Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 27, 2007

St. John discusses bizarre foods

Exactly one year ago today I was contacted by a producer of the Travel Channel television program “Bizarre Foods.”  He said that they were going to be in the area and asked if I knew of anywhere in, or around, my hometown that served bizarre food.

I told him that my restaurants were out. The most bizarre thing they might find there is if someone orders the wrong wine to go with the Black Grouper with truffle and risotto.

I told them I knew of a place that served chitlins once a week, but the producer said that they already had “chitlins” covered.

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I was suspicious at first, and after several phone calls I told the producer that I had spent a large portion of my writing career trying to bust all of the old-line Southern culinary stereotypes. I told him that we just don’t eat like they did on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and I don’t want to be a part of any program that would perpetuate those stereotypes.

“No one around here eats raccoon or possum,” I said.

“I can take you to Louisiana where they eat the swamp rat, nutria. Those people down there will eat anything.”

“No thanks, we’ve already got nutria covered.”

“But there’s no food around here that’s bizarre. I promise. We just don’t eat like that. However I do know barbeque place in town called Leatha’s that is a true ‘rib joint’ all the way down to the beach towels for curtains on the windows. They don’t cook anything strange there, the ribs are world-class, but the atmosphere should make for great television.”

After several more phone calls from the producer. We decided that Leatha’ was the spot where my segment would be filmed. Bonnie and Carolyn, two of Leatha’s daughters, would open the restaurant on Sunday afternoon (a day that they were normally closed) and serve ribs and pulled pork.

At the time, the show wasn’t on the air yet. I made the producers send both of the pilot episodes to make sure that the show was going to be reverential to my friends at the barbeque joint and also paint Mississippi in the most positive light.

After viewing both episodes, I concluded that host, Andrew Zimmern- Inaddition to being able to put the most seemingly inedible food items in his mouth and eat them- was a very talented chef and was extremely deferential to the eating habits and culture of peoples all over the world.

“I’ll do it,” I said on a follow-up phone call with the producer. “But on the pilot episodes, Andrew was eating grubs, and worms, and smelly plants.You’re not going to find anything bizarre down here. Again, we just don’t eat like that.”

“Actually,” the producer said, “Bonnie is going to cook coon and possum for us. I thought you said that people don’t eat that stuff down there.”

“We don’t,” I stammered.

“The girls at Leatha’s beg to differ.”

“Listen,” I said. “Those ladies are friends of mine.

I am not going to be a part of any program that would make fun of anyone in this area who eats coon or possum. Y’all better not ‘Borat’ us.” The producer assured me that the episode would treat the Southern backwoods culinary oddities with the respect that they had shown in other foreign cultures, and I assured them that I would be on camera, but in no way could I eat coon or possum.  

I wasn’t taking a stand on principle, or making a statement that I wouldn’t perpetuate regional culinary stereotypes. I have a weak stomach. I didn’t want to get sick during the filming.

In the end, the producers and the host were polite and respectful. The show was one of their highest rated to date. Bonnie and Carolyn get comments all of the time about being on the Travel Channel. The only question I get is “Why did you look so green and nauseous?”

In light of last week’s Associated Press story about a woman being arrested for eating monkey meat in New York, I think the South’s culinary reputation is still in tact.