What is the best thing you ate while filming these episodes of Bizarre Foods?
The classic fixins’ from the inside of the hog at Gerald Lemoine’s farm in Moreauville, Louisiana. They shoot a hog, clean all the entrails and collect the blood. The hog goes on the spit, split-open to be turned into their version of cochon de lait. The blood is turned into red boudin. They grind the offal to be mixed with muscle meat and rice to make white boudin. The tails are fried. Sometimes they’ll turn the head into a German-meets-Cajun-style headcheese with vinegar and a little chile. And finally, they do a hog ponce where they clean the stomach and fill it with a homemade sausage. It’s smoked and pan-fried, then put in a Dutch oven to cook with vegetables for four or five hours.
Then there was diving for fresh urchin with my friend Stephanie off the coast of Santa Barbara, cracking open sea urchins that had been out of the water for about 20 seconds and eating them to my heart’s content. It was absolutely fantastic.
What’s the most bizarre thing you tried?
The craziest thing that I ate this season was on the Lewis and Clark Trail episode. The expeditioners may have been shocked by salmon two hundred years ago, but I was shocked by the lamprey.
They dry them next to a smoky fire, and then pound the meat with a rock so that it peels away from the skin. Lamprey is probably the most disgusting bottom dweller known to man. It’s horrific looking, an evil animal that lives off of its host animal, attaching to it with its giant sucker mouth and all its little teeth. It’s like a two-foot long leech; it’s just terrible.
How did it taste?
Fantastic, but I like oily, fishy things that taste rotted.
What was the worst crew meal you had?
The worst crew meals we had were on the Mississippi and Louisiana shows. We were staying in very remote areas, so we were lucky to wake up to fake sausage and egg sandwiches at the Microtel. We were out shooting all day, and when we came back to the hotel at 9 o’clock at night, a production assistant would go to a local gas station for sandwiches. It was a big peanut butter sandwich trip. I felt so bad for the crew that when we finally got to New Orleans at the end, I bought everyone dinner at a fancy pants restaurant.
On the other hand, during the day I was eating the best food in the whole world—duck that feed on pecans, fish right out of the river and other wild meats that I’m absolutely in love with.
Did you find any hidden gems along the way?
We filmed with a legendary woman named Alzina Toups in Cajun country. Alzina cooks at her café—hidden away in a garage a block off the canal in Galliano—with a few family members, who’ve been working by her side, helping her in the kitchen and absorbing all of her knowledge.
I’ve tried to cook with her for the last 10 years and it just hasn’t worked out, but I finally got her in a show. I’ve cooked for presidents, I’ve cooked for kings, I’ve cooked for famous chefs with umpteen Michelin stars and I didn’t get nervous—but Alzina was different.
She asked me to make a dish with frog legs and I literally wet my pants. This woman has a brilliant palate and is honest to a fault. I was stunned at her ability to taste and season food. So, I made the frog legs and she liked them—which was lucky for me—but along the way she asked me to help clean some shrimp. After a few minutes, she had finished three or four and I had finished seven. In a very polite manner, she told me I was not doing it right, and showed me a technique in which she could clean the shrimp and withdraw the three pieces of fan tail meat at the end. Does that add any worthwhile flavor or texture to the dish? No. Does it look a little prettier? Sure. Is it worth the time? Depends on who you ask. Alzina just looked at me and asked, “Why wouldn’t you do that?”
It requires going slower, jiggling each tail. It’s a careful process. The point was, if you’re not going to practice what you preach (in this case, whole animal eating and sustainability) with everything, then you’re selling a false bag of goods. She was also telling me to go slower and enjoy the spiritual aspect of being in the kitchen. Practice patience. I was really humbled, and a little embarrassed. In her tiny little Cajun kitchen, I got the most important lesson and reminder. Those hidden gem moments really give you pause and make you think about the importance of going the extra mile.
What destination from this season would you encourage people to go visit?
Everywhere I went. The great lesson of the American experience in this season is getting out and going to these enclaves where the history is still alive, where culture hasn’t been bulldozed.
Go experience the remote areas of the Pacific Northwest. Go to the Southern barbecue trail and seek out real barbecue. When Dexter lights the logs in his coal catcher, get in line with the rest of the town for a $7 plate of barbecue and hash from a pot that dates back to the Civil War. Discover foods like hash, a hyper regional soul food stew, made of pluck that’s ground and cooked down for 15 hours. Every town and cook has their own style—Elliott Moss at Buxton Hall takes every piece of trim from the pig and confits it in its own fat to make his hash. I’ll line up at Aaron Franklin’s a thousand times to eat his brisket, but going out into the barbecue trail and meeting these families was truly unforgettable.
There are parts of Route 66 that are commercialized, but out in the middle of Oklahoma you’ll find the 100-year-old restaurant that put chicken fried steak on the map. There’s a diner that makes fried chicken in an 80-year-old 20-portion cast iron skillet the old fashioned way with chickens from a friend’s farm. These days, chefs write on the bottom of their menus what farms they source ingredients from—which is great—but I love this season because we connect with the people who never had to reconnect to that, they’ve just always done it that way.
We visited people cooking Finnish food on the Upper Peninsula, that if you shut your eyes, you’d think you were on a farm outside of Helsinki. They take their culture very seriously. People just don’t get out enough and experience what this country has to offer.
We are in such a divisive place in our country’s history right now and discovering how much we really do have in common as Americans is a healing and teaching experience. If more people saw how the rest of the country lives, we wouldn’t have half the problems we have today. We would figure out how to get along and grow as a country together.
Photographs courtesy of Travel Channel.