I have very little in common with Andrew Zimmern. The similarities pretty much stop at Jewish and we were both born in New York. The man is restaurateur who has mainly become famous by eating testicles, brains and bugs for the last ten years, and I am a picky eater who observes the laws of kashrut.That being said, I think his show “Bizarre Foods” has not only been the most consistently entertaining show on television these last ten years (and I say that as a die hard Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones fan) but also probably the most visionary and culturally inspiring show out there today. How has Zimmern captivated me more than Walter White and Tyrion Lannister? Well let me take you on a journey and tell you how.
Bizarre Foods is not about trying weird foods from around the world. His catchphrase “If it looks good, eat it” is cute, but its deeper than encouraging words when one partakes of dung beetle. As I said before, I do adhere to the laws of Kashrut, Jewish dietary laws that, from my experience are the most restrictive and most intricate of any culture. However, I don’t suffer from what I call “treife (i.e. not kosher) envy.” I don’t stare at a bacon double cheeseburger and weep, and I don’t watch Andrew Zimmern eat some delicious super-not-kosher dish of fried Capybara and bleu cheese (which he ate in Rio) and salivate, all the while thinking about how I suffer as a kosher yid. Its dangerous to think Zimmern is asking us to go out and order the rarest of foods from all over the world. They’d be gone in an instant, like the Dodo bird. The message I think that Zimmern wishes we should take away is far more interesting and enlightening.
What I learned from Zimmern is that we as humans need to understand better the world in our backyard. We look at these cultures he visits with jealousy and wonder as he treats himself to the local delicacy, but the fact is that these people, who mainly focus on eating what they can catch, should be an inspiration for us.
Six months ago I began a project for a class with two friends, producing a mini documentary about an oddball fish called the Northern Snakehead. A native delicacy in their main breeding ground in East Asia, Snakeheads have become popular nature oddities in the U.S., earning the name “Frankenfish” and inspiring a hilarious horror movie. They were introduced to the Potomac river in the last decade or so and, by all accounts, have been growing rapidly. Whether its introduction has been harmful to the local ecosystem is still up for debate, as is the decision to create a commercial market (Maryland has, Virginia has not), but one thing’s for sure: it tastes amazing. Local fish distributor and sustainability guru John Rorapaugh has been recruiting fishermen and chefs in DC to incorporate the snakehead and other invasive species into their work and the reception thus far has been very popular, even appearing on Bizarre Foods . Best part? They are 100% kosher.
I cooked some snakehead we caught on a shoot one day and it definitely lived up to the hype. It was thick and meaty and could basically take on any taste without losing that odd fish quality you get from salt water catches. This is a terrific opportunity for us yiddin to “Zimmern” out on this asian delicacy. Not only does it taste muy delicioso, but it is good for mother earth as well. For every snakehead we eat, we get out of the same salmon-tuna-tilapia diet that has caused overfishing, and slowes the rapid snakehead population growth. For non kosher keeping readers in the potomac area, the blue catfish has the same resume: its highly rated and invasive, so dig in.
Invasives aside, researching what your local farms have to offer can do some real good. I’m not telling everyone to become urban foragers or only eat organic or any of that other environmental stuff. What I am telling you is that we have the luck of living where we live, and because of that there is a whole mess of food we can partake of that is pretty much in our backyard and stimulating local business is pretty darn wonderful. We are rapidly exhausting the planet, and you don’t need to watch “Happy Feet” to learn about things like overfishing.
Bizarre Food’s newest season is centered around the American landscape and shows family recipes that carry with them the legends of Americana. I think every Jewish family can relate to this; we all have that cholent recipe, that Bubbe’s matzo ball soup, that brisket that only your mother can get juicy enough. Food is, and always has been, a staple of cultural identity. In this time of modernization and secularization, it is probably the tradition that every Jew on the spectrum holds most dear. As we move through life, and the past generations leave us solemnly with only the keepsakes we treasure to remember them by, I urge you continue our traditions and make them your own. The Jewish world and sustainability go hand in hand.We’ve all read the famous Mark Twain words “All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.” Sustainability and adapting to our new homes has kind of been our forte. It might just be a matter of a little refocusing.