Cheflebrity Andrew Zimmern has made a career out of playfully prodding local diners to embrace dining gems hidden in plain sight. But Washingtonians have serious work to do, and it involves fighting a Darwinian menace with our forks.
The first time the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods America” rolled into town, Zimmern stuck to Embassy Row.
During his latest tour of the nation’s capital — “Bizarre Foods America: Washington DC” airs Feb. 11 at 9 p.m. on the Travel Channel — Zimmern chews through: The Source by Wolfgang Puck (hosting a viewing party Feb. 11 from 8 to 10 p.m.), the army of food trucks — including the PB&J truck (consumed a Spicy Pig sandwich), Fojol Bros. (sweet potato massaman curry), Chupacabra (tongue taco) and Hula Girl (Hawaiian barbecue platter, spam musubi) — catering to State Department employees, the venerable Florida Avenue Grill, Jaleo, the now-defunct America Eats Tavern, Mega Mart in Hyattsville, Md., and La Chiquita in Takoma Park, Md.
The visit is rounded out by a field trip to Common Good City Farm’s LeDroit Park plot, as well as a moonlit fishing expedition.
That’s how he got hooked on snakehead.
“I think that it’s just criminal that it’s not being served in hospitals, prisons, schools ... any place the public dollar intersects with policy,” Zimmern said, stressing that the mass consumption of the meaty, alterna-protein could help solve both an ecological crisis and food security issues.
“I think it’s a civics lesson on a plate,” he argued.
John Rorapaugh, ProFish Ltd.’s director of sustainability, has been spearheading the snakehead eradication effort for the past three years. So far, he’s rallied sportsmen (Potomac Snakehead Tournament, June 1-2), adventurous diners (glitzy charity dinners have become annual traditions) and eco-conscious chefs (Scott Drewno of The Source, Chad Wells of Rockfish Restaurant, Dennis Marron of Poste Moderne Brasserie, Dave Stein of Tony and Joe’s, Taco Bamba founder Victor Albisu and Matt Day of Woodberry Kitchen as true believers) to the cause. Rorapaugh would love to add lawmakers to the fold.
“Hopefully we will have legislation on the books that will help commercial fishermen target these apex predators in all states,” he said.
Rorapaugh participated in a broader sustainable dining event in the Dirksen Senate Office Building last year, and he said he would love to touch base with Restaurant Associates about sliding expertly cooked snakeheads onto congressional plates.
“I would love to host another [luncheon] with invasives and local seafood in the near future,” he said, offering to lure in Maryland Seafood and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for even more homegrown flavor.
Drewno said he became involved in snakehead evangelization about a year ago, after learning about the renowned predator’s destructive appetite.
“If we don’t eradicate the snakehead, we’re not going to have everything we’ve grown to love about the Chesapeake Bay,” he warned, stressing that snakeheads will greedily consume other fish, crabs and even turtles. “We’ve provided everything the snakehead needs to proliferate and eventually take over.”
While he’s helped place the fish in front of many local diners — most recently at the Washington Humane Society’s 12th Annual Sugar & Champagne gala — Drewno believes there’s still more work to do. “We haven’t successfully created a market for it — yet,” he said, suggesting that uninformed consumers are still spooked by the name.
Local fishermen, meanwhile, haven’t fully mastered how best to pluck the confounding critter from the Potomac.
“They isolate themselves a few times a year to spawn, which places them in shallower waters than the fishermen are accustomed to fishing. [During] summer months they are protected by both these shallows and the added vegetation,” Rorapaugh said of his wily foe. As illustrated during Zimmern’s somewhat frustrating fishing expedition, a nocturnal excursion requiring the hunters to stalk their fast-moving prey with bows and arrows, tracking snakeheads requires an eagle eye and quick reflexes.
The snakeheads appear to be winning.
“I do know that in the two years we have sponsored the Potomac Snakehead Tournament the numbers of snakehead harvested tripled,” Rorapaugh said.
Once it’s out of the muck, Drewno insists the fish is utterly delightful. “It’s a really easy fish to cook ... and very versatile,” he said. Drewno said curing and smoking is his preferred preparation technique for the naturally oily specimen.
While he lauded Wells’ blackened version, Rorapaugh experiences his first taste of “snakeheads caviar” after Zimmern doctors the roe sack with salt.
“C’mon, that’s stupid good,” Zimmern says while slurping fish eggs alongside the equally spellbound Rorapaugh.
Zimmern samples snakehead three different ways during the Feb. 11 episode. His dream is for others to take the plunge at least once.
“I hope this show makes a difference in the American diet,” he said.