In Defense of Bizarre Foods

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?

Previous

Bizarre Foods: Korea — Videos Posted

Behind-the-scenes with Bizarre Foods #3: Noryangjin Fish Market

Next

8 thoughts on “In Defense of Bizarre Foods”

  1. Colorado cowboys do get offended if you say Rocky mountain oysters are gross.
    Out here in N.E Colorado we take RMO’s serious.
    In my restaurant we serve over 5000 lbs a year.
    In a town of 400 that is impressive. Out here oyster are not a novelty they are a staple.

    Reply
  2. I’ve seen Bizarre Foods: Korea already. It’s available using the “on demand” feature on Verizon FiOS (Virginia, US).

    Good episode. Much better than when Tony Bourdain went to Korea. I’m a huge Bourdain fan, but his Korea episode was probably his worst.

    I’ve been reading your site for about a year now. Good stuff. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  3. The stormfront forum plants trojans in your system that pop up fake anti-virus ads. I don’t know if that’s a site feature added by the admins to generate funds or some well-meaning hacker’s way of fleecing the bigots, but it majorly sucks.

    Reply
  4. Thanks for this post. I’m a little late on reading it, but figured it might be worth it for you to hear I was really glad to hear some insider info on the show/Andrew. I really like the show and as such have always had trouble understanding other people’s distaste for Bizarre Foods. Really illuminating post and thanks for eloquently dismembering the Voice’s shoddy arguments.

    PS: I also like No Reservations quite a bit and absolutely adore the back to back of the shows, but I have always had trouble reconciling which “voice” of Anthony’s I’m supposed to really believe. Is it his cool confident on screen swagger or is it the incredibly cheesy/geeky voice over we hear in between?

    Reply
    • Thank you. I’ve been a fan of Bourdain since the first season of “A Cook’s Tour” back in the day–like when he had brown hair. He was a lot cockier then, and I see the voices as the young cynical Tony battling with the older “the world ain’t so bad” Tony.

      Reply
  5. Thanks for publishing this! I was actually googling some of the “bizarre” foods in the episode to look for at my local Asian market when I came across your blog. 🙂 A great example of the locals pulling the wool over Andrew’s eyes with foods EVEN they think are weird is the Ethiopian episode- the women during the coffee ceremony can’t even contain themselves when they offer Andrew the coffee with salt in it and later, the coffee with the unpasteurized butter in it… They don’t even drink it themselves, they just knew that some people did and they thought it was a bit crazy… LoL

    Reply
  6. Wow! I can’t believe I get to come across this post now.

    I actually have a problem with the Bizarre Foods episode in “Korea”.
    He didn’t spend much time focusing on the background context or story about the type of food. He went around looking at street foods and dozens of restaurants and had little more than one bite, and jittering like he knew everything about the particular foods or he could telepathically infer all the knowledge about the food in one glance. Basically the whole perspective and direction was a complete letdown. And yes I am pointing fingers at the food “expert” bloggers.

    Really, really? when there is such massive food culture/ restaurant culture in korea, they didn’t go into the culture of the food or the people, and not even how the people interact with food in Korea at all!! Especially when it’s so awfully glaring, this episode dedicated to korea is really a slap in the face and a dismissal of real korean food culture.
    u guys basically went around shabby huts of restaurants, and had “rare” but pretty meaning-devoid presentations of dishes that for some weren’t even eaten that widely (cough, the blowfish, cough and the turtle), (you basically made a huge part of the Korean episode a knockoff of the Japan one).
    (i forgot to mention you made the fu*king tabletop eel the finale)

    even in the the Uganda and the Kalahari episodes Andrew spends so much time explaining the dish, getting the opinion/perspective of the people, basically gushing over himself trying to describe and transmit the experience and taste of the food. this is where they’re basically eating and hunting different proteins all basically cooked in the same way. But each freakin mashed tuber and roasted goat tripe came out like it was the most unique and meaningful dish in the world, Korea did not get even 10 PERCENT of the attention they put on the food in the bush of the Kalahari. Compared to the episodes in Kalahari, Uganda, Japan, China, Phillipines, etc. the episode in Korea was a victim of negligence and a huge disappointment.

