Interview: The Perennial Plate’s Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine

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Mirra Fine and Daniel Klein kick up their heels in Gujarat, India | Photo: Mirra Fine

Take one conscientious chef/activist/filmmaker trained in top restaurants around the world, combine with one writer/graphic designer/dogwalker, equip with HD cameras and send on expeditions across Minnesota, the U.S. and beyond: That’s the recipe for The Perennial Plate, the hit digital-short web series that is, at turns, provocative, poignant, daring and delicious.

For three seasons, Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine have been stirring things up by exploring where food comes from—beyond the supermarket or even the farmers market—and how the choices we make for dinner can have unintentional, and unimaginable, consequences in the food chain. The first episode, titled “Turkey,” in which Klein procured and prepared a live turkey for Thanksgiving dinner 2009, set the stage (and turned Fine into a vegetarian—a vegetarian who hates vegetables). A year’s worth of weekly episodes shot in Klein’s home state of Minnesota followed, with subjects that included harvesting morels and maple syrup, hunting deer and squirrels, raising rabbits and pigs and making bread and butter. Warnings accompanied the more graphic episodes. More often than not, each ended with a showcase of Klein’s kitchen skills as he prepared an incredible feast from the ingredients at hand.

Season 2 found Klein and Fine filming across America, producing mini-documentaries about a seaweed harvester/poet in Maine, 70-year-old twin brothers living off the grid in Utah and an animal sanctuary in Maryland, as well as episodes about catching and killing frogs in Arkansas, hunting wild boar in Texas and catfish grabbing in Mississippi.

The Perennial Plate’s first two seasons were financed with the help of Kickstarter campaigns. Thanks to the show’s popularity, Intrepid Travel came aboard as a partner for Season 3, currently filming in 12 countries. Just announced is a new partnership, this one with Tastemade and YouTube, to produce and share cooking videos on YouTube.

TrekWorld caught up with Klein and Fine in the midst of their world tour to talk about socially responsible eating, their favorite cuisine, street food and junk food, how they balance their professional and personal partnership and whether things really do go better with Coke.

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Daniel lends a hand in Yuanyang, China | Photo: Mirra Fine

Most of us don’t think—and don’t want to think—about where our food comes from, especially meat but fruits and vegetables, too. Why is it important to remind us, and to do so graphically?

Daniel: I don’t take eating meat lightly. You are taking a life and that’s a serious thing. But if you choose to eat an animal, the least you can do is make sure that it had a decent life leading up to that moment: good to the animal, and good to the Earth. So, to get this point across, the fact that something living has to die for your enjoyment/sustenance we thought we needed to show the actual death, because it is shocking, but it is reality.

Mirra: I became a vegetarian as a result of the first episode of The Perennial Plate. Daniel had brought a live turkey home, and planned to slaughter it for Thanksgiving. Even though I’d always known that meat comes from live animals, this experience was the first time I actually had to face the reality of killing an animal for meat. And I decided I wasn’t okay with it. If I couldn’t kill the animal myself, and if I can’t bear to watch it being killed, then I just didn’t feel good about eating it.

The purpose of our show is to show people where food comes from. I think, with all the frozen, packaged meat and one-dollar burgers out there, this is an important thing for people to realize. I’m definitely not trying to make anyone else become a vegetarian (though I wouldn’t be upset if more people did). I just want them to think about their choices when it comes to food.

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Harvesting rice, Yunnan Province, China | Photo: Mirra Fine

Daniel: You describe The Perennial Plate as “Adventures in Sustainable Eating,” and your web series is dedicated to “socially responsible and adventurous eating.” What exactly is “sustainable” and “socially responsible” eating?

We realize those terms are pretty broad, and they’ve actually been changing and developing over the course of our series (especially as words like “sustainable” become so commonplace that they don’t mean much). We are generally looking at stories where people are doing things differently than conventional agriculture. We believe that the food system is broken and as a result we have serious problems with our health, economy and climate. So we are trying to share the stories of people who are searching for an alternative, or whose way of life is such that even if not intentional, it is different than the conventional ways of growing/fishing, etc. I’m also a cook, and so the food thing is important too. As we travel the world, it’s certainly an adventure—along that adventure we try to make good choices about what we eat, the way we interact/travel, etc. That includes our partners at Intrepid Travel who make an effort to work with local guides, use public transport, support small businesses, etc.

