WASHINGTON -- Here's the thing about bizarre foods, says Andrew Zimmern, a former chef who has made a franchise out of dining on unimaginables such as cow vein stew, donkey skin and freeze-dried rotten potatoes.
"One man's weird is another man's wonderful," he says. "Just try explaining individually wrapped Kraft cheese singles to an African desert nomad."
Sitting at a front table in a cozy wood-paneled classic French restaurant here, the host of Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern presses a forkful of calves brains to his lips and considers. He has just returned from Samoa, where he foraged for grubs on a deserted island while filming a segment for the second season of his Travel Channel show.
As he eats, he relates some of the spicier bits in that matter-of-fact way you'd mention a trip to the mall or a day on the golf course.
He was with some Samoans roasting bats over an open fire, he says. They're hunkered over the flames, tearing at 5-pound bats with their teeth. It's visceral and gritty, and they're using leaves for plates. And the guy next to him turns and says, "I'm surprised you're doing your show here. We really don't eat that many weird foods down here."
So you see, weird is relative.
Which isn't to say some foods aren't stranger than others, even to a connoisseur of odd. For instance, hakari — rotten shark. It's an Icelandic treat that Zimmern puts in the "putrefied" food group.
Then there's the natural-but-incredibly stinky group, whose crown jewel is durian, the Asian fruit so smelly it's banned in good hotels. And the conjured-up food group, such as moose nose jelly, a sort of head cheese favored by the Northern Exposure set.
In Washington recently for an adventure travel show, Zimmern, 46, is scanning the menu at La Chaumière and spots shad roe — fish egg sacs that are a seasonal delicacy. His face lights up. "It's my favorite thing in the whole world!" he exclaims.
Perhaps. Or maybe Zimmern is merely a culinary chameleon, craving fried sparrows when in Vietnam, or cow penis soup in Bolivia, or even "tater tot hot dish" (green beans, mushroom soup and potatoes) at home in Minneapolis. Wherever and whatever he's eating, though, he insists the gross-out factor isn't the driving force.
"I've eaten a bug in, maybe, five shows," he says, a tad defensively. "And I'm doing it with people who normally eat those things in the places where they eat those things. I'm not a thrill junkie, and I'm not doing Fear Factor."
Indeed, Zimmern envisioned Bizarre Foods as a window into local culture. "I want to tell these great stories about food and take people into the back of the souk in Morocco where they're eating a whole roasted lamb. Or to the conch fisherman in Tobago, who may be the last of his kind."
Or to Mississippi, where he dined on raccoon and possum. "People said, 'That's roadkill!' No it's not. It's a cultural story."
But the most talked-about incident from the first season — and the one that landed him on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno— didn't contain a morsel of food. Zimmern was filmed in a session with an Incan witch doctor in Ecuador who blew fire on him, spat on him, thrashed him with poisonous branches and beat him with a live guinea pig until it died (though that part was edited out). He tells the story by way of saying he's more of an adventure/culture guy than a weird-food guy. Food just happens to be the means to an end.
Zimmern is a big man with a head as smooth and round as a bowling ball and a constitution that must be equally solid. He was never a picky eater, even as a child traveling the world with his family in the days before kids' menus. For instance, he remembers enjoying cuttlefish in its own ink as a child visiting Venice. After graduating from Vassar, he became a chef and landed at Café Un Deux Trois in Minneapolis. He then went on to write about food for a variety of publications.
Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern premiered in 2007 and is gaining a wider fan base in its second season, presumably as viewers tune in to see what he will eat next.
And what he's about to eat next is dessert: a flaky apple tart topped with a pouf of vanilla ice cream.
Zimmern frowns. "I don't like ice cream on apple tarts," he says.
His dinner companions register surprise, but he cuts them off.
"For God's sake. I've had a seal penis in my mouth! I'm allowed to hate something, aren't I?"