Andrew Zimmern speaks in speeches. The television host, author, and advocate for feeding the hungry knows how media works. He chose to get a television show and a decade later, he got a television show (for more on that, listen to this episode of The Alton Browncast). That show has been on the air for over a decade. Anyone that’s binged on Bizarre Foods knows why he’s popular. He’s charming and interested without ever seeming like he’s reading from a script. His warm personality makes the world a smaller and more welcoming place.
Zimmern will be in D.C. on June 7 for the annual Dine-N-Dash. Purchase tickets now. You get to eat at 30 of D.C.’s best restaurants and all proceeds go towards World Central Kitchen. If you read the following interview with Andrew Zimmern, you’ll understand why he’s working with World Central Kitchen.
Brightest Young Things: How did you get involved with World Central Kitchen?
Andrew Zimmern: Anything to do with food insecurity and the causes that surround food insecurity, whether it’s child welfare issues, homelessness issues, poverty, anything that surrounds the issue of food security is of tremendous importance to me. We currently reside in the wealthiest and most powerful civilization in the history of the world. The idea that someone should go hungry or be without the bare essentials of life is, to me… It’s not shameful, I actually think it’s criminal. I don’t understand why we have laws that prevent someone from walking a school campus and selling alcohol or drugs but somehow can’t feed our children who attend those schools a healthy balanced diet, which I think is a lot worse. It’s offensive and I think anyone who isn’t offended by it is an idiot.
A large portion of my life was as an active drug addict and alcoholic and at the end of my drinking and drugging, I was homeless for a year at which point, I went through what a lot of other people have gone through and continue to go through. It’s very personal. I know what it’s like to be hungry. I know what it’s like to be homeless. I know what it’s like to have to choose between breaking the law and feeding yourself. I know what it’s like to take meals at shelters and at Salvation Army facilities. I know what it’s like to beg for money on the streets.
There’s a lot of personal connection there that I think is the difference between devoting time to a cause and being passionate and immersive in that cause.
BYT: You also know how to connect to a lot of people of Twitter. Not 12 hours ago you were tweeting about the importance of Food Stamps.
— Andrew Zimmern (@andrewzimmern) May 25, 2017
BYT: Do you ever fear…
A.Z.: You know it’s funny because I was looking at that. I don’t check my feeds as often as people might imagine, but I looked this morning and I saw that someone had tweeted back at me, “Food Stamps don’t work, I’ve seen those people driving around in Mercedes.” I was just stunned, stunned at that comment.
The ignorance in America of some people just continues to stagger me. Obviously food stamps do work. Tens of millions of people are active in the program. For every dollar spent on food stamps it puts $1.78 back into the economy.
José and Tom Colicchio and I, just had a big food action day on Capitol Hill so I remember that number specifically from our work before we went up on the Hill to try to keep the Farm Bill intact. The food stamp program is the largest piece of the Farm Bill, it’s a massive amount of money, but not only has it been good for families that need it, but it’s been fantastic for local economies. I am sure of all the tens of millions on there, there are some people that have figured out a way to abuse the system. I don’t think there’s a system in America that doesn’t suffer from that. But for the vast, and I mean vast number of people the registration system works, the number of misdeeds on that system are infinitesimal by percentages.
I just think that the backlash against food stamps is a backlash against, well, it’s a racist backlash, it’s a dog whistle for people of color when in fact people of all colors are on food stamps. There are people who have jobs who are on food stamps because their jobs don’t pay them enough. The statistics are staggering and the dog whistling on this issue is just absolutely cretinous in my opinion. To deny people wholesome food to eat, to me, is craven behavior.
BYT: You have stated publicly that you want to be a person of civic action rather than political action but you’ve also said at the 2012 South Beach Wine and Food festival that you are going to run for public office in Minnesota at that same event you said “ At what level, I don’t know, but I don’t want to be a celebrity governor or anything like that.” You also wished senator Al Franken a happy birthday on Twitter. You are on Capitol Hill quite a bit and you are outspoken about your opinions about the current administration. Do you think that maybe you actually will go the political route rather than just the civic route?
