“I’d have to say the one about killing and eating the squirrel was probably the most popular video,” says Daniel Klein, as he pauses over a comparatively prosaic bowl of corn chowder. “People were really interested in that for some reason. I guess because we see squirrels all the time, and it’s easy to wonder what they might taste like.” The answer, not surprisingly, is: like a gamey chicken.
As creator of the online documentary series The Perennial Plate, Klein has taken on all kinds of quirky adventures in eating, but not in the Andrew Zimmern, “Bizarre Foods” manner of exploration. Instead, he’s been interested in the type of sustainable, local activities that define traditional Minnesotan life, like hunting wild turkey, ice fishing, and dealing with road kill.
Along the way, he’s also shared recipes for apple bread pudding, captured a picnic held by opera singers, profiled small farms, and made cheese. He doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of life as a carnivore — in fact, he embraces the chance to really explore what it means to watch an animal go from woods or field to stewpot and plate — and some of his videos include a discussion of how to cut up a lamb, and what’s involved with butchering a pig.
In looking for material, the videos fall in line with Klein’s mission to choose pursuits that he thinks are interesting or fun to learn. For example, he plans to go spear fishing in Grand Rapids, MN for an upcoming video, and picked the topic mainly because he met someone who would teach him the skill.
In many of the videos, it’s the farmers, hunters, experts, and advocates who shine, speaking sometimes a little nervously at first, with self-consciousness at being filmed. Then, while sharing their passion for fishing or raising rabbits or growing vegetables, they bloom with enthusiasm, and Klein’s ability to capture that passion is impressive.
Klein’s adventures in online documentary filmmaking began in his post-college days. After graduating from New York University, where he studied social movements and activism, Klein traveled with his brother and cousin to Africa. The trio intended to wander from Cairo to Capetown, and Klein proposed creating a documentary that would infuse the trip with a sense of purpose.
“We thought, what is it that we have a right to ask?” he says. “We realized that to find out about the negative impact of US food aid would be enlightening, so we explored that topic.”
The resulting film, What Are We Doing Here?, took years to edit, and while Klein was working on the project, he began waiting tables at a restaurant run by renowned chef Thomas Keller. Since Klein had learned to cook at his mother’s bed and breakfast in England, he boldly asked to switch to the kitchen after only a few months at the job, and his culinary career was launched. He notes, “If you work for Keller, that’s your passport. You can go anywhere from there.”
As if to prove that theory, Klein hopped around Europe working at high-profile restaurants in Spain, France, and England, with a stint in India for good measure. Finally, he headed back to New York, where he helped finish the movie and then eventually made his way to Minnesota, where he’d been born.
“My intention was to open a restaurant here, so I could teach Midwesterners about great food,” he says, laughing suddenly and then shaking his head at his naiveté. “Once I got here, I saw that there was such a rich culture of sustainable food. I realized Minnesota didn’t need a restaurant from me, so I had to figure out what to do instead.”
The two threads of his professional life, cooking and filmmaking, came together naturally, and he pondered making a TV pilot about sustainable food topics, but didn’t want his efforts potentially ending up unseen, on the bottom of some TV executive’s pile of tapes.
Instead, the Internet provided him with the wide audience he wanted, and he developed a framework for the project: a calendar year of culinary, agricultural, and hunting explorations, with videos posted every week. At the same time, he’s hosted several harvest dinners at his house in South Minneapolis, serving seasonal dishes created with local ingredients, with donations going to benefit the documentary series.
Although the year is already up, Klein is still posting videos to the site, but he’s also eying new directions. Stay tuned for potential big announcements in February, he notes, and until then, people can enjoy the considerable backlog of videos on his site.
“Although the project started off being about food, it’s really more about the people I’ve met,” he says. “As I’ve done more and more of these, I’ve seen that it’s all about the characters who are involved in sustainable food. They don’t fit into any box, they defy definition, they’re just as likely to be hunters as farmers or environmentalists, and some have been all three of those. I love that, meeting these people and capturing what they do.”