What was the inspiration for the name?

The name or our series has two meanings. The first is a derivative of the Aldous Huxley book “The Perennial Philosophy” in which he draws the parallels between Eastern and Western religions: the “perennial” ideas. We see the desire for good, real food as a commonality between all people (regardless of race, religion, politics, etc.), thus, The Perennial PLATE. The name also refers to perennials in nature. These are plants that continue to come back year after year, they tend to be good for the soil and the earth and don’t require additional input. They are sustainable, and since that is a theme of our series, we are talking about the sustainable plate—without using that word.

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Daniel and Mirra, off the road | Photo: Mirra Fine

Daniel, you’re a chef, filmmaker and activist. Mirra, you’re a filmmaker, writer and graphic designer. Between you, you have the perfect backgrounds and skills to create The Perennial Plate. You met by chance in a cheese shop. Would The Perennial Plate have happened if you hadn’t met?

Daniel: Probably not. Prior to meeting Mirra, I tended to move to a new city/country every six to nine months. So, by meeting her, I was forced to stick around in Minnesota and figure out what I was going to do with myself. The Perennial Plate was a result of that. Mirra started filming around episode eight, when I asked her to hold the camera while I butchered a lamb. I had to convince her for a long time to help me with the series, but once she did, it really started to come into its own.

Mirra: Before I met Daniel, I was a processed/junk food aficionado, who ate meat and had never picked up a camera in my life. So maybe that cheese shop was divine intervention.

What videos have been the most popular?

Daniel: Our montages are the most popular. “From Japan with Love (and Dashi),” “A Taste of Vietnam,” “A Day in India”—these are videos that are fast-paced and easy to share. They also get people interested in the series and bring new viewers to the more content-oriented programming. Our recent world tour series has been popular (because we have a bigger fan base now). Before that it tended to be the controversial videos: dumpster diving, bug eating, squirrel hunting, catfish noodling… you get the idea.

Mirra: Yeah, the montage videos have been the most popular because they are shiny and flashy, and the easiest to grasp by a wide audience. In the world of internet-caused ADD and short attention spans, these vids have the most viral potential. But for people really interested in the personal documentary-style food stories from around the world, viewers have really responded to “Udon and Country” (about a Japanese wheat farmer who makes his own udon noodles), “Where the Water Settles” (a rice scholar/farmer in the Hani Rice Terraces of Yunnan Province, China) and “The Middle Way” (a young first-generation college graduate in Kunming, China who started a restaurant and sources all the produce from her family’s small village farm).

What are your own personal favorite episodes?

Daniel: My favorite episode is probably “God’s Country.” It was a perfect example of what we were trying to do in Season 2. We wanted to share stories, but also interact with the families, sort of separate the filmmakers from the subjects. The family also ended up teaching us a lot—despite our huge difference in beliefs, we became friends.

Mirra: Agreed. For the “God’s Country” episode, we spent two days living at the home of a Mennonite family of 10. I slept in the girls’ room, and Daniel in the boys’. We ate with them, milked cows with them—they even invited us to attend church. We really got to know them. Since then, we have been invited to two of their children’s weddings.

I also really love the “Catfish Noodling” episode. For our videos from around the world, “For Udon and Country” had a similar feel to me. Shimizu San (the udon maker) sends us packages and emails on the regular, and I cant wait to visit again.

Are there any episodes that were particularly controversial?

Daniel: The frog-catching episode and the feral pig episode caused a bit of a stir. Both show unapologetic views of killing animals. People got upset by a hog being killed in a cage in front of its family, and the way you best kill a frog is to smash its a head against something hard until its guts fly out.