A.Z.: You made a couple connections and I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.
Point number one: I try, I try really hard to maintain a civic approach to these issues because I think if you get these social justice issues embroiled in politics it’s easier to turn off people or to not get your message heard. Keeping things on a civic basis in terms of what’s good for us as people and a civic conversation involves putting a problem on the table and coming to an agreement that solves it. I believe in those principles very much. There’s a great book by my friend Nate Garvis called Naked Civics that was very important in my development as someone with a social conscious and that has become, I guess, something of an activist.
I was also telling the truth at South Beach Wine and Food Festival. I do think when all of this television stuff and these other things are done that running for office here in Minnesota is something that I would be very and still am very interested in. I’m just not done with my my food career yet.
I’ve also found in those last five years that my voice is heard at very, very, very, very important levels. And so access and being able to engage on issues is not something I had to wait around for. And I do believe, sadly, in America of 2017 that engagement on these issues and what you would think would be an absolute no-brainer is something that manages to stump people. I think our former first lady said it last month in one of her first speeches since leaving the White House, I think I’m getting the quote nearly right- “Who could possibly be against feeding children wholesome, good food?” Well, it turns out there are people who are against feeding children wholesome good food and there are people who are against solving our homelessness problem, they’re against solving our food security issues and by and along political lines.
So if these civic fights, if they’re impossible to fight on a civic level and you have to go political, then you have to go political.
I’m really most shocked probably when you talk about the civic versus the political that in the last two or three national election cycles, so I’m including congressional in that. So let’s just go back six years, kitchen table issues have not been front and center. They affect the vast majority of Americans. Remember, one in every five people in America goes hungry and there are certainly a whole lot of folks who are getting three meals a day who do know where their next week’s food is coming from who are very sensitive to this issue who would like everybody to be fed. Add to that the number parents who have children in schools who would like their children to be eating healthy, wholesome food and don’t want sugary sodas or chocolate milk to be chuggable at any moment of the day by their kids. If you extend that number out, that’s an incredibly large voting block. Incredibly large, very powerful. And getting people to vote in their best interest has always been a struggle in the modern political era and I think that awareness raising and education is more important now than ever.
I know that there are, I know them, people who I interact with in Minnesota who could use the benefits that come with one party taking control of the Senate who actually voted against their best interest for reasons that are still unbeknownst to me. I think it comes down to education and awareness.
But I think the last 120 days has been enough to get the attention of a lot of people and I think we may have crossed that rubicon at least for enough of a percentage of Americans that we can actually start legislating those kitchen table issues. The social justice movement built up around kitchen table issues is one that is 50 years long and we are smack dab in the middle of it. Just like smoking, just like car seat belts, these social justice movements take a long time to take effect. But at a certain point in those other fights, we saw political legislation take place and I think we are at that time in the food movement. I think right now the focus of people involved in food issues have to be legislative resolution at the county, city, state, and national level. I just don’t think we can run away from it anymore.
BYT: Do you think that your addiction and homelessness is now an asset to you that would have even allowed you to have been in this place 50, 40, 30 years ago?
A.Z.: It’s a brilliant point that you make- great question. First of all, being honest about where you come from and what your story is is the only way to connect to other people, to really connect with them. That’s number one. Number two in the world of recovery it is one of the great promises that old-timers like myself give to newcomers is that your worst parts of your life, the things that you’re ashamed of will become your strongest assets in a very quick amount of time. And the implication in that is your story is all that you have so passing it on to someone else who is struggling behind you coming up the ladder helps them. And so in the spirit of service in recovery we often talk about the power of our own stories to connect with other people and show them that they too can get well. I have found that not only is that true in the recovery world, but it is true in the social world in the social milieu in which I exist.
When other people stand up at a fundraiser and say, “We need to feed people,” they get a lot of attention. When someone who’s been homeless and actually had to take meals on the handout or steal purses on the backs of park benches to be able to eat, not that that was right. My head was definitely not in the right place when I was out there using but when you share your greatest weaknesses and the most intimate parts of your story, I think it makes a real impact on people. I think what comes from the heart reaches the heart.
