A family dinner is never actually about how good the food is, says Andrew Zimmern

“I’ve always been a dinner guest in search of a family that would have me for dinner,” says Andrew Zimmern. The chef, writer and host is perhaps best known for his classic shows like “Bizarre Foods,” “Driven by Food” and “What’s Eating America,” but in latest series, “Family Dinner,” he may have found what he calls “the perfect job.” The Emmy and James Beard Award-winner sat down recently on “Salon Talks” to talk about sobriety, fried chicken, our national hunger problem and what he’s learned inside the kitchens of America’s home cooks.

“Family Dinner,” now in its second season, airs on Magnolia Network and HBO Max

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

I have read that when you were approached about doing a new show, this was the first idea out of your mouth. What was it about this concept that you knew you wanted to do?

It was very important to me for a lot of different reasons. I wanted the world to understand that we all are here for the same purpose, to love each other and be of service to each other. In a world that’s constantly measuring itself by divisive instruments, we should look at our commonalities and the ways in which we are the same, because my experience was, we all have the same hopes and dreams for our kids. We all sit down to meals, for those of us lucky enough to eat them.

I think showing how people eat in their own homes with their own stories is something that reinforces our humanity and connects us to each other. I also think, just from an ideation standpoint, the simplest ideas are the best. If you look at the biggest hits on television, what’s timeless? “The Tonight Show,” “Jeopardy!,” “Days of Our Lives.” These are very simple ideas. Once you get into it show by show, there may be some complexities, but it’s a very simple thing to explain to someone. I found that the simplest things often connect with the greatest depth.

You’ve also talked about how this arises out of your own life, your own experience of family, and also found family and who we invite to the table.

I had a very, very big family, and then by the time I hit age 13, I had no family at all. That was traumatizing. It was one of the two or three most traumatizing moments in my life, and in an effort to help myself, nurture myself, take care of myself, survive, I had to find in other families what I wasn’t getting in mine. So I did. It’s part of the reason why I really pushed into the food career. I knew when I was five or six I was going to be in food. Maybe that really cemented it, because not only could I go to friends’ houses and adopt other people’s families as my own, they’d adopt me as their own.

“I’ve always been a dinner guest in search of a family.”

So, too, in cooking for other people, could I supply that nurture, that codependence. I’m not saying it’s right or healthy, but that codependent side of things where, “OK, I’m going to make other people happy and I’m going to do it with food.” That’s what jump-started my career. We look at these things that define us as human beings, and we don’t swim against that. We swim with it for good or ill, and it worked out for me. I’ve always been a dinner guest in search of a family that would have me for dinner. Maybe we’ve come full circle and it’s the perfect job.

On the show, you talk about grace and gratitude and respect in a way that seemed to me informed by your sobriety. As someone who is in the food world that we think of as very excessive, very rock ‘n’ roll, you have a very different approach. How has that informed you in your culinary career?

I’m almost 31 years sober. I almost died in the week before I started this sober journey for myself. I was homeless for a year before that, living on the streets and stealing. I had become a user of people and taker of things and a reprehensible and deplorable human being, but a human being nonetheless. I was scooped up and given one more chance that I did not deserve. I had tried to drink and drug myself to death just in the weeks prior to getting sober. I had relinquished all of my chips on second chances, yet somehow I got one. And so on one hand I wasn’t going to waste it. On the other hand, it was not, in a sense, my idea, and that type of experience changes you forever. You are forever changed.

“I was scooped up and given one more chance that I did not deserve.”

So while I certainly understand those ways you define the food business, generationally, trends change. I look at the food world and the restaurant world and the food systems and food culture through a much different lens because of my life experiences, and most importantly the sobriety. In sobriety I learned generosity and selflessness. I learned about patience, tolerance and understanding. I learned about the value of other human beings. I learned, through my own story, that if you sprinkle a human being with dignity and respect, incredible things happen. I learned that a shared life, a true sense of community, is a necessary part of success, however you define that.

All of those things are not only found in my work, but they’re found in what I do in the food space, whether it’s in television, whether it’s my work with the United Nations World Food Program, with the International Rescue Committee, with the boards that I sit on, with the social justice advocacy work that I do. Anywhere you look at any of my stuff, it is foundationally built on those characteristics that, did I learn them in the sandbox when I was five? Yep. Did I ignore them for the next 25 years of my life until I changed 30? You bet I did. Did I pay the price for that? And how. Was I going to not learn from that experience? No. I was going to learn from that experience and I was going to try to live life on a different premise, a different way of living, and it informs everything that I do.

For someone who’s been in the business for as long as you have, what have you learned from going into these families and learning about the ways that they cook and prepare and talk about food that maybe you didn’t know before?

“Everyone takes food seriously. There’s just varying degrees of it.”

Everyone takes food seriously. There’s just varying degrees of it. We’re shooting season three right now. I just returned from a firehouse in Union, New Jersey, where they take food extremely seriously because they’re away from their families. They spend their time together as a unit. They are in life and death situations frequently, and the food tethers them together. It’s the one time, although it can be interrupted by a signal call out, they can just gather as a group and decompress and maybe process something horrific that they’ve just been through that no one should have to witness. Remember, firehouses, the EMT and EMS are based there. They go on lots of other rescues. They show up at car crashes. If there’s other disasters, they are first responders. They run into everything, not just fires that we run away from, and they need a place to decompress.

