"Eating well in America is a class privilege": Andrew Zimmern on our expanding—but still inequitable—food culture

Courtesy Andrew Zimmern

Americans of the Upper Midwest persuasion have historically been slow to accept new foods. Even so, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard a sushi-is-bait-ha-ha-ha comment. And while there are still many people who find it a little too adventurous to explore an Indian or African grocery store, items that were once thought of as exotic suddenly seem to have become more available to mainstream eaters.

Check out your neighborhood supermarket and you’ll probably find an entire section devoted to international foods. Lots of people raised with meat loaf and mashed potatoes are starting to expand their culinary comfort zone. So what is causing this outbreak of food adventurism?

For the answers, I looked to local James Beard award winning culinary celebrity Andrew Zimmern—food writer (Mpls.St.Paul) chef (at the late, great Café Un Deux Trois), and television star (best known for the long running Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern). Are Twin Citizens were getting more adventurous about their food choices?” I asked.

“Emphatically and categorically,” he told me. “There are several things going on. Part of this is the food renaissance that we’re experiencing in this country. Only 25 years ago, there were really no television food programs, no food network. The only food magazines were Bon Appetit and Gourmet. Now, every measurable barometer indicates that we’re in the middle of a food fetish orgy that we’ve never seen in this country.”

“I grew up in New York City,” he said, “but someone my age—51 years old—who is from Minnesota has their roots on the farm. In Minnesota, we are just a generation and a half from the family farm and now farm food is the hot currency in the Cities. That means putting up food, canning it, making the headcheese and the lutefisk. It’s now popular to make your own bacon or your own salami at home. People are experimenting with smoking their own meat.

“It a very firm part of how we eat and live in the Upper Midwest,” he continued. “It’s the food of our ancestors. And now, we look to experience the global pantry.”

It was an incident at Cub Foods that brought home to Zimmern how far the food culture had come locally. “When I was little, my grandmother taught me how to make chicken soup. She’d go to the butcher and they’d give her the whole chicken—the backs, the feet and the other stuff. That disappeared in the last 30 years,” he said.

“I love chicken feet, but I could never find them here. For 18 years I couldn’t find them. Then two years ago, I was at Cub, the one at 169 and Highway 7, and lo and behold, I look and there’s some chicken feet. The only reason they would offer them is that customers were asking for them. This is a Cub in the middle of white, suburban Minneapolis. The idea that a big chain grocery store sells that kind of product is fantastic.”

“There are still problems," Zimmern said. “I have to drive 45 minutes to get good skirt steak, but I know that if I go to St. Paul, to El Burrito Mercado, I can buy them and throw them in the freezer so I can always have them available.

“The biggest sadness is that eating well in America is a class privilege. It’s not only the cost of ingredients—most people are time-poor. There are people who watch these television shows and they dream about cooking.”

Ask the average person, Zimmern said, if he or she is going to make a four-course fancy meal for dinner, and people say they don’t have the time. So, they’re microwaving pizza and eating salad from a bag.

“The vast majority of people can’t afford to eat fresh food on a daily basis. We have a whole generation of Americans addicted to sugar, salt, and fat. We have some of the most powerful corporations who have people addicted to fast, cheap food.”

His answer? “We still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We need to decentralize our food system. We need more suppliers. We need to do more cooking at home. We need to assure that the next generation of Americans has access to fresh food and family farms.”