And to extend it one more level, someone said to me the other day, “Aren’t you afraid of if you ended up running of office that skeletons in your closet might be exposed?” And I just looked at him and was like, “What skeletons?” I couldn’t be any more transparent.
I really do believe in the ethos of the citizen politicians. I think it’s time. Our founding fathers knew it would become professionalized. But I think that we need more doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, nurses, TV people to get involved in office.
I’m always surprised on my social accounts that people assume that because you have a job in television you don’t have a political opinion, or don’t have a family, or don’t have an interest in the rest of the country. It’s just absolutely shocking to me how closed minded some people are. And actually a point that my friend and my senator, Al Franken, is a great example of that and I think there’s a tremendous tradition of great citizen politicians and he’s certainly someone I look up to and admire. To be able to come from his previous couple of jobs on the radio, as an author, as he transitioned away from writing for Saturday Night Live, and ended up running for office here, I just I think he’s been a tremendous example and an extremely effective senator.
BYT: You represent Minnesota and your show has a very Midwestern openness and approach to the world. With that being said, you no longer drink. So when you are offered alcohol when you are in these people’s houses how do you deny that, how do you say no to that?
A.Z.: Well I’m gonna slightly modify your the first statement that came out of your mouth. I’m from New York City and my mother-in-law very accurately tells me that even at 25 plus years I’m not a Minnesotan because I swear too much and I talk too fast. And I think there’s something true about that. I don’t have the heartland running in my veins. I wear the heartland like an intimate pair of pajamas.
But it’s not in my DNA and I’m okay with that and I think the heartland is okay with that. I will tell you that what goes into my show and I’ve never considered it a heartland issue, although many of the hallmarks of my show do echo in that concept of heartland acceptance hard work you know sort of a nicer, less judge-y attitude.
But the reason that my show is my show is I’ve infused it with the principles I’ve that learned over the last 25 years in my own quest for personal wellness. My show is about practicing patience, tolerance, and understanding in a world that continues to have less and less of it. My show is about not practicing contempt prior to investigation. I don’t want people to judge books by their cover, I want people to be open minded to the rest of the world.
My show is about the stories of people. I could care less whether it was called Bizarre Foods or Bizarre Hardware Store Items, it’s the stories of people that are important. The food to me is just a hook, it’s a button, it happens to be the social construct and the cultural totem that I’m most familiar with. So of course I built the show around food because it’s where I’m familiar.
But the the whole decision to do the show was that I was trying to “true up” my work life and my personal life and I wanted the principles in both of them to be the same. And the only way that I could think of to do that was to make a show about exploring cultures through food that demonstrated those principles with every story that we told. So that’s how that happened. And what was the second part of your question? I forgot.
BYT: How do you say no if someone is offering you an alcoholic beverage?
A.Z.: Oh, I just say no!
BYT: Do people get offended?
A.Z.: I’m like Nancy Reagan!
BYT: Yes, but with everything else you’re yes.
A.Z.: Well here’s what happens. When someone tells me that they insist on having drinks with me, and there are some cultures where sealing the deal or celebrating or having a guest in the home, it is very traditional to slam down a couple shots or whatever the local grog is. I just tell them I’m allergic, which is not a lie, you know alcoholism and drug addiction in many ways are described as an allergy of the body and the mind. So I just tell them I’m allergic and they’re like, “Oh, no problem.”
I have a bigger problem at food events when I turn over a wine glass and people insist on pouring me a glass of wine. I have a bigger problem with drunk wine representatives, drunk wine salesmen at food events who keep trying to push a glass in my hand.
You know a long time ago a guy pushed a glass in my hand one too many times and wound up with his ass on the ground in a puddle of water and I think word quickly spread around the industry. I love wine, I love wine reps, I love everything about the drinking world. In fact, as a recovering alcoholic, I adore the drinking world. I can’t participate in it any longer and the only thing I don’t like are people who don’t listen to the words that are coming out of someone else’s mouth. Which is why I try very hard to listen to the words that are coming out of someone’s mouth.