Season two of Minnesota-based chef/activist Daniel Klein's online weekly series “The Perennial Plate” is your dream project. It is you in a car with a bike rack tooling around the country getting private tutorials on things like the art of Mississippi Hand Grabbin' (also known as as standing fully clothed up to your neck in lake water with a bunch of dudes and catching bug-eyed, prehistoric-looking catfish with your hands). It is having a guy that looks and sounds a little like Spicoli take you diving for sea urchin right off of Malibu and then eating uni fresh from the ocean floor. It is showing up at a shack in Arkansas in the middle of the night so a grizzled, sleepy-eyed stranger can take you out in a motorboat — cue the stomach-twistingly terrifying piano theme music from “Halloween” — to teach you how to capture, slay and fry up frogs.
It is also you in your most sincere moments being able to spread the word about the real beauty of community gardens, the urge to pass on one's heritage and customs to future generations and about socially responsible folks like the ones at Farm to Pantry, modern-day gleaners in Sonoma county who will gather up a grower's excess produce and take it to food banks to feed the poor and hungry. Your dream project then involves you having the will to turn all of this into charmingly messy four to eight minute documentaries that don't take up much of a person's time but maybe open up their world a little. To read more about Daniel Klein and your dream project, turn the page.
Squid Ink: How did you come up with ideas for destinations on the Perennial Plate road trip?
Daniel Klein: When we decided to go across the country we put out a call for story ideas from around the country. Some of them were fantastic and others weren't exactly what we were looking for. There were a huge number of [suggestions to visit urban farms], like”You have to meet the guy down the street.” Which no doubt would have been really interesting but we just can't do them every time.
SI: This week's episode — called California Gleaning — focuses on a very different interpretation than the traditional one explored by Agnes Varda in “The Gleaners and I” as in peasants who comb fields for food post-harvest. Yours is a modern take on the term involving an organization that works with farmers to distribute their surplus produce to the needy.
DK: Yeah, it's like how dumpster divers could be considered gleaners. These folks have more of a relationship with the farmers. They get permission and realize that farmers need to do something with extra produce that they're not able to sell. So they're sort of a resource there: They get volunteers to take care of what would go to waste or to the chickens or be composted.
SI: What's the trick to being a good gleaner?
DK: You're doing the same work that a farmworker would who picks the lettuce or pulls the beets. [In this case] it just happens to be middle-aged women or little kids or whoever has the day off. There was a bit of irony in the situation is that a lot of the folks who collect from the food [pantry] are themselves day laborers. They're basically growing food and then having to get food for free – which shows some of the problems we have in this country.
SI: Part of the dramatic tension in your short documentaries is that often everyone — your subjects, you — look a little unsure about what is about to unfold. Is there any kind of rehearsal ahead of time? Or do you just show up and hope the magic happens?
DK: We just drive up. We tell people we'll be filming when we show up so they're not, like, shocked or that there's less of that awkwardness. But what I like to think is special about our show is that it's so real and immediate and we're not ignoring the fact that we have a camera. There's a camera there. We might as well acknowledge it. We don't construct a story first. We edit based on the footage that we get. We create a story based on the best stuff that comes out of it, the most honest message. The people really show who they are and we look for those moments. Whenever you stage something, you lose that, you lose those moments of vulnerability.
SI: Ah, vulnerability. That leads us to episode 54 — what we like to think of as the closest thing you have to offer in the horror genre. You go river frogging in Arkansas with total strangers in the dead of night. At 4:32 one of them takes a live, squirming frog and bashes it against the side of the boat. After that, we expected that the segment would end with Jamie Lee Curtis finding you with a butcher knife sticking out of your head
DK: [laughs] We're planning on making a documentary with a lot of our extra footage. There's some interesting dialogue between me and Mirra — who is my girlfriend and does most of the camerawork – about if it's safe and about our prejudice and preconceptions about these folks in Arkansas. Of course it ended up being great and they were friendly guys.
SI: So what you're saying is that you both had moments where you thought, “What if they kill us out here and dump our bodies in the river?”
DK: But they'd never get away with killing us.
SI: Why is that?
DK: First off, we are so connected online and people know where we are. There's a MAP that shows where we are. We put out a video every week and recipes and blog entries. When those stopped, the last place we were would be sort of an obvious start of the trail. Maybe someone more low profile would be a better choice for the psycho backwoods murder experience.
SI: …and this, we imagine, is the speech you gave to your girlfriend so she didn't turn the car around and drive home.
DK: [laughs] It WAS
SI: Was the impromptu frog bludgeoning your #1 most shocking moment thus far?
DK: Did you see the noodling episode?
SI: The one where a grimacing man lowers himself into muddy water and emerges with a fish the size of a small person? Yes.
DK: When he pulled that catfish out of the water my jaw dropped to the floor. The woman who helped organize that, whose house we were staying at, was like, “I wish I had a camera filming YOU,” because I was like, “I can't believe it!” For them it was not even a huge fish; it's medium-sized. Then I was thinking, “Oh God. Now I'm going to have to do that next. I don't know if I can do that.” I did do it, by the way.
SI: You never show that. Are you saving it for the DVD?
DK: I just got a really small fish. But it wasn't small enough that I could make it into a fun moment. And it wasn't big enough to be worth showing.
SI: Your girlfriend-slash-cinematographer Mirra Fine is a vegetarian. Do you have to eat more to compensate for her plant-based diet?
DK: No. We make her being a vegetarian part of the story. A lot of times we encourage people to go to the site before we show up at their house and here's plenty of entries that say that she's a vegetarian. People do like to make fun of it – especially in the South. It's something to talk about. The story behind her being a vegetarian is that we had a turkey in our backyard and she told me that I was an animal for killing it and I said, “Well, you eat meat.” And she said, “Not anymore.”
SI: Has being a vegetarian ever prevented her from picking up the camera and doing her part?
DK: She filmed a lamb butchering. Even though she's a vegetarian she does a good job of filming things. She's able to suck it up.
SI: Besides obvious things like payroll what's the upside about having a two-person crew?
DK: We feel like the small size of our crew is a really great thing. We're very unintimidating. We show up and we're not like a crew of six people surrounding you and making you feel like you're on camera. We're a couple going around the United States filming and people really relax. Mirra is really great at asking questions and she makes people feel at ease. We benefit from that a lot. People have been so generous to us. In San Francisco, some woman we'd never met before put us up for three days. When you ask for something they give in abundance. And hopefully we're giving back by creating these videos and sharing people's stories.
To watch episodes of The Perennial Plate, go to theperennialplate.com.