Q & A With Perennial Plate's Daniel Klein: Fish Grabbing, Frog Bashing + Fresh Uni Eating
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?