"If it seems like a story ripped from one of my TV shows, it’s not a coincidence," says the chef.
It’s sometime in the 1960s in the Hamptons. Eventually, idyllic and empty beaches will give way to crowds and glitzy resorts, but for now, potato and corn fields meet the ocean’s tide. Andrew Zimmern is sitting in the sand with his mother, Caren, before the sun has come up, and they watch local fishermen drag 30-foot-long wooden boats from the dunes into the water.
“I didn’t know why my mother wanted me to see this,” Zimmern tells Food & Wine, “but I was mesmerized. She told me that for hundreds of years, families like this one had gone out to sea to sustain their communities—and that those times were coming to an end.” Perhaps most significantly, “she told me the story of these people was important.”
Zimmern continues, “It wouldn’t be long before the local fishing families all had to head out of commercial harbors further away, and in some cases those distances meant the end of the line for a way of life that had built these communities on Long Island’s Southern Fork. I never forgot that moment, obviously—and if it seems like a story ripped from one of my TV shows, it’s not a coincidence.” In fact, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and his latest show, The Zimmern List, are very much based on his mother’s lesson.
Back at their house, Zimmern’s mother maintained an impressively large 50-by-50-square-foot garden filled with tomatoes, peppers, melons, eggplant, squash, string beans, and herbs and zinnias, her favorite flower. As the garden’s designated weed killer, Zimmern already had an appreciation for working for what you eat, he says. The food they harvested from that garden became gazpacho and ratatouille, or corn salads and pickled vegetables that they’d take down to the beach and eat alongside a net full of clams his father had harvested from local waters. Those afternoons and evenings of feasting “gave me a great sense of nurture, but more importantly connected me to the food we grew, caught, foraged, and ate long before it was popular,” he says.
The fishermen that Zimmern and his mother watched on that early morning worked for a local family that sold fish wholesale to local markets, and from a long-since-closed small store that they owned on the island, where the Zimmern family would buy bluefish, porgy, striped bass, and snapper. “In the '60s, supermarkets began popping up in every neighborhood and our lifestyle was changing,” he says. “And I think my mother was influenced by changes that she didn't see as always being very good or an improvement.”
That morning, “my mother's real message was 'pay attention, learn, and tell the stories,'” he says. But that's not all. She also encouraged him to act on those stories. He thanks his mom for that insight, and the mission to act on it.
“My mother gave me the gift of understanding the power of stories—that if we don't understand the stories and learn from our history, then we're not going to be in a position to be as good of human beings as we could be."
That’s what Zimmern has done to a large degree with his shows, and in his books. Yes, he admits his shows are about entertainment, but he's able to get heavy, too. As he says, “They want entertainment, but I really appreciate [viewers’] patience with letting me put some deadly, earnest seriousness into my shows, to demonstrate to them that when we know our food pathways, our understanding of food increases—as does our knowledge of our own culture and our own history—and it opens our eyes to a lot of important truth.”
Food and travel shows that don’t have “deadly, earnest seriousness” and storytelling “end up being really sh—ty shows,” he continues. “Food is good, of course, but food with a story is better. Food with a story that you haven't heard of is even better than that—and food with a story that you hadn't heard about but that you can relate to is best of all.”