I know I have come off sounding like a cheerleader lately about Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.  But the South Korea episode is coming up.  I worked really hard on it, as did my wife and friends.  And these behind-the-scenes posts have been a long time in the making, scheduled to come up near the premiere of the episode.

Even if I wasn’t involved with that episode of the show, I’d still post this reply to a Village Voice blog post slamming the show called Seven Reasons Why I Hate Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. The complaints fell generally in the theme of his manners (attire, chewing with mouth open) and a perception that he’s offending his hosts by saying their food is weird.

For background’s sake, I was a director at a local TV station and producer for a nationally-syndicated radio talk show before coming to Korea.  I know a little bit about the business.  Not a lot, but I’ve had exposure.  A show like Bizarre Foods doesn’t spend its money to go all the way around the world to barge into people’s homes to insult them.  A lot of work goes into planning each bit, and much of the show is already researched, scripted out, and, in some instances, staged when it goes before the cameras.  The producers don’t go to a country saying, “We want to come try your wonderful food,” and do a surprise GOTCHA by saying some grandmother’s soup smells foul.

Actually, in many cases, they’re expecting Andrew to do that and get a kick out of it.  For comparisons sake, check out the domestic shows they did, like Minnesota, Maine and the Gulf Coast.  The locals know that it’s considered weird, and they get a kick out of showing it off.  They’re not offended when Andrew says the food they’re showing them is strange.  That was the purpose of making the food or taking him to the restaurant in the first place.  Colorado cowboys don’t get offended when someone tells them Rocky Mountain oysters are gross.  They know they are.  That’s part of the fun.  It’s pretty much the same with the other cultures outside the U.S. that the show highlights.  To claim that it’s okay to ogle at bull’s testicles in America but treat other cultures like they’re sensitive children reeks of cultural chauvinism.

The show compensates for all the food eaten–sorry to burst that little bubble that poor folks are giving Zimmern they’re month’s supply of nourishment.  They get paid.

When the Bizarre Foods producers contacted us, my wife, my friends and I had a great time challenging them in finding the foods that would most startle squeamish American audiences.  It was a point of pride.  As opposed to what some people believe, a good many of the “stranger” foods on the show are considered strange by the locals too.

In Korea, fermented skate is a “dare” food, as is live octopus.  Most Koreans I know have not the stomach for cheonggukjang jjigae (the stinky soybean soup).  My old friend Sue introduced me to fermented skate, and she’s a bit of a fan of it.  When I talked to her after she did the shoot with Andrew, she thought his revolted reaction to the skate hilarious.  She was far from offended.  She was actually surprised that he liked other stuff as much as he did.

It’s not offensive to say it’s weird.  The locals know it is, and some of them wouldn’t even touch some of the foods themselves.  What is offensive is to say it’s weird without even trying it.  You gotta give it to Andrew.  He does at least try everything that’s presented to him.  And even if he doesn’t like it, he continues eating it, hoping he’ll learn to like it.  He actually wants to like these foods, which is commendable.  He told me that he has tried durian multiple times even though he still just can’t understand it (I love the stuff).

The Village Voice blogger used as proof Andrew’s reaction to the smell when a multi-generational master of funazushi, the precursor to modern Japanese sushi that actually originated in Southeast Asia, opened a barrel of fish and rice that had been fermenting for five years.  Andrew reacted like many people would.  The blogger claimed that the proprieter looked embarrassed.  I bought the episode on iTunes and looked at it over and over again.

Not seeing the embarrassment.

Actually, he seemed to be laughing along.  Andrew followed his initial reaction by explaining that the smell came from the rice and still asked more questions because he was fascinated more than disgusted.  And he repeated how honored he was.  When he ate the final product with his young Japanese guide, who himself had never tried it before, he said it was “foul,” but it was also refined and historical.  Even though it wasn’t for his tastebuds, he respected it, and he told the viewers how it demanded respect.

So, nope, not seeing the disrespect there.  It looks like more proof that people insert their own prejudices into what they view and come away seeing an entirely different scene.

Okay, what else to we have?  He chews with his mouth open.  Meh, I’ll give one that.  Chewing with the mouth closed is a Victorian concept that hasn’t really hit this side of the world.  Blowing your nose at the table or getting a grain of rice in the communal soup bowl is much more offensive.

The loud clothes?  Oh, and I’m sure we’re now going to go after Mario Batali for wearing orange clogs everywhere he goes.  That’s his look.  If you haven’t noticed, he seems to wear the same clothes in each episode like a uniform.  It’s his “brand.”

Some people say he comes off as fake, especially when compared to Anthony Bourdain (my idol).  Again, branding.  You know, other people think of Bourdain’s swagger as being fake.  In both cases, it’s just part of the characters they play on camera.  Writers do that too.  It’s called your “voice.”

Again, meh.  There are really bigger things to get riled up about.

Oh, of course the white supremacist rednecks don’t like Zimmern for a certain aspect of his background (careful opening that link in public).

**NOTE: I removed the link to that forum because of a possible security issue.  If you want to take the risk the link is this: http://www.stormfront.org/forum/showthread.php?t=584325

I think the biggest factor that gets in viewers’ craws about this show is its premise.  It’s called “Bizarre Foods.” Ten years ago, the Food Network ran a short-lived series called “Extreme Cuisine.” Actually, it looks like it’ll be revived with Jeff Corwin as host.  Anyone with any savvy about how media works knows that the name is mainly there to attract eyeballs.  They get the people there who want to be shocked.  Yet they come away a little more exposed to what’s out there in the world.

A comment I came across recently was how pedestrian it was these days to see someone eat bugs.  That says a lot.  Ten years ago, it shocked Americans to see people eat bugs, snakes and mammals other than cows, pigs and the occasional lamb*.  Twenty years ago it was still considered revolting to non-urban America the idea of raw fish or a cooked fish with its head still on.  Thirty years ago cheese with any stink to it was a pariah.

Yet it was our exposure to the treasures of the world that shocked us at first but also increased our curiosity.  Remember when Bender was disgusted at Claire for eating sushi in The Breakfast Club?

We’ve come a long way since then.  We still have a long way to go.

Who knows what food hang ups we have right now that will die away twenty years from now?  Shows like Bizarre Foods will be considered quaint.  How many shows out there encourage people to try new foods with the slogan, “If it looks good, eat it.”

* Don’t you think it’s strange that we mainly only limit ourselves to three mammals?  And the consequences of raising and consuming them in such large quantities?

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