Andrew Zimmern Seeks Bizarre Food in Kinston, NC


Andrew Zimmern is known for trotting the globe in search of the world’s most Bizarre Foods, however, his mission is much more than uncovering strange cuisine. He considers himself a food historian charged with the task of celebrating the international nooks and crannies where food traditions are well-kept. A few days before he and Vivian faced off in the “Best Personality/Host” category of the James Beard Awards, he visited Kinston for his first taste of Tom Thumb and a conversation about the good people and great grub that makes ‘downeast’ North Carolina such a well-preserved and underexplored food paradise.

Q: Seems like most Bizarre Food episodes are international and you do domestic episodes occasionally, so why Kinston and generally, why North Carolina?

AZ: We’ve been on 11 years or something ridiculous like that now and are approaching 300 episodes. We’ve done so many shows and we can keep doing another thousand of them, it’s just that the limitations in America are real. Out in the rest of the world, we can do another 30 shows in Mexico and another 40 in China if you really got right down to it. In America, so many of the food styles are very broad-grooming and inclusive. They’re not as tightly defined because of the age of our country--young--and the number of shared traditions. Just think throughout the South how many foods are similar. There’s only so long an audience will take a look at all that. The issue that we have and one of the reasons we wanted to come here is because this corner of [North Carolina] is underserved, underrepresented, and undervalued. The minute I see that, I start to ask why, and I start to dig around to understand that there’s an economics issue, there’s a class issue, there’s a race issue. You have so many things that are going on that have created this situation. You have the glamour crop of tobacco being taken away, so you have the economic slump. But, at the same time, as a researcher and a historian, the moment I see that, it tells me that’s where I wanna go.

It’s like an island. I always tell my staff, look for islands--I’m talking literally, islands--then you look for ones that are figurative islands. This part of the state exists as an island, in a way. The tourism board, you know, of the state, doesn’t even promote it very heavily--yet. Objectively when I look at it, and I’m no slouch, the most fascinating people are here. There are traditions here you don’t have to uncover, there’s not too much rubble on top of them. You can see them alive and well. There are so many different things in this part of the state that are unique and obvious to me. Look, it’s not that I don’t like Charlotte, it’s that you have to uncover a lot of stuff to find genuineness there. It’s the same thing in all big cities and Charlotte has become a big city. But, everything that’s east of Raleigh/Durham and south of that dividing line in this little corner of the state, to me is storytelling magic. And the stories we try to highlight are fascinating with interesting people who have a lot to say about the culture.

Q: So would you say “Bizarre” is also based on a particular way food and food traditions are preserved?

AZ: We use the Webster’s definition. I think it’s definition #2: “unique and interesting.” We started out year one with “weird,” and I used that as a hook to try and sell the show to the network. Once the show became popular, I had a little more leverage, so I spent the last nine years fighting with everyone to make the show I wanted to make. It’s interesting, Vivian and I were talking and, with public television, you get to submit the show the way you make it. They’ll send back a note or two, but you guys make the show as you like. I have to fight the network and the production company every single day to get the show made that I want to make. Now, within that struggle, there’s an artistic process that goes on that makes our show better, but it's a different kind of process and a different starting point. When we think about research, I look to things like tribes---and that tribe could be literal like the Himba in Namibia or the motorcycle club culture in Hyderabad, India which is very profound. They like to drive great distances and go eat [at different] places. There’s certain cultural totems that allow me to work with researchers to find stories that work for me and for our show. Unexplored pieces of waterfront oftentimes yield fantastic, crazy foods and stories, little lonely stretches of water that nobody is working but ‘this guy.’ So we get to tell that story. Over a lifetime spent in this business, I’ve kind of figured out the first places to dive in with just a few research tips and clues. Then, you’ve got the stories themselves which speak to interpreting culture through food. I use food as the glass through which I do this.

Q: So, how did you become familiar with Tom Thumb?

AZ: It’s so funny because Tom Thumb comes in many forms in the South and is showcased through some of the stories and memes and patterns that repeat and echo through our culture food-wise. You dry cure this one and in Virginia, they smoke it before cooking it and call it Dan Doodle. So there’s a hundred different versions of this, but those are just two from two states that border each other that are remarkably different. This type of stuff really excites me. And when you find a person you want to work with, you see a story, you locate a place, and then it’s actually getting on the phone and talking to those people. My staff talks to Vivian’s like, “What do you want to do, what’s interesting to you, what tells stories to you?” We fell on this and it worked like a charm.

Q: Just a fun question, what do you think about going head-to-head with Vivian for the James Beard “Best Host” Award?

AZ: Yeah, she’s gonna win. I thought in years past she would’ve won and I mean this in all sincerity. I’ve been very lucky and I’ve had ten nominations in all different categories and I’ve won three Beard Awards and I’m very, very happy with where I am. I don’t need another Beard Award. I happen to think that recognizing new people in our industry that are doing amazing things is really important. Look, there’s only three or four people out of a hundred in food television that I think are worth watching. Vivian is one of them. So, personally, that’s where I stand. I only watch two or three food shows. [A CHEF’S LIFE] is one of them because it’s one of the only ones that is intelligent and interesting and still entertains me. At the end of the day, tv needs to be entertaining, it’s an entertaining medium. It doesn’t mean I don’t like watching a documentary once in a while on Netflix because the way we watch and digest media is different. I’m 54 years old. I still have that liberal, left-leaning East Coast, PBS bias to everything. She’s a really compelling character. I like it when she comes on the screen. I want to tune in each week to follow her and I think that needs to be rewarded somehow, and I think a Beard Award would be fantastic.

Follow Andrew Zimmern on Twitter @AndrewZimmern

Top left image courtesy of Travel Channel