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Andrew Zimmern Talks Food’s Role in Culture

Chef and food activist Andrew Zimmern speaks about the role of hunger in culture during a Westminster Town Hall Forum in Minneapolis last month.

Andrew Zimmern has reinvented himself several times since his days in NYC when he had to sprinkle pilfered Comet around the pile of clothes he was sleeping on so the rats would stay away. His latest reinvention was at the Westminster Town Hall Forum as a thought leader on food, culture and community.

After “milking” the crowd for applause, an animated Zimmern turned serious, telling the packed house at the downtown Minneapolis Westminster Presbyterian Church he felt humbled to address the same forum as famed journalist Carl Bernstein, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and vice presidents of the United States. The forum was simulcast on MPR and moderated by Tim Hart-Andersen, senior pastor. 

Zimmern shared just the highlights of his journey from low-level alcoholic and drug user in NYC to Minnesota’s Hazelden to host of TV’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.” After leaving the addiction treatment center, Zimmern worked his way from dishwasher to chef of the famed Café Un Deux Trois in Minneapolis (It closed in 2003, after an 11-year run.). “I was at Un Deux Trois and wanted a bigger platform,” he said. “I had a huge ego and no self-esteem so the answer was TV.”

His pitch to the TV producers wasn’t unique per se: Telling stories about culture through food. “My twist was stories people hadn’t heard,” he said. That twist has taken him to tribal cultures and non-touristy locales. 

The “bizarre food” angle is to keep the sponsors happy, but Zimmern says he views the show as a way of “teaching patience and understanding to people who need their eyes opened.” As unique as food is to each culture, it’s a common thread that ties together all people. “I think we should celebrate what we have in common—like food—and not concentrate too much on our differences,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the question he gets asked the most is, “How can I eat some of the food I eat?” His answer: “I’d rather be a good guest than a snotty TV host.” Through his travels for the show, Zimmern has seen the “generosity of the poor.” One fisherman fed the host and crew a dish made with the fins and head of the fish he had just caught, so that he could sell the body of the fish to feed his 10 children and two wives. 

During one meal, Zimmern saw the wife go to a corner of the hut and dig up a tin that was buried. It turned out to be 10-year-old instant coffee hidden away for special occasions. The result was a cup of weak coffee that was more endearing than delicious.

In his role as honorary chairman of Minnesota Foodshare’s annual campaign to raise awareness of food needs of Minnesotans, Zimmern talked about the role of hunger in culture. 

In tribal cultures food is difficult to obtain. “We forget they have to hunt or gather at night for breakfast,” he said, and then repeat the exercise for the next two meals. We no longer hunt and gather for every meal, and yet one-in-eight Minnesotans go to bed hungry, seven of whom are children, he said. It’s unacceptable that both spouses hold down jobs and yet can’t put food the table. 

“It’s a hungry planet,” he said. “We need to figure out how to feed [the world]. We’re running out of land.” 

Zimmern on the Twin Cities Culinary Scene

During the Q&A session, Andrew Zimmern commented on the changed restaurant industry in what used to be “fly-over country”:

23 years ago razor clams wouldn’t sell here. Now chefs bring them in and with high demand can’t keep them on the menu;

While the Twin Cities once mimicked chefs in NYC and L.A., now those chefs are copying us. He laughed about coastal chefs, saying, “Look what we do. We make our own jams and jellies.”

20 years ago, bacon was breakfast meat, then it became the star in recipes for dinner entrées, and now chefs make their own bacon. 

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