Food TV

A PGH visit with Andrew Zimmern

Written by Gretchen McKay on


To the generations of Pittsburghers who grew up eating the stuff, sometimes reluctantly, braunschweiger is just one of any number of suspiciously soft meats Mom stuffed between two slices of bread at lunchtime.

Bizarre? Hardly, unless like Max's Allegheny Tavern in the North Side, you go new school and pair it with bacon, hard-boiled egg, spinach and a "secret" sauce that looks a lot like French dressing.
So it was kinda surprising to learn that the King of Weird Food, Andrew Zimmern, would be filming a segment on Silver Star Meats' braunschweiger-making operation in McKees Rocks for a Pittsburgh-based episode of the Travel Channel series "Bizarre Foods." This is a guy who regularly stuffs things like iguana eggs and squirrel brains and teriyaki cockroaches into his mouth, and recently tweeted his recipe for crispy wok-tossed cicadas. While its processing isn't particularly pretty, what's so bizarre about German pork-liver sausage? 05312013zimmern2

I posed the question to the New York-born chef-turned-TV star Thursday afternoon outside Silver Star's plant on Middletown Road. He was nice enough not to make me feel like a total idiot for asking. Shooting me a smile, he reminded me the foods one considers wild, weird and/or totally inedible depends on one's culinary traditions, as well as the part of the world he or she lives in.

So while Pittsburghers might be familiar with braunschweiger, he noted, to someone in say, Alaska, or maybe as far away as India (the show is broadcast in 70 countries), it might seem a very bizarre food, indeed.

"It's all relative," he said. "We have to look at our whole audience."

The excursion to McKees Rocks came four days into Mr. Zimmern's five-day shoot in Pittsburgh, the first of 20 or 21 cities he'll visit over the next few months to shoot the seventh season of the popular show.  It was a busy week: By the time he and his crew pulled into the parking lot at around 2 p.m. in a pair of black Town & Country minivans -- surprisingly on time, and even more surprisingly in a perky mood despite the heat and humidity -- TV's most recognizable food personality already had been foraging for deer tongue somewhere in the wilds of Western Pennsylvania with Cavan Patterson of Wild Purveyors; angled for catfish outside PNC Park in the Allegheny River; butchered and cooked a goat with Cure's Justin Severino; and rolled homemade pierogies at Pierogi's Plus (also in McKees Rocks). Because all work and no play is no fun, he'd also dined in several of Pittsburgh's restaurants, including the South Side's Dish Osteria, where he raved over the baked ricotta, and Emil's in Rankin, home to one of the best smothered beef sandwiches he says he's ever tasted.

d5b11a34c74211e2a0c022000a1f918d 7"Totally old school, with big beef chunks," he noted. 

While it might seem an odd choice for those who still associate our city with steel mills and pollution, adding Pittsburgh to the show's lineup was an easy decision for the Vassar College grad, who makes his home in Minneapolis when he's not traveling the globe -- and not just because his mother was born here.  (He's not sure what neighborhood, just that she lived here until she was 3.)

"First of all, the food is great," he explained. "But food with a story is even better. And food with a story people haven't heard is best of all."

Many of those unknown stories are ethnic in nature, speaking to the treasured food traditions of our region's many Polish, German and Italian immigrants and succeeding generations. Or as  Zimmern calls them with a great deal of affection, "hunky food stories." 

But Pittsburgh also is starting to "heat up" with more modern cuisine, thanks to pioneers such as Wild Purveyors and chefs such as Mr. Severino and Legume's Trevett Hooper. So they'll get some love when the episode airs later this year, too. (No word yet on when that might be.)

Mr. Zimmern compares our city's emerging food scene to that of Minneapolis', which in recent years also has exploded in fun and exciting ways.  A good example is Pittsburgh's growing taste for goat meat, which PG dining critic Melissa McCart wrote about just this week in Thursday's food 3 That chefs will make it, and customers will buy it, "says a lot" about the direction our culinary scene is going. (Up.) 

"I'm jealous of what's gong to happen over the next decade, because it's going to be great," he said.

But enough about Pittsburgh.

What you really want to know is what Mr. Zimmern is like in person. Here's the skinny:

He's obviously hip, showing up at Silver Star in bright-red kicks, a braided bracelet and funky orange-rimmed eyebobs reading glasses. And he doesn't appear to be too full of himself, exposing his belly and chest as he changed his shirt right in front me without missing a beat or blushing. (He left that to me.)

Unlike some celebs I've interviewed, I also got the sense he's a genuinely nice guy. As his crew scurried around readying cameras and microphones, he instructed one guy to stop -- and go get everyone ice cream.

"Did you see that soft-serve place about a mile back?" he asked, referring to the Shake & Twist just down the road on Chartiers Avenue, near Pat Catan's. "Bring back some little dishes of chocolate and vanilla." 

Then, when my interview was over, he willingly posed for pictures (that's right, I asked!), including a really terrible selfie I took with my iPhone. 

What tickled me the most, though, was that he was happy to answer the questions my kids -- all avid "Bizarre Food" watchers -- texted me the second they found out I was going to meet him. Bet some of these crossed your minds, too: 

: How often does he throw up?

A: Never. The network is actually very angry about this. They're like, 'Why doesn't Andrew not like more things?' But I love food and find it all delicious.

Q: Is there anything he's ever refused to eat?

A: Anything endangered, or walnuts. They taste like soap.

Q: What's your favorite food city?

A: Minneapolis, because it's home and I travel all the time. But really, New York City is the greatest city on earth. 

Q: Did you really eat that catfish you caught in the Allegheny River?

A: Yes! We fried it up at a friend's house, and it was delicious!

Andrew Zimmern (with catfish) and Gretchen McKay photos

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