‘Bizarre Foods’ host urges radical food choices — including river ratsTo Andrew Zimmern, 20-pound river rats called nutria and other invasive species are part of the answer to solving the world’s food problems.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
To Andrew Zimmern, 20-pound river rats called nutria and other invasive species are part of the answer to solving the world’s food problems.
And they do taste good, he told a room of about 1,000 Minnesota school breakfast and lunch program workers Monday in Duluth during their annual conference.
“The idea of nutria is the type of game-changing catalyst for change we need to engage in in this country,” Zimmern said. “We are desperate for affordable sources of healthy animal protein. If I served it to you all now — braised leg with a little bit of sauce —you would all eat it and 99 percent of you would say: ‘This is fantastic; what did you do to this pork to make it taste so good?’ ”
Zimmern, a Minneapolis resident and creator and host of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” and “Bizarre Foods America,” spoke to the Minnesota School Nutrition Association about moving further away from the country’s “commoditized, overly centralized, processed” food system.
Not having enough money and equipment to use local, sustainable foods in schools is a struggle, he acknowledged, but those in school food service have represented much of the change that’s begun in recent years. He called on them to keep up their passion and energy to do more in their lunchrooms.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find another group in the food world that has taken as much crap as you guys have,” he told the group to wild applause. “Everyone is making lunch lady jokes. I’m sure that’s a term you prefer not to have bandied about. What you do is hard; it’s really, really serious, and I know if you all had a magic wand and the type of budget the U.S. military has, things would be a lot different in terms of what you’re serving.”
Zimmern has made a living traveling the world and sharing different cultures through food —often strange, disgusting things that many people wouldn’t eat for a crisp $100 bill. Insects and animal organs get a lot of play. But those foods are often an important part of the local culture, and some could be the key to creating a more sustainable food system, he said.
You only realize how narrow the meat diet of chicken, pork and beef is after you leave the United States, said the well-known food writer and former chef of the now-closed Café Un Deux Trois in Minneapolis. He noted you can get kids to eat unfamiliar foods by teaching them at a young age — as he’s done with his son — before pop culture teaches them otherwise.
“If everyone in America would eat small fish or goat once a month, it would change the face of America,” Zimmern said.
He told stories of a poor Alaskan village which, given the right equipment and help with transport, has made a living smoking fish. That was countered by the frustration he felt in Namibia, where there was bountiful seafood to export to poverty-stricken villages but no money to store and ship it.
“There were oysters the size of Frisbees. All this amazing seafood,” he said. “And they are starving in Namibia.”
An audience member asked Zimmern for recipes for Minnesota’s most notorious invasive species, including Eurasian water milfoil, zebra mussels and Asian carp.
The mussels and milfoil aren’t very tasty, he said, but there are uses for them, and plenty of alternative proteins that are tasty.
“Food change needs to be radical,” he said.
Thanks to the 2010 Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act, change is happening on a broader scale in schools this fall. School food service programs nationwide will begin to roll in new standards brought about by the act.
This fall, students will be required to take at least one fruit or vegetable for a meal to qualify as fully reimbursable by the federal government, said Allison Bradford, president of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association.
Sodium reduction requirements are coming, along with those for increased whole grains. Many districts are working to incorporate the standards even before the staggered requirements set in, Bradford said.
“A lot of our districts are hiring chefs and working with chefs to formulate products and develop recipes that are reduced-sodium,” she said. “We’re seasoning with herbs and spices. It’s really an exciting time for school nutrition.”