Andrew Zimmern, a food writer, chef, James Beard Award-winning TV personality (Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World) is not only one of the most recognizable and knowledgeable personalities in the food world. He happens to be a Twin Cities resident—and an advocate of sustainability and food-access equality. Zimmern will be speaking at this weekend’s Kickapoo Country Fair in La Farge, Wisc. He recently chatted with METRO about his upcoming projects, the goal of changing American food production and how we can “eat our way to a better planet.”
METRO: You are speaking at the Kickapoo Country Fair in Wisconsin this weekend. Why did you choose to speak at Kickapoo, and what is your tie to the Organic Valley and cooperative movement?
Andrew Zimmern: What made me say yes right away to this is [that] the sociopolitical spirit that drives the association of co-ops is one that essentially is trying to improve the lot of small businesses and family farms in their area by creating a consortium rather than a diversity of individual sellers. For me, that is an extremely important local movement that needs to be very, very national. We are poisoning and destroying and killing our food system in this country [by] concentrating 80 percent of our food sources into the hands of four or five companies that have created speedy, effective delivery systems. They are literally killing our people, mostly children and vulnerable adults for whom a food-borne pathogen means more than a night around the toilet vomiting. It can lead to hospitalization and death.
My show, Bizarre Foods, does more to support the idea of sustainable eating and does more to support the local farmer than any other show on television. We celebrate the farmer, and sustainable systems and sustainable eating practices, something no one [else] is doing, in every single show we do. The confluence of those individual agendas, the Kickapoo festival and mine, seem to mesh. So I think why not go there, why not do a couple of demos, answer some questions, be funny, have a good time but at the same instant be able to talk about my messages, about diversifying the family diet, and cook a few interesting dishes.
How does this movement tie into your view of a proper agricultural system?
I want to see us return to a food system that would be something that my father would recognize when he was growing up, which is thousands of companies all across the country providing food for their communities, with a handful of companies that provide food for everyone at a much lower percentage. I’m not anti-supermarket, and I’m not anti-international food conglomerate. They both have their place, but those food conglomerates have taken over our country and its food system.
It seems that the movement towards sustainability and organics has grown a lot already and seems to be everywhere. One could play devil’s advocate and ask, why now? Why do we need to still push this when it seems so visible?
Because it’s not working! [It’s not working] until my neighbors are eating sustainably. That doesn’t just mean buying vegetables at a co-op. That means eating fish other than tuna, salmon and shrimp. That means eating meat other than pork, chicken and beef.
Have you ever heard this little fact: That if the government increased the minimum fuel mileage in America by 3.5 miles per gallon, we would not have to use foreign oil at all? If all the minimum miles-per-gallon ratings were raised, the cars would increase their efficiency across the board at an average of about 18 percent—because some big trucks only get 15 miles to the gallon, right? So if they raised it, which we’re fully capable of doing, we would cut our need [to import] foreign oil by about 16 percent, which is about the amount of oil we import from the Middle East. Just imagine what that would do to us geopolitically not to have to be in debt to that part of the world for buying oil. Well, it’s the same thing with eating goat and eating a mackerel. If you eat goat twice a month—delicious, fantastic meat, cook it a million different ways—and you eat a small little oily fish twice a month, like mackerel or rouget or trout or pordi, we would do more as a nation to release our jackboot from around the neck of these other foods.
The point is that the rest of our food system would slow down, and we would make our country so much more health[y]. We would do more to help the pressure on the fish stocks and actually mange them efficiently. I mean, we can eat our way to a better planet. The reason why I’m more passionate about it now is just that [in] so many parts of the food movement, everyone sits around in a circle masturbating each other, nodding their heads saying, “Look at what we’ve created, isn’t it fabulous?” but until middle urban America [and] inner-city families have access to food instead of buying their groceries at a gas station, it’s a failure. Access and distribution is what this is all about. So the more noise that I can create in that arena, the better.
Organic Valley seems to be an extremely successful cooperative.
Yes, they are. Absolutely.
Does location have anything to do with Kickapoo and with Organic Valley’s success? Where does the Midwest stand in this movement?
Absolutely. We can be a real leader because we have so few big cities around us. You can say what you want about Milwaukee and the Twin Cities, [but] those are very parochial, provincial cities of several million people, [and] those are the perfect [place to do this]. Wisconsin and Minnesota and Iowa and the Dakotas, the five-state upper Midwest region, is the perfect place to incubate these types of places. We have smart people, we have folks who are committed and I think we can prove to create efficient models for this.
Can you tell me more about your speech and the demonstrations you’ll be doing at Kickapoo? What will be your focus?
I’m going to talk about my travels and about food around the world to incorporate into our diet. I’m going to talk about the people who are eating just those elements, and tell some fun stories [from] on the road. I mean, I’m an entertainer not a politician. I’m going to do some questions and answers, I’m going to play a fun little game with my map and let people throw darts, and then I’m going to take a break for half an hour to sign some books. Then I will probably sit down and have a cup of coffee, and then I will do a food demo [where] I am going to make my famous Bangkok-style lemongrass chicken, and I’m going to make these tiny little beef rolls that I learned how to make at the Hotel Saigon in Ho Chi Minh City.
For those who can’t make it to Wisconsin for this festival, or to other big events supporting this food movement, what can they do individually to help out Organic Valley, this movement or Kickapoo in general?
I can’t speak for what [Kickapoo and Organic Valley] stand for but I can speak for Andrew Zimmern, and what my brand says about that. I would implore people, beg them, to devote what energies they can not [to] volunteering at the local co-op market, [but] instead to take half that time and put it towards a cause that increases distribution and awareness amongst the people who can afford it least. Eating well in our country has become a class issue. I have no problem eating well, and my son has no problem eating well. We make fresh vegetables every day. We have three vegetables, or two, in a salad at every meal, and then we have a healthy protein and that healthy protein is diverse: pork, goat, beef, lamb, dozens of types of fish, little mackerel, sardines, I mean anything that’s in season, we buy.
But the reason that we’re able to do that is because I’m in a very unique position. I make a good living so we can afford it, and my wife works as a volunteer in a couple businesses so she can be home when he comes back from school and be home to make a healthy dinner for the family. That is extremely rare. Most people are time-poor and cash-poor and they struggle. Eating well has become a class issue, so we need to help them figure out distribution and access. And then most importantly, for those that have some ability to improve their food lives: eat goat twice a month and eat a small, oily fish twice a month. The reason we do that [is that it] will spread out our choices and relieve some pressure off of these commodity factory farms producing chicken, pork and cow.
What projects are you working on now? Do you have a favorite or a special focus?
Right now I’m filming the new season of Bizarre Foods with the 100th episode coming up, which is a big deal in television. I have a few young-adult books for the 12-15 year old set coming up, including Brains, Bugs, and Blood Sausages to get them excited about eating and travel. I just sent another one to the publisher, Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods Yearbook. We have a new commerce initiative with the Open Sky website, where I curate a small bevy of products online through a group vendor. We also manage my website and 4.5 million touch experiences every month, and we are about to announce that we are becoming partners with a national food magazine.