Zimmern said that he remains optimistic. “I don’t understand why [stores] aren’t selling whole fish with the heads on, or goat meat. I wish they had meat cutters in supermarkets. But I think it’s going to get better. The chicken feet in Cub tells me we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

  • I am a 32 year old mother of 5 who also happens to homeschool. 5 years ago my husband and I decided to go back to the land and started farming. The most difficult thing we are finding is finding customers willing to pay for even half of the amount of work that goes into producing food. We love the idea of working with food deserts and even welcome EBT for our CSA shares. I always cook from scratch, normally in 30 minutes or under. It's more about budget and health for us then anything. But luckily we produce a lot of our own food and that helps. But even my inlaws, who were refugees from Cambodia, found the time and money to produce their own food and cook from scratch. I think it takes encouragement and a change in mindset all around. - by Amy Doeun on Wed, 05/29/2013 - 11:00pm
  • I grew up with Dinner on the table at 6 pm and MOM COOKED IT after working all day outside of the house. And we knew what we were eating, but when that MC ___ place opened, and others followed the family sit down to the table time was lost. And I can remember my parents going to the local Butcher to buy a 1/2 a cow and a 1/2 a pig once a year for our big freezer that really helped at the time for meat on our table, in the long run--saved TONS of money and we didn't have to spend top dollar at the food stores. So sad how everything is FAST PACE, hardly any quality Dinner at the Table time talking over family issues, Vacation trip plannings and what the kids are Up To. You need to SLOW down people, smell some Roses before there are also GONE... - by Sherry Fouts on Wed, 05/29/2013 - 10:59am
  • Most supermarkets would rather close down the chain before they let a union back into the butcher shop. Just sayin'. - by J.r. Roloff on Sat, 06/01/2013 - 1:39am
  • I am surprised by the attention this is getting. It's a well-documented historical fact that the wealthy have always have eaten better than the lower class. At least as early as Roman times there's been a marked and intentional difference in the foods available to each. Think of immigrant foods like lutefisk and pasties, all foods the upper classes wouldn't have eaten but were standard fare at the lowest tier, those who have to leave their home. And is it really a sign of progress for grocery stores to offer chicken feet (which would require recipes for those who've never seen, never mind eaten, them)? Or is it another way to bring customers in? What's more worrisome to me are the food deserts throughout the country, those places where no food other than fast food is available. - by Priscilla Wyeth on Wed, 05/29/2013 - 9:30am
  • As far as I'm concerned its just an excuse, old habits and laziness. It doesn't take long to make a big pot of beans on the weekend to eat during the week. Add some fruit for snacks, some whole grains like oats for breakfast and rice for dinner, and a daily salad... I understand people living on minimum wage would find the cost difficult. As for the rest of us? We need to change our ideas about what a good meal actually is. It isn't four course and it doesn't need to focus on meat and other expensive items. Real food is not as pricey as we've been told. - by Renée Luna on Wed, 05/29/2013 - 11:07pm
  • I have had this problem since I have moved to Pasadena. There are little markets that are hole in the walls and I really have to look for them and the fact that big grocery stores don't really have butchers in them really bothers me. I grew up in a farming community and it is farm to table. My dad brings home boxes of potatoes all the time and I can go to the local market and know whose cow I am eating! I miss that and I hope that Andrew is right in that bigger markets are starting to go back to older methods and more products. - by Emily Mai Hall on Wed, 05/29/2013 - 10:39am
  • Good article.. funny my parents were just talking last weekend that my grandmothers favorite part of the chicken was the feet... so that really surprised me... - by Billie Rae Hamersley Reeves on Tue, 05/28/2013 - 5:57pm
  • a very good argument for eating at home, also eating less food packaged from plastic bags and cardboard boxes. - by Brian David Cange on Wed, 05/29/2013 - 10:44am
  • Now, don't be dissin' hot dish, Andrew! - by Christian Melby on Wed, 05/29/2013 - 11:33am
  • First of all frozen vegetables and meats are very close to fresh and actually have less bacteria. Secondly the entire american diet is overly complex and terrible. But it doesn't matter - excuses enable obesity and unhealthy lifestyles and if anything it will get worse. If we are already around 60% of Americans being morbidly obese how much worse can it get? - by Brad Prose on Thu, 05/30/2013 - 7:43am

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Stephanie Fox's picture
Stephanie Fox

Stephanie Fox (stephaniefox2 at tcdailyplanet dot net) has a Master's Degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. She moved to Minneapolis of her own free will in 1984.