'Bizarre Foods America' visits Pittsburgh for some weird and wonderful
When the host of the Travel Channel's “Bizarre Foods America” — renowned chef and gastrointestinal daredevil Andrew Zimmern — came to Pittsburgh, he went straight for the pierogies, braunschweiger and stuffed cabbage.
Really? That's “Bizarre Food”? Around here, we just call that “food.” That sort of food isn't weird. It's dinner at Grandma's house.
“When you say ‘dinner at Grandma's house, well, I've had ‘dinner at Grandma's house in Mongolia,' ” Zimmern says. “I'm looking down at a goat that has had its head severed. … All the meat has been cut, leaving the skin whole and intact, and then put the carcass, tied with its sinew, and thrown into an open fire so that the hair is burned off, and it's like a big, balloon-type pressure cooker. And they let the meat roast inside the animal's skin, air-tight, until it's done. Then it's served, no seasoning, no nothing, just simmered in its own blood. And then they look at me and say, ‘I don't know what's bizarre about this. We do this all the time.'
“One man's weird is another man's wonderful.”
That pretty much sums up the concept of “Bizarre Foods America,” and its acclaimed predecessor “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.” The Pittsburgh episode of “Bizarre Foods America” debuts at 9 p.m. Nov. 11 on the Travel Channel.
To be fair, watching braunschweiger get made at Silver Star Meats in McKees Rocks would meet almost anyone's criteria for “bizarre.”
“When it comes to braunschweiger,” Zimmern says, “I'm not sure there's anything more surreal than that oddly lit, almost-medieval-looking — even though it's a modern food factory — cutting-room floor, while they're grinding liver and emulsifying blood and all the other things that need to be done for the kishka (sausage) and the braunschweiger.
“There's lots of people, even in our crew, that sat there with their jaws open, thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is how it's made?' The braunschweiger still qualifies, especially in the town where they still eat the stuff. In America, there's very little passion for liverwurst anymore. I don't get it. I love it. I eat it all the time.”
For a guy who has been everywhere, seen and eaten everything, Zimmern's enthusiasm for Pittsburgh is a little surprising.
This particular episode of “Bizarre Foods America” is a typically well-done survey of Pittsburgh's peculiar foodways, ranging from the tried-and-true (the Strip District, Primanti's, Pierogies Plus) to the off-the-beaten-path (Emil's in Rankin, Silver Star Meats), to the cutting edge (Cure, Wild Purveyors) to the hidden-in-plain-sight (fishing for catfish at the Point). The final cut of the episode required some hard choices, which isn't always the case.
“There was an energy there, a sense of upward trajectory,” Zimmern says. “A lot of things contribute to that: the physical beauty of the city, the river(s) being restored to health, the makeup of the city in terms of neighborhoods and the verticality of it makes for really, really interesting finding and discovering.
“I think it's really cool to be part of a town that's moving forward, and not sideways or backwards,” he says. “I felt that way when I moved to Minneapolis 20 years ago. My dad was in Portland, Maine, when that city started to turn around, 15 years ago. It happened with Austin, Portland, where certain cities really become a darling of the culture media. There really is something going on, as opposed to cities where they just make (stuff) up about what's going on. I left (Pittsburgh) just becoming a real big fan of this city.”
Lots of familiar faces make an appearance, from Rick Sebak to Strip District institutions like Jimmy Sunseri (and his ubiquitous unlit cigar), and Lucy Nguyen, the grandmotherly Vietnamese woman who sells spicy banh mi sandwiches from a cart near Bar Marco.
“Rick Sebak is one of the most genuinely passionate boosters for a hometown that I've ever met,” Zimmern says. “He's a walking treasure trove. The day I spent with Rick was just fantastic.”
If there's a breakout star, though, it's Justin Severino, chef/owner/butcher at Cure in Lawrenceville. Zimmern watches him break down a goat and make goat-heart tartare, among other things.
“To be in Pittsburgh, when he could have gone anywhere, says a lot about him as a human being,” says Zimmern. “This guy is committed, dedicated and a fantastic, fantastic chef. I asked him, ‘Why not New York or Chicago, or whatever?' This guy's got the chops to make it anywhere. He said, ‘Why not Pittsburgh? People in New York should be opening in Pittsburgh.'
“Because there's a thirst for that kind of food in towns like Pittsburgh — for traditional fare created in a more progressive manner,” he says. “People who open restaurants because they want to make money, or have some kind of six-year PR-business plan, and want to have 30 locations, they're really missing the point. Justin wants to make great food for people who are going to appreciate it, in an environment where he can make a difference.”
One surprise is the old-school “Hunky food” of Emil's Lounge in Rankin.
“We sat around talking about old versus new Pittsburgh, and how much of a traditional city it still is, with the Eastern European and Slavic immigrant communities,” Zimmern says. “You start connecting dots, which factories that are closed in old neighborhoods, and could we find traditional working-class food? We started by asking lots and lots of local people.”
Despite some initial misgivings, they did eventually go to Primanti's.
“I had no desire to go there,” Zimmern says. “Rick Sebak was like, ‘We gotta go, we gotta go.' So, we went in there, and just the smell of the place, the energy. I fell in love right away. Toni (Haggerty), who works there, is dynamic and adorable. And I liked my sandwich.
“Is it bizarre to put French fries on a sandwich? No. Is it bizarre to eat pierogies? Absolutely not. Is it essential to the story of the city? You bet ... it is. Since we're telling stories about culture, using food as the divining rod, or food as the lens, you also need to talk about the more popular conventional foods.”
Zimmern's own rise to culinary superstardom is a fairly amazing story. Born and raised in New York City, he spent a year homeless and addicted to drink and drugs. He used to steal purses from swank cafes on Madison Avenue and sell their contents to feed his habit. Family and friends were eventually able to arrange an intervention and a stint at a rehab clinic in Minnesota.
From childhood, he was always the opposite of a “picky eater,” though.
“My whole life, I've been eating this way,” Zimmern says. “I just call it ‘eating.' We traveled a lot and ate what we found when we got there. As a child, my father didn't pull the waiter aside and say, ‘Can you make some chicken fingers for my kid?' ”
Of all the things he's eaten, though, he still has one implacable arch-enemy.
“Walnuts terrify me,” Zimmern says.
If he came back to Pittsburgh tomorrow, Zimmern knows where he'd go for lunch.
“It's at tie between the bowl of flaczki at the (S&D) Polish Deli or ...”
Then, savoring a particular memory, he settles on Emil's for the second.
“We ate lunch there after we were done shooting, and I had the open-faced braised-beef sandwich with gravy on toast,” Zimmern says. “Boy, that's a rib-sticker. I keep thinking about that sandwich. That was good.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.