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How Bizarre

The Travel Channel hit "Bizarre Foods" comes to Rhode Island

John Taraborelli
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Bizarre Foods America host Andrew Zimmern visits the Chez Pascal food truck with Providence chef Matt Jennings while shooting an episode in Rhode Island Photo by Grace Lentini

This article originally ran in December 2012. The episode of Bizarre Foods featuring Rhode Island finally airs on the Travel Channel at 9pm on Monday, August 5.

On his hit Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods, host Andrew Zimmern travels to exotic locales to eat some strange and pretty scary stuff. In the past couple of seasons, he’s switched gears, redubbing the show Bizarre Foods America, and finding the unexpected right in our own backyards. While the offerings in places like Boston, Detroit and Savannah, Georgia might not strike us as bizarre, they reinforce the show’s guiding principle. Viewers could be forgiven, at least at first glance, for thinking it's all about the mixture of vicarious shock and discovery that comes with watching the gregarious host choke down “pickled whale anus,” as he jokes, but that’s not really what drives him. “We tell stories about culture through food,” he nicely summarizes, and that love of storytelling is what brought to Rhode Island on the second weekend of December.

When asked about making the trip here – something the Travel Channel’s other hit foodie travelogue, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, declined to do in nine seasons – Zimmern explains, “We all have thousands of places up on the board that we could go, so I wouldn't throw Bourdain under the bus for missing you. But what we’re really looking for is cool people and cool things." While larger cities like New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles have amazing, multifaceted food scenes, Zimmern believes the scope of them can be overwhelming, making it harder to tell a compelling story. In smaller, more off-the-beaten path locales like Savannah, Charleston, South Carolina and, yes, Providence, he notes, “There is so much culture floating up through the surface.” He also adds, “Typically anywhere there’s an ocean, we find good stories.”

On his trip to the Ocean State, we found him at the Wintertime Farmer’s Market in Pawtucket, where Providence’s famed cheesemonger Matt Jennings, chef/owner of Farmstead and La Laiterie in Wayland Square, accompanied Zimmern as they explored the local bounty and enjoyed a runny, delicious egg sandwich at the Chez Pascal food truck parked outside. Prior stops included Matunuck Oyster Farm, herring and mackerel fishing aboard the Proud Mary out of Point Judith, and a stroll up Federal Hill for what Zimmern called “Italian grandmother food,” where he was particularly impressed with the giant, old oven at Scialo Bros. Bakery. The host also paid a visit to Johnson & Wales to learn about the culinary school’s new modernist cuisine curriculum. “That resource is an amazing thing for the city,” he enthuses.

After the farmer’s market, he was off to make a required pilgrimage for anyone in search of uniquely Rhode Island culinary experiences, Olneyville NY System, and then back to Wayland Square to cook with Chef Jennings. He was going to complete the trip the following day with a quick jaunt out to Fall River to dine with an Azoran family.

Though this was Bizarre Foods’ first trip to Little Rhody, it is not Zimmern’s. He grew up in New York and says he’s visited our state plenty through the years. He’s a regular customer and friend of Jennings, having Farmstead’s wares shipped to his current home in Minnesota to enjoy with his family.

Of course, the question must be asked: what’s the most bizarre thing he ate in Rhode Island? He quickly replies, “A traditional quahog.” While that might seem rather ordinary to us, it nicely illustrates one of the show’s central philosophies. “One man’s weird is another man’s wonderful,” Zimmern is fond of saying. “Nothing is more prototypical for any Rhode Islander than eating big clams outside in 40 degree weather while standing in estuary – but if you were to ask somebody in Nebraska they’d probably think that’s pretty weird.” The Rhode Island episode of Bizarre Foods America is scheduled to air sometime in the summer of 2013. Check the show’s website for more details.