Some crucial parts of the food revolution will not be televised. But these days you can watch it unfold online, and a good place to start is The Perennial Plate.
Each week for the past two years, 29-year-old filmmaker Daniel Klein has posted a new webisode of this documentary series about “adventurous and sustainable eating.” Working on a shoestring with one camera and a laptop, Klein has perfected a style of indie filmmaking that lets viewers draw their own conclusions. While some installments highlight uncontroversial topics, like the positive effects of community gardens, others show steps in the farm-to-table journey that are disturbing to watch: We meet struggling strawberry-farm laborers in California, see feral pigs trapped and shot in Texas and witness the slaughter of rabbits, chickens, squirrels, bison and dozens more creatures. Other videos boldly challenge our definition of “sustainable.” Take, for instance, the roadkill collector, the edible-insect broker and the beer-chugging Mississippians who land catfish using their hands as bait. Adventurous? No doubt. Sustainable? That’s the question Klein wants us to ask.
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The Perennial Plate’s first season explored Klein’s home state of Minnesota, kicking off with a video showing him killing a Thanksgiving turkey with the help of (visibly conflicted) family members. As with many of his videos, the episode is introduced with a disclaimer: “When we eat meat, animals die. If you can’t watch it happen…it may be time to reconsider dinner.”
One who heeded this advice, surprisingly, is the same person who films most of The Perennial Plate’s footage: Mirra Fine, Klein’s girlfriend and production partner. After filming the inaugural turkey episode, she became a vegetarian.
They make an unlikely duo. Klein grew up on three continents; his mother runs a bed and breakfast in England, where she teaches cooking classes. He inherited her culinary skills and has worked in some of the world’s top restaurant kitchens: The Fat Duck and St. John in England; Mugaritz in Spain; Bouchon and Craft in America. Fine’s parents kept a kosher home in Minnesota; her dentist father decried sweets and posted photos of rotting teeth in their kitchen. As a student-activist at New York University, Klein successfully campaigned to get Coca-Cola banned from the campus; Coke is Fine’s guilty pleasure.
As the couple completed their first season of The Perennial Plate, they realized that their independence from advertising interests allowed them to explore some of the food industry’s more controversial topics—farm labor practices, genetically modified crops—using a level of culinary cinema verité that television can’t (or wouldn’t dare) match.
That led to them launching an even more ambitious second season last March, with Klein and Fine taking The Perennial Plate across the country. Supported by a Kickstarter campaign, they charted a figure-eight route around America in a Toyota-loaned Prius, looking in the corners and folds of the country for new subjects. They edited episodes as they drove, using their laptops and a stack of portable hard drives. Comment-friendly sites like The Huffington Post and Grist.org began reposting their videos, and the viewing audience grew. A rather graphic episode about hunting for frogs in the Arkansas backwaters, for example, showed the amphibians being whacked to death against the gunwales of a boat. It spurred many online readers to share their thoughts about invasive species, cruelty to animals and the best way to fry frog legs.
“People will often comment that what we feature is not perfectly sustainable,” Klein says. “But ‘sustainable’ can mean different things to different people. Sometimes it means simply feeding yourself to stay alive or preserve a culture.” Indeed, many of The Perennial Plate’s subjects come out of suggestions posted by viewers. “Without an active audience, we would have a much tougher time finding engaging subjects,” Klein says. “It’s easy to find an urban farmer or ethical fisherman, but we want to show a more diverse and less obvious side of American food. A lot of our subjects don’t even realize that what they do is sustainable.”
Of course, not every webisode is freighted with moral ambivalence, firearms or amphibicide. There’s also amazing food: Klein peppers videos with recipes and teams up with famous chefs—including Sean Brock, Paul Kahan and Gabrielle Hamilton—to throw massive dinner parties along the way.
Klein’s combination of curiosity and culinary chops also helps him make a difference in the lives of the very people he films. In an episode about fishing in Florida, for instance, he convinces a fisherman—who’s been netting and eating gray mullet for 40-some years—to sample his catch (including its roe) raw, for the first time. It’s delicious. “So is your show about eating weird stuff?” the fisherman’s wife asks. “No,” Klein replies. “But part of sustainability is eating everything.”
Nick Fauchald, a former F&W editor, is a New York City–based cookbook writer and content consultant.