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Local Tastes With a Bizarre Twist

By Sarah McCartan

The last time that celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern visited the Florida Panhandle he was filming an episode of his Travel Channel hit series, “Bizarre Foods,” and found himself sampling grouper throats at the Fish House, and demystifying mullet roe and gizzards at Chet’s Seafood. This time he returns for something a bit less bizarre, yet equally enticing—the tastes of the beach.

Presented by the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce, Taste of the Beach returns Sept. 14 and 15. This two-day festival is packed with fresh, local seafood, live music, and family fun. The event brings together more than 20 local restaurants that will be serving up their signature dishes a la carte for festival patrons to indulge upon throughout the weekend.

This year’s event also includes both a dessert contest, and celebrity chef demonstration, which is where Zimmern comes into the picture. Not only will he be signing autographs and providing an up-close and personal cooking demonstration featuring local seafood, he will also be serving as a celebrity judge for the dessert showdown. Let’s see how the work of local confectioners can stack up against his Aunt Suzanne’s famous Caramel Pecan bars.

From shooting a fruit bat out of the sky in Samoa, and eating it of course, to more recently, drinking cow urine in Goa, Zimmern has been traveling the world digesting one bizarre food after another—more than 63 countries worth. Although he is currently intermixing filming shows set at home with his bizarre travels abroad, Zimmern’s latest off-shoot series, “Bizarre Foods America” includes 40 to 50 episodes shot exclusively in the states. Through this recent trek across his home turf, Zimmern has been able to showcase compelling stories he felt were being largely ignored.

Between constantly filming, making special appearances, launching his food truck “AZ Canteen,” and writing books as of late, on top of his ongoing service as senior editor at Delta’s Sky Magazine and contributing editor at Food & Wine magazine, it’s amazing that this “Epicurean Anthropologist” hasn’t resorted to cloning himself by now.

The man is on such high demand in the food world, it’s shocking he even has a minute to sleep, much less be interviewed. Thankfully, the IN managed to squeeze in just a few minutes with Zimmern to chat about his upcoming trip to Pensacola, his latest bizarre food experiences, and the future of food in America.

IN: What kind of cooking demonstration will you be doing at Taste of the Beach?
ZIMMERN: I will be doing something great [with whole head on shrimp]. It’s something with corn and shrimp that I really love.

IN: As far as the dessert competition goes, what makes a dessert worth biting into?
ZIMMERN: Down in Florida there are some great sweets makers. I like local, fresh and simple.

IN: Any memorable seafood dishes that you’ve tried that the Gulf Coast has yet to top?
ZIMMERN: What’s coming out of the Gulf is incredible—they just need more customers. I think America needs to have a keener appreciation for it. I think the problem is the American consumer is still eating from a narrow range of foods. I’m not down there for very long—just for the day—but I can’t wait to eat the local seafood.

IN: Tonight’s “Bizzare Foods America” episode is set in St. Louis. Tell me about this legendary “brain sandwich” you tried. How bizarre was it?
ZIMMERN: When it comes to brains—freshness counts. The story was about a disappearing trend in St. Louis. Like many cities around the country that used to have a large presence of meat processing facilities during turn of the century America, snacks for factory workers were brain sandwiches. It became a bar and tavern food specialty when these processing plants went away. There’s only one bar left in St. Louis that serves them. The brain sandwich was just terrible. It was frozen, breaded, and fried.

IN: Although “Bizarre Foods” is touted as an entertainment program, you’ve noted that the show acts as a lens through which to view other cultures. Are these learning lessons for America?
ZIMMERN: I really think that if you have a platform like mine and you waste it on mind-numbing glop, you are doing everyone a disservice. My passion lies in changing the way we eat and look at food in America both as a way of how we get along with each other, and diet, wellness and the planet. I’ve been very keen on that issue. Every single week we do a story with some positive messaging about food life in this country.

IN: Are you seeing a positive shift in America’s food culture?
ZIMMERN: I really do see light on the horizon. When you have the first lady of the U.S. and her [“Let’s Move”] campaign, and public schools looking at school lunches—we’ve done great awareness. We still need to decentralize and have 100 percent transparency with labeling of food products. I am most concerned with fake food and overly sugared foods that are dealt out to children like gambling chips at a casino. There seems to be no awareness that these are huge health risks.

IN: Speaking of health, do you worry about your own health when it comes to the bizarre food you ingest on you show?
ZIMMERN: No. No flesh-eating viruses, so, so far so good. If I was worried about it too much—I don’t think I would do what I do.

IN: Have you tried any especially memorable or bizarre vegetarian or vegan food dishes?
ZIMMERN: I have a huge issue with that topic. We go meatless on Mondays at our house and I will sometimes go a couple of days [depending on what’s available wherever I am] and it doesn’t faze me at all. The world of cooking is broad, roomy and inclusive. What we try to do instead of cooking a great meal made up of great food, is make fake dishes. I don’t want to eat a fake chicken nugget. Why can’t I eat vegetables? Americans aren’t educated enough on how to cook these [real foods] and cooking them takes time. Getting back to eating well is a class issue in America and it’s a very complex problem. We need to return to a place in time where we spend time cooking and eating with each other—that investment will trickle down to take care of societal ills. I am not arguing for a utopian state but we’ve sped things up, and it’s sucked a lot of the love out of our lives.

IN: What’s the single greatest takeaway from your food journey?
ZIMMERN: The single greatest takeaway is that it’s never about the food—it’s about the people. The world is getting flatter and flatter and the degree to which we can celebrate the things we have in common and stop the discourse about the things that separate us the better off we are. That is what I try to do with my show.

For the latest on Andrew Zimmern and his bizarre food journeys, visit andrewzimmern.com.

TASTE OF THE BEACH
WHEN: 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14;
11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15
WHERE: Gulfside Pavilion, Casino Beach Blvd., Pensacola Beach
COST: Free
DETAILS: tasteofpensacolabeach.com

ANDREW ZIMMERN APPEARANCES
Saturday Sept. 14
Cooking Demonstration: 1 p.m. – 1:45 p.m.
Q&A: 1:45 p.m. – 2 p.m.
Meet and Greet: 2 – 3 p.m.
How Sweet IT is Dessert Contest: 3 – 4 p.m.