The Travel Channel
Zimmern finds that pastured cows produce butter with a "deep umami flavor."
I guess if I had to pick between grilled emu balls and a cannulated cow for the centerpiece of the pre-credits sequence to the Wisconsin episode of Bizarre Foods America, at least the cow isn't something you see Andrew Zimmern dealing with very often. The man's run-ins with cooked testicles are famous to the point of stereotypical.
This is, of course, what you get with the full Zimmern treatment. Unlike the fractional attention paid to Wisconsin during Anthony Bourdain's "Heartland" episode of his now-shuttered No Reservations series, Bizarre Foods America devoted the whole hour to the Badger State. I don't think I'm alone in saying we're worth it.
Zimmern narrates the opening of the episode, crediting Wisconsin for "finding new paths for doing things the old-fashioned way." Dairy science, understandably, kicks off the show. David Combs, professor of nutrition in the UW-Madison Department of Dairy Science, leads Zimmern through the campus barn that houses those cows with the windows installed.
No sooner is he gloved up and rooting around in the 30-40 gallons of semi-digested feed inside a cow's stomach than he's (presumably) cleaned off and taste-testing milk and butter from grain-fed cows versus pastured cows. (The transition from a wheelbarrow full of bubbling, evacuated stomach contents to a highlight reel of Zimmern gnawing on cooked cow stomachs is classic Bizarre Foods.)
After praising the "deep umami flavor" of pastured butter from Wisconsin cows, Zimmern takes the episode to the "Dairyland Frankenstein" cave of Willi Lehner's Bleu Mont Dairy. ("All this stuff is alive," Zimmern intones. "We're not alone here.") Lehner's washed rind, raw sheep's milk cheeses are literally enlivened by bacteria, while the wrapped, cow's milk cheeses like his terrific bandaged cheddar get a shot of flavor both from mold on the exterior and cheese mites burrowing into the interior.
This segment is paired, perhaps somewhat daringly, with electron microscope images of the little buggers drifting across the screen. Hey, you clicked on this article; if you're freaked out, you asked for it. Me? I always prefer to know what I'm eating and where its flavor comes from.
So too does Tory Miller -- James Beard Award winner, preeminent Madison chef and head honcho of Graze and L'Etoile. He appears at the onset of his segment wearing a Wiskullsin t-shirt and shopping at the Dane County Farmers' Market. In the kitchen, he tells Zimmern, "I'm obsessed with the taste of place."
Fittingly for this show, the preparation that gets the most screen time is a -- get ready -- chicken and lettuce mayonnaise soup with Hook's 15-year cheddar, inspired by a fast food chicken sandwich that had sat a little too long in Miller's car. ("Can we cook the mayo? Will it hold together?" -- this is what you ask yourself if you're a James Beard-level cook. Or high.) "The genius in this," says Zimmern, "is that cheddar, because it makes it taste a little turned. In a good way."
(In an unaired segment that's available online, Zimmern and Miller also make a visit to Ha Long Bay on Willy Street, where they sup on Som Tum (papaya salad), Goi? Cu?n Cha? Gio? (a spring roll wrapped around an egg roll), Nem Khao Tod (a crispy rice entrée), and ph??.)
Other Wisconsin highlights include fishing for and cooking Great Lakes whitefish in Two Rivers, and the old firefighters who still cook the fish in the fat and oils of its own entrails; a Serbian family in Milwaukee roasting a whole lamb for a daughter's birthday -- and making sure the pater familias got first shot at the eyeball; and a Wisconsin-nice couple who have been raising emu at Valley View (mostly for their oil) since 1994.
(In that emu segment, while he eventually gave emu meat -- and not just the black testicles -- props, Zimmern seemed to lightly mock the older gentleman farmer for grilling his emu meat on foil. Andrew, I imagine that's to retain more of the meat's fat, since emu is some of the leanest protein to walk the earth. So cut him some slack!)
The Travel Channel crew was in Madison shooting this episode in July of 2012, which makes this local viewer ache a bit for warmer, greener days. The last segment of the show was shot at Black Earth Meats, and July seems like an age ago for that business. Since then, residents of Black Earth have complained about the butcher shop's noise and traffic levels , the shop has had to recall almost one hundred pounds of beef tongue, and perhaps most surprisingly, Tory Miller himself has seemingly cut ties with the company over dissatisfaction with its sourcing. In this episode, Zimmern praises Bartlett Durand (the "Zen butcher"), and both the philosophy and products of Black Earth Meats, and it's still a name you'll see on plenty of restaurant menus. Call it something between growing pains and the price of success.
Zimmern and company's visit also rankled some observers -- well, me, at least -- for the way he characterized some of his experiences on his podcast, Go Fork Yourself, after he returned to Minnesota. Shortly after arriving, he tried to swing through the Old Fashioned on a Monday summer night, for a quick off-camera meal. The hostess was young, didn't recognize him as a TV personality, and told him there would be a 90-minute wait.
This resulted in a prima donna-esque rant on the podcast, in which he reminded everyone that he could walk into the three-star Napa restaurant the French Laundry on New Year's Eve and get a meal. It was a bizarre embrace of fame's warped meritocracy, and an unnecessary shot at Madison.
I guess he could have been demonstrating some very dry wit; after all, he has had praise for the Madison dining scene for some time. There's no greater proof of that than the care he has taken to portray the full flowering of what Wisconsin has to offer. Between his previous visit for Bizarre World and last night's Bizarre Foods America episode, Andrew Zimmern has shown Wisconsin to be the great, diverse food state we all know it to be.
The episode should run again Monday, March 18, at 7 p.m.