it, or roast it over your fire, or eat it raw.  However, the pluck of the animal, all the ‘naughty bits’ and the blood, you have to deal with that right away, and there are these natural casings right there as you’re cleaning the animal.  So without being too graphic – maybe that was too graphic – every country in the world who has people who are hunting are going to have to have a dish that deals with that.  I love that.
TE: What do you think of EPCOT, all the different foods from the countries, do you think it’s a good representation of what’s truly in those countries?
AZ: Absolutely.  Here’s the deal.  Just like my show, I’d love to educate and be “newsy” all the time, but I have to put my important messages in 80% of entertainment.  If you wanted to focus purely on the food, you’d have no customers.  Many restaurants outside of these gates, all around the world have gone bankrupt or insane trying to be as authentic as possible and trying to educate. Oftentimes you have to remember what we all do sometimes is a blending of art and commerce.  So the best thing that, for example, the Argentina booth can do is not present some arcane, indigenous tribal food – utilizing some small, little jungle rodent, even if that’s something that’s very popular down there, because, quite frankly, you’re going to have fewer people wanting to access that product.  What you do is sell them empanadas and have them go, ‘Wow, Argentina has some really cool food!’, and then the next part of the conversation is ‘well, you know what else they have…?’  Because then you have engaged people in the right way, and you can see people here at Walt Disney World fully engaged, fully turned on, all the time.  It’s like my kid last night in Spaceship Earth.  If you told him ‘honey, we’re going to take a walk through history, blah, blah… disconnect’, but you get in there and once you present material that engages them, you’re off to the races.  I think it’s fantastic.
DP: I think you’re exactly right.  That’s the really nice thing about Walt Disney World, with the Cast Members, if you can really engage them – especially here at EPCOT or in places like Animal Kingdom Lodge where you have the people from Africa, the people from the countries that are fixing the dishes, and ask them those questions ‘How authentic is this?’  You can start to hear their stories, and it’s amazing what you can learn.
AZ: Yeah, I agree.  I agree.
DP: Andrew, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us we really appreciate it.  Enjoy the rest of your visit.

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