For ‘Bizarre Foods’ chef and writer, it all began at his grandmother’s side.
Andrew Zimmern is perhaps most famous for hosting The Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,” in which the chef and writer tools around in search of the weirdest in worldwide gastronomy, from deep-fried piglet testicles in Iowa to grilled rat in Thailand. Also a writer and teacher, Zimmern has won three prestigious James Beard Awards for “Outstanding Food Personality” (2010), “Best TV program on location” (2012), and “Outstanding Personality/Host” (2013).
But before he began his career tasting, writing and talking about foods from around the world, Zimmern, a New York native, spent Saturdays eating traditional German and Hungarian Jewish dishes with his uncles and cousins in his grandmother’s tiny Upper West Side apartment.
“We never think, as children, or as adults, that we should ‘pay attention’ to the big, informative moments,” he told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “We don’t realize it when they’re happening. Life doesn’t work that way. But when you look in the rear view mirror, as I often do, things make sense.”
Some of these big, important moments would happen for Zimmern in his grandmother’s kitchen. Zimmern’s parents, who were divorced, handed him over without actually having to see each other. His father would drop him off at his grandmother’s apartment, where he would be collected later by his mother.
But it was there, beginning when he was age 3, that his grandmother would perch him on a stool in her kitchen. And there he would sit, watching her cook. She didn’t say much, but she was, in his words, a force of nature. He’d watch her, mesmerized, as she puttered around her postage stamp of a kitchen, churning out great feasts for the family. By age 10, he could cook at least half of her repertoire by himself, having watched her prepare it so many times. Soon, as a teenager, he would spend his summers cooking in restaurants all over Long Island.
Particular favorite dishes made by his grandmother were kishkes stuffed into the necks of turkeys, chickens and ducks instead of traditional sausage casing; brisket, roast chicken; chopped chicken liver and poached tongue with sweet and sour sauce.
“I absolutely love tongue — and really, there’s nothing that odd about it — but still, people sometimes relate my early exposure to it to my chosen career path,” Zimmern said.
“Everyone would congregate in her apartment—my uncle would even come in from Connecticut at my grandmother’s insistence. She claimed it was because she wanted everyone to be together, but really, I think she wanted to make sure we all got fed at least one great meal each week.”
As dish after dish would come out of the kitchen for the family to devour, it wasn’t just food that was presented — with every platter, there was a story that went with it.
“Everything she brought out, it was ‘this was your Aunt Sally’s pickled beet recipe,’ or ‘this is something the family cooked in Hungary for people they took in during the war.’ My great-great-great-great grandparents were butchers, so there were always stories about whatever oxtail or tongue or scrap of meat they would take home from the shop and cook.”
The stories have stayed with him, as has the idea that food is a form of storytelling. “What I really got was, food is great,” said Zimmern. “Food with a story is better. Food with a story people haven’t heard of is even better.” As he travels all over the world on “Bizarre Foods,” learning and tasting and cooking his way, continent by continent, it is the stories behind the food that he’s after.
When he’s home, the dish of his grandmother’s that comes to mind the most for Zimmern is a very simple one and it takes almost no time to prepare if one has the ingredients on hand.
“It was her go-to emergency appetizer, and it’s still my middle-of-the-night snack when I can’t sleep. She’d take a biscuit cutter and cut round slices out of challah. Then she’d put a thick shmear of chicken fat on top, and top it with an anchovy—the kind that comes wrapped around a caper.”
Henriette Zimmern’s Anchovy Challah Rounds
6 1-inch thick slices of challah
6 tsp. rendered chicken fat (schmaltz)
1 can of anchovies (the kind rolled with capers in olive oil—leave the capers intact)
Use a 2-inch biscuit cutter to cut rounds of challah out. Cut as many as possible.
Smear each challah round with about ½ tsp. schmaltz.
Top each schmaltzed challah round with an anchovy-caper coil. Serve immediately.