Mirra: Those two episodes were as equally controversial as they were difficult to film. Being a vegetarian, and animal lover… it is very hard for me to be present during the killing of animals—especially when I feel it is in done in an inhumane way.  The feral pig episode, in particular, was pretty devastating. However, our show is not about telling people what to do, but instead showing the reality of how other people get their own food. Whether it’s trapping pigs, or catching frogs, it is real life. And in many cases, it is what these people have always known.

What’s been your most surprising meal so far?

Daniel: My most surprising meal was how good high-end sushi can be. I’ve eaten at some of the best places in the U.S., but eating at a seven-seat sushi restaurant in the basement of an office tower in Tokyo blew my mind. Every piece of fish was a revelation. And although the meal set me back $300, it was one of the best meals of my life.

Mirra: I wasn’t the most adventurous eater before I started working on The Perennial Plate. So, there have been a lot of surprising meals. The one that stands out: eating lotus root and banana leaves over rice served by Hani women (in full traditional garb) off a tiny village market in the rice terraces. Many times during the meal I found myself wondering in amazement how I ever got there. Not to mention the food was amazing.

Do you have a favorite type of cuisine?

Daniel: This is going to sound really boring, but I love pizza and BBQ. But I like most types of food. In India, Japan and China, I only ate those cuisines and looked forward to every meal.

Mirra: I’m a big fan of Indian and Ethiopian food, and I would be remiss to ever turn down a plate of pasta with tomato sauce.

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Vada pav, street food in Mumbai, India | Photo: Mirra Fine

What’s the best street food you’ve ever had?

Daniel: I really like Mumbai street food, called chaat—there’s a wide selection of snacks that include pani puri, bhel puri, vada pav. All have a great balance of salty, sweet, sour and spicy.

Mirra: Stinky tofu on the streets of Beijing, China. It’s fermented tofu (usually in some sort of tomato sauce) that smells like really stinky cheese.

How have your travels changed you?

Daniel: I grew up traveling (my parents took me to Nepal when I was 4), so it is really just a part of my life and who I am. It shapes the way that I think about the world and live my life. I hope that travel has made me more tolerant and also aware of how what I do in my daily life can have impact around the world (both positive and negative).

Mirra: I think our travels have helped to make me less fearful of the unknown. Because when you spend hours driving to the backwoods of Mississippi to meet and sleep at the home of some guys who wrestle 50-pound catfish with their bare hands whom you’ve only met on the internet, you gotta just have faith.

What’s the biggest challenge of being filmmakers, entrepreneurs and significant others?

Daniel: I think the biggest challenge is trying to separate work from our relationship. Running The Perennial Plate is kind of like having a baby (not that I’ve had one), but it sort of takes over. It can be all we do and talk about unless we make an effort to do otherwise. So that is a challenge. It’s also a challenge to balance the art of filmmaking with being a business, there is always too much to do and you have to prioritize, which is hard.

Mirra: I think we work pretty well together (I mean, hey—we spent six months in a car driving around the U.S. and are still dating). Truthfully, I think our biggest issue is Daniel giving me crap when I drink a Coke.

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Mirra meets a family of pigs, Yunnan Province, China | Photo: Daniel Klein

What have you learned about each other that you never knew?

Daniel: When I met Mirra she was a pretty picky eater (except when it came to cheese), so I’ve been blown away by her willingness to dive into a new culture’s food. She wrote a great blog entry about eating in India at places that I was wary of. Mirra also has a great ability to put our subjects at ease, she is a very compassionate person who really listens (I guess I knew that before), but it really comes out in our work.

Mirra: You know, Daniel started the show when we had been dating about eight months, and we embarked on the six-month road trip when we had been together around a year and a half. At this time, we’ve been together three years. So, we’re still getting to know each other throughout this whole process. So what I’ve learned is that he is an amazing teacher (he taught me everything I know about filming/editing), and he is exceptionally honest, which is a rare quality these days.

Traveling, producing videos and eating incredible food sounds like a dream job. Is there any downside?

