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Bizarre to some but delicious to others

Posted: November 29, 2008 9:13 p.m.
Updated: November 30, 2008 4:55 a.m.
 
Cow's urine tonic. Grilled cave bat. Raw camel with spice sauce. Donkey penis soup. Braised pig's tongue with hair moss. Barbecued bat. Roasted crickets. Flame-broiled guinea pig. Fried chicken uterus. Cup 'o fresh goat's blood. Cow vein stew. Crispy fried grasshoppers. Lamb eyeballs. Steamed wasp larvae. Duckling on a stick. Live beating frog heart. Sperm chowder. Snail caviar. Toasted tarantulas.

Mmm. Mmm. Mmm!

Doesn't that make your mouth water?

Well, if you're like me, maybe not so much. But if you're Andrew Zimmern - famous food writer, TV personality, chef and teacher who eats his way around the world hosting the Travel Channel's popular show "Bizarre Foods" - the answer is a resounding "Yes!"

Articulate, funny, somewhat beefy (he's a proud self-avowed food-a-holic) and intensely curious about the universe, the sophisticated New York native turned Minnesotan eagerly treks to all points global for his peculiar nosh-fests.

Among those destinations: Ethiopia, Sicily, Iceland, Russia, China, Malaysia, Ecuador, United Kingdom, France, Mexico, Bolivia, Morocco, India and some key culinary spots here in the United States.

While doing so, the affable show creator samples the most unique regional (and often perceived as grotesque) food he can find.

So why would any sane, digestive tract-selective person do that, you ask?

Because he loves it! Someone who clearly enjoys schmoozing and trying new things, Zimmern believes this style of breaking bread is a great way to learn about other cultures while breaking down barriers and forging new friendships.

Having been to several foreign nations myself, I appreciate that philosophy: Attitude is latitude, and there's so much to enjoy that is different from what we're used to.

Each hour-long "Bizarre Foods" episode is a tasty blend of entertainment: food, travel and sociological education, spectacular exotic photography and some very unusual animal habitats.

Most often, I'm captivated by these shows. In fact, I TiVo each one and usually watch them several times.

Admittedly, the "ewww" factor gets to be a bit much sometimes. Like when Zimmern's rapturously munching on dead crunchy crickets or knocking down skewered rodents (too much like Mickey Mouse on a stick for this Disney-ophile to stomach).

Same for when he's devouring some of his favorite animal parts: male sex organs (he tends to prefer the chewy cloven-hooved variety).

One memorable "Bizarre Foods" filmed in China featured Zimmern excitedly dining at a phallus-dishes-only restaurant. As his eyes rolled back in his head, he savored the "rich and minerally" testosterone-laden fare and exclaimed superlatives usually associated with ambrosia.

I suspect that episode gave many a male (and female) reason to squirm.

From scooping out succulent Amazonian tree trunk larvae to snaring Kiwi birds in New Zealand to sampling putrified shark in Iceland, Zimmern is a foodie with guts.

Excitedly swallowing things that would make most folks yak up their gastric linings, the bald-headed gastronome is always game for a hair-raising challenge, doing whatever it takes to catch the edibles where they live (understandably he has skilled guides helping him).

He also prepares the wild eats with locals, be it on an island, boat, frozen tundra, arid desert, out-of-the-way kitchen or jungle. As well, he'll cook alongside international chefs who specialize in their own indigenous delicacies, all the while discussing food and culture - and finding common ground to celebrate.

Zimmern drinks in the local culture with the same gusto he does the chow. You'll see him kibbitzing with villagers (many have never met an American prior to his arrival, let alone one who wears orange beanies and pink polo shirts), and participate in special rituals and spiritual ceremonies.

He's been blessed by shamans, pelted with medicated fronds to cure his foreign-borne colds, and merrily joined in dance by tribal members.

Himself a dad, he has affectionately played ball with kids in primitive communities; chased cave-dwelling fruit bats like they're butterflies; filleted huge fish caught in choppy far-off seas; and chewed the fat with open-air market sellers and culinary shop-keepers on just about every continent.

Apparently, "Bizarre Foods" (of which Zimmern is also producer) has a hearty expense account for creating these jet-setting shows. Given the economic stew our nation is in, many middle-income folks are not so flush.

Currently house-bound, many folks have decided that pricey foreign vacations must take a backseat to mortgages, medical insurance, kids' braces and gasoline. While detained on their davenports, families are looking to television for some added respite and mind travel.

Fortunately, anyone with an interest in cuisine, a vagabond in their soul and penchant for "Ripley's Believe It or Not"-type amusement can live it up though "Bizarre Foods."

A modern-day adventurer with passion for eating and melting cultural taboos, Zimmern is an ambassador of sorts, someone who's doing much good around the world.

While bringing global dining rooms to our dens, he also helps create new awareness and tolerance for other lifestyles and culinary customs.

People are people, after all. And what's bizarre to some is home-cookin' to others. Depending on where you live, how you live and what you have that's available for consumption, regional food preferences and acceptances are always going to vary.

The constant is that we all need to eat - and not look down on one another for having "unfamiliar" tastes.

Whether you sleep in a hut and eat hand-caught snakes or reside in a pricey Manhattan high-rise while paying big bucks for aesthetically prepared dead fish, it's all relative.

Who shall decide that aged Southern Italian cheese infested with succulent maggots is any less a delicacy than a compilation of chemicals and discarded animal parts compressed into an all-American hot dog?

Who will determine that barbecued Samoan boar is any less appetizing than our beloved flame-broiled cow burgers?

Who shall prove that protein-rich insects are not as palatable as fried pork rinds?

Who can say that sautéed bull testicles in Spain are less desirable than a steaming bowl of beaver in Maine?

OK, well maybe those two just cancel each other out.

Diana Sevanian is a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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