Snacking on snakehead fits comfortably into the eat-anything ethos of Andrew Zimmern's "Bizarre Foods" empire, where phrases like "the big lizard is a little chewy" and "it looks like cornflakes with little eyes" are just part of the lingua franca. But as I sit on the phone, listening to Zimmern's impressive stream of run-on sentences, I realize the host has a bigger agenda with his snakehead dinner than grossing us out with the fish's ability to ooze on command and crawl like a snake.
"The first thing I said to my staff is, ‘We have to do this,’ " Zimmern says in advance of Monday's season debut of "Bizarre Foods America," set in the District. "It’s an important cultural issue. In America, food and culture intersect in some very unusual ways. Whether it’s carp in Minnesota – giant carp that has invaded our lakes – or snakeheads in Washington D.C. ... We can keep going on and list species after species. With so many people going hungry in the world today, I wanted to do stories this last season about as many of these controversial species as I could.”
Zimmern, in other words, wants us to understand that we can strike back against invasive species by turning them into dinner. Or, more importantly, someone else's dinner. Someone who really needs the calories.
"If I hear one more ... chef talk about the love and the hug that food gives [us] without reminding ourselves that the people who need that love and hug the most are the people we’re not giving it to: kids in public schools, seniors in senior centers, jailbirds in prison. Keep going down the line," Zimmern says. "Anywhere the public dollar intersects with food. So why not let fishermen and fish companies take as many snakehead as they want and sell it into our senior centers and school systems, prison systems and anywhere the public dollar intersects with food. Why not?"
This is the Andrew Zimmern that's easy to like: The chatty activist, the guy who uses his Travel Channel soapbox for something more than just eating griddled grubs for public amusement. I asked him how he balances TV's demand for slapstick slurping of sea slugs with his desire for important messaging. He told me a story about visiting the Travel Channel building a decade ago.
"The general manager of the station at the time, a man named Pat Young, gave me a laser pointer and a map of the world and said, ‘Tell me where you would go?’" Zimmern says. "After about 40 minutes, he interrupted me and said, ‘All right, fine, you sold me.’ He then turned to me and said, ‘Right now, the show you’re describing to me is 80 percent intelligence and 20 percent entertainment.’ He said, ‘That’s the kind of show that would be on a different network. You’d make 10 or 12 of them, you would get the love and applause of your peers, and it would fade quietly.’
Zimmern continues: "He said, ‘If you do the show for us, you need to invert that model, and it has to be 80 percent entertainment and 20 percent intellectual gravitas.’ I remember looking at him and saying, ‘As long as I get to keep the 20 percent intellectual gravitas, you got a deal.’ ”
"And what I was kind of hoping would happen is what did happen, which is I would have a platform where for now, seven or eight years, I’ve been able to talk to people like you about the motivation behind the issue," the host concludes. "We mention the issue. I always make sure that we mention the issue. But I’m very aware that I make an entertainment product."
If you think of Zimmern's show as real estate, each minute is like commercial office space in Midtown Manhattan, valuable and precious. How you fill that time (or space) is important. Zimmern and his producers (humblebrag: they solicited my advice in advance of taping, ignoring most of it) have made smart choices for the D.C. episode: They give some love to Salvadoran food, the Source chef Scott Drewno's snakehead cuisine and the District's food truck movement. They also give air time to Jose Andres, who needs more publicity like I need extra cholesterol in my diet.
I asked Zimmern if he ever considered not doing a segment on Andres in favor of some other aspect of D.C. cuisine that could use the host's promotional touch. Zimmern's response was delivered with a small-but-palpable amount of pugnacity, moving in its loyalty to a friend.
"He’s one of my mentors," Zimmern says. "I mean, he’s done more to help me think about where I can be helpful as a global humanitarian than almost any person in my life. He takes me out at midnight for two hour meals when we’re in the same city together and talks to me about where in the world there is need and what I can do to help. He shares things with me and parts of himself that most people don’t. I admire the crap out of him, and I wouldn’t come into his town without doing something with him."
We all need friends like that.