Daniel: I gained 10 pounds? But that’s not really bad. Like I said before, knowing when to stop working and just hang out is hard, it would be nice to not have to carry a camera around everywhere, but that’s also what makes it special.

Mirra: I’ve got a bulged disk in my neck from editing (which Im still trying to fix… while still editing), and my boyfriend has gained 10 pounds.

The job is a lot of work, but it’s an amazing job, where we get to go to places I’ve never thought Id be able to visit, and meet so many people. I feel very lucky.

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Daniel drinking fresh soy milk, China | Photo: Mirra Fine

What do you never leave home without that makes life on the road easier, more comfortable, more efficient, more fun?

Daniel: I think almost more important is what you do leave at home. Packing light is key to good travel. Bring a good book and hoodie sweatshirt. The hoodie sweatshirt makes it so much easier to sleep in less than appealing places.

Mirra: Advil, for sure. We also both like to bring a book (or two) that takes place in the country in which we are traveling. This gives us different insights into what we are seeing.

Mira: You became a vegetarian as a result of the first episode, “Turkey.” What happened?

Ahh yes. That fateful day… Daniel came home one day with a turkey and kept it in his backyard for a week (in his neighbor’s chicken coop). During that time, he kept trying to convince me to go meet the turkey, but I couldn’t bring myself to facing an animal whom I knew would be killed soon.

One week later, he killed that turkey… which was shocking. I didn’t meet the turkey, but half expected Daniel to “come to his senses,” realize he couldn’t kill a living being and just keep him as a pet. But he didn’t. I called him a monster and he pointed out my hypocrisy, because by eating meat, I indirectly kill animals all the time… I just had someone else do the killing for me. Since I knew that I could never kill an animal myself, I decided I should stop eating meat. My younger sister also became a vegetarian as a result of that.

Mira: You’re a vegetarian who hates vegetables. Please explain!

Yeah, I’m working on it. When I first became a vegetarian, I just cut out any meat products but didn’t make any other changes to my diet. So it consisted of mostly pop tarts, Campbells minestrone soup, cream cheese wontons, etc. It didn’t feel great. So I began bringing in more “whole foods.” I actually have gotten a lot better (it helps to be dating a chef). The only holdouts are beets and squash. But I try to sample those every time they are offered to me. I hear you can eventually get a taste for something if you keep trying it.

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Vietnamese meal | Photo: Mirra Fine

Mira: In your travels, you share nearly every meal with strangers, many of whom, you say, feel the need to defend their meat-eating preferences or even convert you when you merely mention that you’re a vegetarian. Why do you think that’s the case?

I don’t think that’s always the case, though I do feel nervous whenever I tell a new person that I’m a vegetarian. I think that many people view my choice as a judgment on how they choose to eat… but it’s not. It’s just my personal preference. Also, I think those crazy, extreme vegetarians who threaten peoples’ lives (we had one guy write in saying he hopes Daniel gets murdered by a pack of wild animals) have given us non-judgmental vegetarians a bad rap.

That being said, there are many meat-eating friends I’ve met along the way who just accept me for who I am… though they tease me along the way (which I can appreciate).

Mira: You are the only other person I know who still drinks Classic Coke. Friends drink Diet Coke, Sodium-Free Coke, Caffeine-Free Coke and Coke Zero but no one I know drinks Classic Coke. Why are we such a minority? Things really do go better with Coke, right?

From my dad (who is a dentist, pushing me to stop for tooth-health/body-health reasons) to Daniel who is an activist (encouraging me to stop for reasons of solidarity with those who have fallen victim to the Coke industry—workers, communities, etc.), to my job of focusing on small producers as opposed to the large-scale operations… I’m working on quitting Coke.

But… it just tastes so good. I don’t particularly have a taste for wines, or any other alcohol, for that matter. I really just love how Coke compliments food.

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Daniel adjusts the focus, India | Photo: Mirra Fine

Daniel: In order to do what you do, you said that you had to surrender to being “the person you hate”—the person who posts pictures of every meal and even personal moments on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, It’s even worse in your case, you noted, because you also shoot video. How do you balance being in the moment and capturing it at the same time? Is there anything that’s just TMI?