On one hand, the food is important and they all take the food quality seriously because that’s how they nurture. But when sitting around the table and you talk about what’s most important, none of them mentioned the quality of the food. None. Despite the fact that the food was very high [quality], and prior to sitting down they all talked about how seriously they take the food. Both things can exist at the same time. It’s just that the men and women of our firehouses connect, and find it necessary to connect over meals in the same way that a family does, where they have monthly dinners because they’re all separated. And maybe they’ve lost a loved one that spurred them to reconnect on a regular basis.

I’ve spent time with families that always have a dinner once a week no matter what, and it’s been going on for generation after generation after generation, sometimes by choice, sometimes by religious practice. A Shabbat dinner, for example, that always takes place on a Friday night for family where the door is open to other guests, but is keenly observed. For some people with kids, it is a mandatory way in which they protect themselves and nurture their own families that dinners or certain meals are taken together at the same time every week or every day. It really is a mixed bag. It’s quite extraordinary. When you look at the series as a whole to date, that’s probably the biggest learning for me.

It’s not about the quality of the food. It’s about all the other reasons. I’ve been in some family homes where quite frankly, the food was not great, for me, but they loved it. That’s all that matters. It’s not about me. It’s about them. Did they all like the food and think it was good? Absolutely. Do they have a different taste than I do? Absolutely. But what I learned is, it’s the prescriptive nature of why they gather, not what they gather over, if that makes sense.

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You’ve eaten in some of the best places in the world. When we think about American food, there’s no one American food. It’s so regional, it’s so specific, it’s so cultural. But if you were to say, “You know something that America does really well with food?” what would you say it would be?

America does have a cultural cuisine that we can tether to. It changes all the time because we are truly a melting pot. I believe it is that melting pot that has defined our cuisine, and that’s very difficult for food historians and food wonks to get their arms around. But the facts on the ground prove out that we are a nation of assimilation, appropriation, melding, and the sooner that we understand that and stop arguing about why or where, or trying to debate this but simply accept who we are, I think we’re going to be a little bit better off.

If you’re asking me what I see as America’s food, it’s the food of the Southeastern United States. This is the food whose foundations were birthed in Africa in the 16th and 17th century and made its way here during the most repugnant era of our history, the period in which slavery was a part and parcel of our existence. Our country was birthed on a slave agricultural economy and those tendrils.

All of that reaches down into our food today. However, as repugnant as that is, it came into the Southeastern United States at the same time it came into the Caribbean, at the same time that it came from Central America and moved up into the South.You have this incredible, incredible stew of flavors that has created what I think is universally the most important American cuisine. It is not the white European cuisine that came over into the Northeast, which defines just that culture up there and other cultures around the country, because obviously those immigrants then moved across the United States. The barbecue trail is a great example that goes down from the East Coast to the mid-Atlantic states, Maryland, Virginias, Carolinas and down through into Texas. It morphs along the way as which immigrant group came into what place with what kind of needs.

Our nation is not based on the cuisine of three-star Michelin restaurants and fancy ingredients.

It’s a fascinating study of Americana, but the food of the Southeastern United States is American food. When we look at it more broadly, and you say, “Well, what do we do well?” I would tick off the hallmarks of that cuisine. Family style portions, portions enough to share, to account for people who show up, who come through that door, a nod to what I guess would be a prudent spend on food. Our nation is not based on the cuisine of three-star Michelin restaurants and fancy ingredients. It’s not. It’s based on platters of fried chicken and stewed greens and bean pots. That’s the food of America. It’s generous, which is why it’s in such conflict with the reality on the ground that so many are hungry today. You can’t separate the lack of civic virtue when it comes to food in America with the food of America that is quintessentially ours.

That generosity of spirit is not extended to everyone. We are able to feed all Americans. Roughly 24% of Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from. That’s just statistically the hunger quotient, and more and more as the economy falters and our food system falters, we’re marginalizing more people. It’s vitally important that we understand that food is a basic human right and necessity. It is not a privilege. It should be something that’s accessible to all people, and that drives my social justice advocacy work. I can’t separate them. What really, really is upsetting as I talk about this to you is that on one hand we don’t care about feeding 25% of Americans. The reason I say we don’t care as a country  is that we can solve hunger in a week, statistically. Literally in a week.

We have the distribution mechanisms, the food, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Maybe it’s two weeks, if we really decided to do it. We have the money. We just choose not to. So I find it really incongruous that that sits side-by-side with the very tenets of what I think makes up the generosity of American cuisine, which is sharing. Which is people sitting down, whether it’s a farm in Missouri or a large extended family in Georgia or any other state where people gather over food, there is that generosity of spirit that has always driven our food systems here in America, but somehow is now not applicable to a certain group of people. It makes no sense to me whatsoever.

I think the cuisine of the American South is our cuisine. At a larger picture, because I don’t mean to marginalize any other groups, if you wanted a bigger, 10,000 foot above sea level point of view, you look at the cuisine of the Southwest and all of its Mexican, South American, Central American influence. You look at the Western European influence in the Northeast. You look at a lot of the Asian influence that is in a lot of our West Coast cuisine, and Mexican Central American. We can’t separate that from the French and Spanish colonial experience that was here, or the English colonial experience here, or the Dutch colonial experience here, as small as that was, which is why the umbrella under which those other two platforms sit is this acceptance that we are a melting pot of cuisines. It’s OK for us to have regional influence. We don’t have to all be alike in all ways. We just have to accept each other, and each other’s food.

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