For the past year, Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine have been exploring the rugged edge of sustainable food in Minnesota. From their online weekly video series, dubbed “The Perennial Plate,” they’ve learned how to harvest wild rice from a lake, spear a fish through ice, and drill for maple syrup — and that’s just for starters. Klein, a storied former restaurant chef, ends every installment with an informal cooking lesson, using, say, venison he collected from the side of the road or fresh bread from a local bakery. Fine, the series’ camera operator and designer, captures the farm to table adventures with panache, and the resulting episodes are as charming as they are informative.
Though many of the adventures are meat-centric — indeed, Klein often explores butchery closer up than might be comfortable for some viewers — Fine, who grew up keeping kosher, has become a vegetarian since they began shooting. The dynamic the two of them have on the site’s blog is part of the fun, and the balance between sustainable meat eating and pure vegetarian cookery is one they explore together. After 52 Minnesota-centered episodes, the Perennial Plate’s next season, which starts this May, will be out on the road, exploring good food from coast to cast. The Jew and the Carrot caught up with them team to chat about sustainable kosher butchering, keeping chickens, and what to do when you burn a bread pudding on camera.
(To see an episode, click read more)
Margaret Eby: You describe your show as “sustainable and adventurous” cooking. How do you decide how much adventure and how much everyone-can-do it kind of food?
Daniel Klein: When I started off there weren’t any expectations about what the show was meant to be. It opened space to do things that were different. We think very much about balancing the content within a month as we’ve moved along. We try not to do several episodes in a row that weren’t good for vegetarians or for people who don’t want to get that close to their meat. Some things I did may scare people a little bit. For example, I filmed at a dairy once and I didn’t include it because I thought it would be off-putting. The controversial episodes are more popular, but we want to space them out with things that are less daunting.
Mirra, as a vegetarian, how do you deal with filming the scenes that involve animal butchering?
Mirra Fine: I don’t film the animals being killed. At a certain point, I just have to hand the camera over to the farmer. It’s hard for me, going to the farm and knowing that one of the animals would be killed. That’s something that I struggle with. But the whole reason I’m a vegetarian is because of the show.
The first episode where Daniel took the turkey home and then killed it shocked me to my core. I know I can’t kill an animal myself, so I’m not going to eat them. When Daniel said he wanted chickens, I said OK but it means we’re going to keep them forever. [Laughs] I got so attached, they’re such calm animals. My sister became a vegetarian also. I feel like there are a lot of vegetarians who are much more militant about vegetarianism in certain ways, and I’m not like that. I think its good for people to really see where their meat comes from, and I hope that the Perennial Plate gives people a choice.
How did growing up keeping kosher influence how you approach sustainable eating?
Mirra: Honestly, I wasn’t as interested in food until I met Daniel and it opened my eyes. I think that too often, kashering isn’t focused on how animals are treated, which is frustrating for me. It’s supposed, to some extent, to be making sure that animals don’t suffer. I do think that keeping kosher while growing up made me a picky eater.
Do you think that kosher butchers are more resistant to making sustainable changes than your average agribusiness butcher?
Mirra: Based on the Jewish community my family’s in, there’s a lot of resistance to change the way things are done. The traditional ways are so ingrained.
Daniel: I think there’s a morality involved in kosher. It’s very easy for people to get lost in the rules and lose the reason they were originally doing it. Jews that I know would like to have their meat represented in a good way. Enacting the kosher laws as well as a modern day look at what is important in responsible meat eating is sort of a no-brainer, not just in Judaism but in most groups that have a viewpoint that animals should be considered in a bigger way.
Daniel, one of the things I’m impressed by in “The Perennial Plate” is how you keep your cooking mistakes in the program, like when the bread pudding burned. Are you ever tempted to redo it?
Oh yeah, that happens. [Laughs] And it was fine. If it had been inedible then I would have made something else. I’ve certainly made recipes and filmed them and haven’t liked them or thought they weren’t good enough. As long as the spirit of the show is there, I think those imperfect moments are fine. People tend to appreciate that, because its not your everyday cooking show. There’s no perfection; it’s not styled. It’s very much a learning process for me, so I try to bring a sense of amateurism. I’m trying to experiment as well. We don’t gloss it over; we just try to show the food simply and entertainingly, with no trickery.
Where are you most looking forward to going on your road trip?
We’re looking for those unique regional stories; what’s special about your state, what’s in season and what’s unique about it. A couple things that I’m excited about are trying the Native American technique for salmon-fishing in the Northwest and going to the Farm Sanctuary in New York. I’m particularly excited about exploring the South a bit more and delving into the food culture there. We’re hoping to go to Appalachia, where communities grow a lot of their own food. But it’s a lot of pressure [laughs]. The more people that watch, the more you want to remain true to what you’re doing.
Send ideas for The Perennial Plate’s expedition and watch more episodes of the show here.