It’s Good to Be Bizarre
By Andrew Zimmern
Courtesy of Travel Channel
I guess for the rest of my life, the word “bizarre” will follow me along like the chains around Marley's neck.
I love that.
When I was young, I gravitated toward the edges of life. I sought out eccentricity and capricious behaviors and adored the unexpected. It was my most obnoxious trait. Unharnessed, my love of the unusual came off as pretension and staggeringly obvious attention-getting antics. I carried around the cane that went with my father‘s black tie and tails. I wore costumes. I sang Gilbert & Sullivan songs. I pretended to be other people. I was a crazy kid.
Then came college. My first class on my first day at Vassar was Art History 101. Mrs. Kuretsky walked into the room, the lights lowered, and a slide appeared on the screen: a 16th-century portrait of a young Flemish lady along with a handful of objects—a dog, a fruit bowl on a table, a window, and a chair.
Courtesy of Travel Channel
Mrs. Kuretsky asked us to write down what we saw and what it meant. We dashed down the obvious. Then we spent the next hour listening as she unlocked clues in the painting like Sherlock Holmes. These few simple objects told us many things about the girl and her life in northern Europe. The bowl of fruit contained bananas, not grown in Holland, indicating the wealth of the girl's family. The chair was Asian, a hint that her people were traders. And so on.
The unexpected, incongruous details opened a world that most people didn‘t see. That moment of discovery stuck with me and began to define my life. My passion for art history and history became the prism I used as I ventured into the realm of food. I became obsessed with food stories, food history, and food anthropology. I decided to travel as much as I could to see the world of food as it existed not in restaurants, but in situ, where it originally existed. This meant working for a year and then traveling for a month with whatever money I had saved. It meant taking jobs that involved traveling and lots of nights on people's couches.
I began to understand that food was great, food with a story was greater, and food with a story that no one knew about was even greater.
I decided that I could use what had first impressed me that first day of college as a divining rod for interpreting culture and spreading the gospel of globalism to further promote understanding. It‘s why I wanted to cook Vietnamese and Chinese food at cafe un deux trois on Wednesday evenings. It gave me an excuse to preach to my cooks and tell stories to the staff and the guests. It‘s why I taught classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill for 15 years. It‘s why I wanted everyone to get as excited as I was about real Russian pickled mushrooms. I was still obnoxious but more focused. Then I got lucky and got my own TV show.
The idea behind Bizarre Foods was this: In a world where we define ourselves by our differences—our skin color, our politics, our sexuality, our language, our religion—perhaps we could celebrate things we love and change the tenor of the conversation. The Twin Cities is a great place to have this conversation—and a great place to live for those of us who enjoy the hidden off-center elements of our world.
Picture this: A Midwestern landscape of Lutheran church basements and cul-de-sacs, coffeehouses and caramel rolls, lakes and pine trees, and men in jean shorts and their wives in embroidered sweatshirts. Close your eyes. Now imagine walking into Marvel Bar with the hippest person you know at 1 in the morning. Now imagine bringing your grandmother. Trust me, she will love it.
This feature is devoted to stuff most people don't know about. If you‘re among those who do, try not to be hip and smug about it. Go find some new surprises and don't keep them for yourself. Start telling some stories and see where it leads you. I‘m all ears.