BABBEL: How did you first become interested in travel, and particularly in international cuisines?
ZIMMERN: I’m a paler version of my father. He loved to travel, he loved food, and so did my mother; they have that in common, but my father was the real driver on that. And we spent many, many years — many of my most formative years were spent traveling. And I think I’d been overseas three or four times by the time I was 10 years old, so I was very, very lucky in that sense. And I got really excited by what my dad was doing out in the world: the food that he was showing me, the lifestyle he was showing me.
BABBEL: You champion authentic travel experiences and going “to the last stop on the subway.” Can you talk more about that idea and why you think that’s a better way to explore the world?
ZIMMERN: The last stop on the subway is the place least trampled. It’s the one that hasn’t been bulldozed yet by other cultures, it’s the one that’s least diluted. So if I’m going to Alaska, I can be on the cruise ship and dock at the big city and I can go see Native American art up there in the tchotchke shops designed to lure in the tourists.
Or, I can go to the last stop on the subway and go out to the western villages on the edges of permafrost and hang with native people and experience that, where they’re actually still making those artifacts that are in the tchotchke shops, but for everyday use. Where they’re still practicing their culture instead of having it commodified for them.
BABBEL: Love that. So out of all of your travels, what’s your favorite place you’ve visited and why?
ZIMMERN: I always tell people that the place that I love the most is Botswana.
BABBEL: Why is that?
ZIMMERN: Amazing people, amazing wildlife, but it really was the life lessons that I learned from the people that made it shine for me.
BABBEL: Okay, great. So what about food, is there a must-try food that you’ve had recently that you’d recommend?
ZIMMERN: When you say “must-try,” what do you mean by that? Like in a current American filthy lucre sense, or something that I’ve seen overseas that really excites me?
BABBEL: I’d say something overseas that you really are excited about, yeah.
ZIMMERN: Oh my gosh, it’s always where I’ve just been. I’m a meat-eater. I love meat and our modern — just for example — our modern beef production system, hog production system is horribly out of whack. I just got back from a couple weeks in Europe and I had the opportunity to try heritage species of both cows and hogs that are being raised in very small numbers in very small villages, in one case just by one farmer.
And they’re butchering animals, but instead of butchering cows at two or three years of age or one and a half years of age as they do in many places in America, they are letting them live full happy lives, and so they’re about eight years old. And then harvesting these massive animals and then extreme aging them for about 90 days, and the product is some of the best that I’ve ever tasted in the world.
I got to taste, on the flip side, some hogs in Belgium that are a very long, lean breed, but with incredible marbling that was some of the best pork that I’ve ever eaten in my life. And the reason why I love this trend is that raising happy animals in sustainable ways in sustainable environments is a necessary thing that we’re going to have to get back to if we want to maintain the world the way we have taken for granted for so many years.
And so talking about it all the time as I do is nice, but I love it when I’m out in the field and actually see it being put into practice, and realize that not only are all the people who are talking about that way right, but it’s provable and quantifiable, and it’s a very cool thing.
BABBEL: So you tweeted that you know “kitchen speak” in about 30 languages. What does that mean?
ZIMMERN: When I’m on the street in Bangkok and I’m walking for the train back to my hotel or something, I don’t understand what the people are saying around me when they’re talking. I don’t speak Thai. If someone came up to me and asked me a question, I wouldn’t be able to tell you if they were asking for directions or if they were asking where I bought my shirt.
However, when I’m in a kitchen, whether it’s in a home kitchen or a restaurant kitchen, and somebody talks to me about something, given the context of where I am, 99 times out of 100 I know exactly what the person is saying to me regardless of what the language is, because I’m more immersed with that person, and I’m more tethered to them, and more co-regulated to them by the language of the kitchen than I am by anything else.
And I can tell when somebody is even saying something like, “What should we make tonight for dinner?” because they have that look on their face and they’re standing at their counter the same way I stand at mine and talk to a family member. And it really speaks to the universality of food more than anything else.
BABBEL: That’s really interesting. And I guess it’s body language, too, and context clues and all of that. That’s interesting. So do you speak any foreign languages fluently?
ZIMMERN: I don’t, but as a follow-up to the last question, I forgot to add that I also know more words about food in other languages than I do words about construction, or ship-building, or cartography.
BABBEL: That makes sense, yeah. And knowing some of the basic food and kitchen words, do you think that makes your experiences when you travel better? When you order food or things like that?
ZIMMERN: Well sure, we all eat several times a day, those of us who are lucky enough to have food on our plates. And so if you’re traveling, you know, if you like museums you should know some museum buzzwords in a language. “Which way to the Louvre?” is something that you might want to be able to say in French if you’re traveling there and you’re gonna spend time there. If you love to eat, it’s helpful to understand some food words: “I like that”; “Do you have any salt?”; “May I have another one of those, that was delicious.” I mean it helps, it makes the experience more enjoyable.
BABBEL: What advice would you give someone who wants to have more authentic travel experiences like the ones that you have?
ZIMMERN: Go get lost, go to the last stop on the subway, get lost, take risks. Don’t be fooled by the voice inside your head that says you can’t do something. Of course you can do it. You want to go into the mountains of Northern Thailand and hang out with First Peoples up there, you can do it.
The internet has democratized and made travel opportunistic in a way that it’s never been operationalized before, ever. You can now go and do things that 30 years ago were unheard of. You couldn’t go into an African village and live with people with the ease that you can today. Now that may be mission-based, you may be building houses, right? Or working on a water release program, or teaching for a month, for the right kind of access there. You can’t just show up in somebody’s village and stand around. But the opportunities that are there are immense.
BABBEL: Yeah, absolutely. And you touched on the life lessons you gathered in Botswana, and I wonder — maybe an example would help — but what kinds of things can we learn from other cultures, from other people in these remote parts of the world?
ZIMMERN: When I was in Botswana, we went to set some snap snares to kill some birds and so we had to walk five miles to gather some berries. And walk five more miles in that direction to lay them in a field where the birds would be attracted to them, where we knew that they were feeding where those berries weren’t growing, but they loved those berries. So we knew that it was the right kind of bait and then we set up our snap snares. And they had made the rope, the string that we had used for the snap snares by stripping down reeds and weaving the fibers, because there’s no corner store in the tribal community.
And the next day we went to retrieve our birds and there was one in every snap snare. And when you’re living in the tribal world you wanna be helpful. If you’re not helpful, you’re shunned and you’re pushed to the edges of the tribe. The only people who survive in the tribal system are those who are helpful, and are needed, and are an asset to the communal living.
So I’m always looking to help everywhere that I can, so I bent down and took out my knife to cut the rope, and there was auditory gasping, and I stopped and people were yelling at me politely. And through the translator they said, “Don’t cut the rope, untie the rope!” And it was string, made with fiber, and they gently unknotted the pieces, and took the birds out, and then coiled up the string so they could use it the next week when they went to hunt more birds.
In my house, I have a ball of string in three different junk drawers in the kitchen. And we use them once a year to tie the Christmas tree to the roof of the station wagon. And I had taken for granted what that string meant. I was being wasteful and thoughtless in a way that was out of sync with the way the tribe moved with planet earth and with each other. And I returned from that trip a changed person — I’m now the greenest son of a bitch in the whole world. My recycling station is the envy of all who recycle, and it began then and there.