I had to come to the realization that taking the videos, etc., was part of being in the moment because it’s our job. To record video and also to interact on social media, is part of having an online show. Filming and editing are artistic expressions, so instead of only being in the moment of interacting with people, you are being in the moment of filming a scene, you are engaging with creating a work of art or a story. That means: being friendly and having a good time while keeping the camera in mind as well.

Daniel: You recently blogged about how much time, effort and expense—not to mention heart and soul—go into the production of each Perennial Plate episode. And you voiced your frustration that only 100 of your 8,000 Twitter followers shared a recent video and only 25 out of 9,000 Facebook fans “liked” it. Do you think Retweets and Likes reflect the intrinsic worth of a video, photo or article?

No. I think creating something has value for sure. Listening to someone’s story has value. And inspiring just one person has value. But at the same time, we create these videos so they will get seen. They aren’t pure art, they are videos that aim to tell a story for an internet audience. I think that blog post comes out of frustration at the internet in general: our short attention spans, the way Facebook is trying to monetize by not letting people reach their fans unless we pay, and just how everyone is trying to get heard but there is too much going on—and so much of it is cheap and ugly. All that being said, Likes and RTs are helpful for getting a video seen, that’s why we want people to do it. And we make videos so people will watch them.

Daniel: You’ve trained with master chefs at restaurants in Spain, France, England, India and New York. Any dream or plan of opening your own?

I actually moved to Minnesota thinking I would open a restaurant and decided not to. I created The Perennial Plate instead. So, maybe sometime in the future, but no immediate plans.

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Ready for their closeup | Photo: Mirra Fine

Daniel: Do you have a favorite food-related book, blog, movie, music, TV show/series?

Book: Although it isn’t my favorite, Omnivore’s Dilemma is the book that most encompasses the philosophy of what we are trying to do.

Blog: honest-food.net is a great blog about hunting, fishing and foraging from Hank Shaw.

Movie: Our Daily Bread is an amazing documentary with no words that shows the industrial food system in Europe. It’s not negative, necessarily, but it will blow your mind.

Music: Food related music?! No, but we put a lot of emphasis on music in our videos. A good friend of mine searches the web for music from each country for us.

TV: Rivercottage with Hugh Fearnly Whittingstall was one of the big inspirations for this series.

Do you collect any souvenirs?

Daniel: No.

Mirra: Well, that’s not entirely true. I did get food poisoning in India… but I don’t know if I brought it all the way home with me.

What’s your favorite junk food?

Daniel: I like Sunchips, Reeses peanut butter cups and Kraft Mac & Cheese.

Mirra: I had a friend comment recently on the strange dichotomy of my food preferences—I love really fancy cheeses, and also have a junk food problem. It’s hard to choose my favorite, but I’d say Hot Tamales.

 

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  4. Yes of course…all of these kinds of dihess are grouped under “Chaat”Amazing stuff! Spicy, Sweet, Tangy, Crunchy, Fresh and Nutritious!Very popular street food.Components usually areChopped boiled Potatoes, or boiled/sprouted beans.Chopped onionsChopped green chillies (fresh)Lime/LemonChopped CilantroOptional chopped tomatoCilantro chutney for heat and tangTamarind chutney for sweet and tangPuffed rice and/or Sev/fried crisps for crunchI’d recommend visiting the local Indian grocery and picking up ready made bags of the puffed rice, crisps, sev etc. Also you can pick up ready made tamarind chutney to save time.

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  7. Very different kind of couple and interview I must say. Now I am not sure what is the story behind the name Mirra in western culture, here in India we had a saint poetess called Mira or Meera during middle ages and her poems are full of love for the divine Krishna. ( one of the reason half of India is vegetarian ).

  8. Nice article! I guess I am quite fortunate to be living in the heart of Europe (with all the commodities of modern world) and have access to home produced food almost throughout the year. Home grown ingredients simply taste the best!

    I think there are countless opportunities to try excellent food in every part of the world. We just need to look in right places.

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