    Oh yeah. my favorite part was went the spent 5-10 minutes on 5 bowls of chigaes on one restaurant table and basically taking a side shot the whole time. And making small talk comments like “oh yeah this one is pretty good” “yeah this coagulated blood soup and knee joint is nice and perfectly typical.” *pushing around transculent foodstuff*, ” Is it time for the next mediocre restaurant now?”

    How indifferent can you seriously be? To a new different type of dish. But also to the country’s food that your’re experiencing and showcasing?
    the host’s, the cameramen, the producers, the guides/bloggers completely failed in showcasing korean food culture, and the immense world that korean food has to offer. you just stayed in your own small little bowl and had your own merry little time producing nothing but marginal and boring shots of unrepresentative korean culture and food.

    you bloggers, specifically, put one over korea. you basically gave the overwhelming mediocre image that was projected from that episode in Korea.

    sidenote: No Reservations Korea undertaking was not very widespread, or very good either, but it was decades better and even more accurately bizarre than the Bizzare food’s undertaking.

    Reply
  7. Wow! I can’t believe I get to come across this post now.

    I actually have a problem with the Bizarre Foods episode in “Korea”.
    He didn’t spend much time focusing on the background context or story about the type of food. He went around looking at street foods and dozens of restaurants and had little more than one bite, and jittering like he knew everything about the particular foods or he could telepathically infer all the knowledge about the food in one glance. Basically the whole perspective and direction was a complete letdown. And yes I am pointing fingers at the food “expert” bloggers.

    Really, really? when there is such massive food culture/ restaurant culture in korea, they didn’t go into the culture of the food or the people, and not even how the people interact with food in Korea at all!! Especially when it’s so awfully glaring, this episode dedicated to korea is really a slap in the face and a dismissal of real korean food culture.
    u guys basically went around shabby huts of restaurants, and had “rare” but pretty meaning-devoid presentations of dishes that for some weren’t even eaten that widely (cough, the blowfish, cough and the turtle), (you basically made a huge part of the Korean episode a knockoff of the Japan one).
    (i forgot to mention you made the fu*king tabletop eel the finale)

    even in the the Uganda and the Kalahari episodes Andrew spends so much time explaining the dish, getting the opinion/perspective of the people, basically gushing over himself trying to describe and transmit the experience and taste of the food. this is where they’re basically eating and hunting different proteins all basically cooked in the same way. But each freakin mashed tuber and roasted goat tripe came out like it was the most unique and meaningful dish in the world, Korea did not get even 10 PERCENT of the attention they put on the food in the bush of the Kalahari. Compared to the episodes in Kalahari, Uganda, Japan, China, Phillipines, etc. the episode in Korea was a victim of negligence and a huge disappointment.

    Oh yeah. my favorite part was went the spent 5-10 minutes on 5 bowls of chigaes on one restaurant table and basically taking a side shot the whole time. And making small talk comments like “oh yeah this one is pretty good” “yeah this coagulated blood soup and knee joint is nice and perfectly typical.” *pushing around transculent foodstuff*, ” Is it time for the next mediocre restaurant now?”

    How indifferent can you seriously be? To a new different type of dish. But also to the country’s food that your’re experiencing and showcasing?
    the host’s, the cameramen, the producers, the guides/bloggers completely failed in showcasing korean food culture, and the immense world that korean food has to offer. you just stayed in your own small little bowl and had your own merry little time producing nothing but marginal and boring shots of unrepresentative korean culture and food.

    you bloggers, specifically, put one over korea. you basically gave the overwhelming mediocre image that was projected from that episode in Korea.

    sidenote: No Reservations Korea undertaking was not very widespread, or very good either, but it was decades better and even more accurately bizarre than the Bizzare food’s undertaking.

    Reply

Leave a (somewhat civilized) Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: