Diving for sea urchins off the coast of southern California is just another day in the life for the The Perennial Plate, a web series about sustainable food created by Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine. In this same episode, they collect fresh crabs with Jason Woods of Local Harvest Seafood and meet Alberta Salazar, a native of Oaxaca who came to the U.S. to pick strawberries and now runs a community garden. At the end of the day, everyone comes together to cook dinner, feasting on freshly caught crabs and cacti from the garden.
The series is in its second season now, and the filmmakers have just wrapped up a six-month road trip around the U.S. to meet, learn from, and cook with local famers, hunters and foragers. Although there is no typical day, they explain that this episode captures "the ideal of what we hoped this trip would be ... a good day 'on the road' where the story of food, labor and community in America unfolded." Don't miss their Thanksgiving episode, Giving Thanks (to Turkeys), in which they visit a farm where consumers kill their own birds.
The Atlantic: You just got back from your epic Season 2 road trip. How does it feel to be done?
Daniel Klein: Coming home was bittersweet. After six months on the road, a different bed every night, and the crazy non-stop work schedule, we were excited to have a break -- see our families, friends and get a constant place to sleep. But "home" also meant the end of this incredible journey that we knew we were lucky to be on. We got to go somewhere different and meet someone new every day. Everything was an adventure and we were constantly blown away by the situations we found ourselves in (catfish noodlin’ in the backwoods of Mississippi, staying with an Apostolic family of ten in Ohio, living in a cave in a canyon in Utah). Now we are reeling from the experience we just had and focusing on what comes next.
Can you give us as sense of the numbers for the project? Miles logged, etc.
In the six months on the road, we traveled over 21,000 miles, created 29 episodes (so far... they will continue until at least March), filmed eight terabytes of footage (which probably comes out to about 1 billion hours), and took over 8,000 photos. We had a couple sponsors for the trip (NCGA, Toyota, Laurie David), but we were most excited to have raised over $20,000 from our fans on Kickstarter. That also meant we had to send out close to 500 postcards from the road.
With only two people, your production schedule of doing an episode every week while on the road must have been intense. What gear did you use, and how did you get it all done?
We realized pretty early on, that we were insane to attempt this -- as we were filming sometimes 2-3 times a week in addition to cooking harvest dinners at restaurants around the country, traveling and researching our next stories. But within a few months, Mirra and I got into a rhythm. Sometimes that meant she would drive while I edited footage in the car. It also meant that we always have to be connected to a power source: researching story leads, finding places to stay/eat, planning our route. We edited on Final Cut Pro. We shot with the Canon XF100 and T2i.
Your focus seems to be not on sustainable cuisine as a foodie trend for fancy restaurants, but on small businesses and local farming, hunting, and foraging around the country. Do you find yourself trying to redefine sustainable eating?
Not really -- as I don't think anyone has defined sustainable eating. Some folks think it's yuppie or hipster or expensive or elitist, but really it’s just reasonable to eat "sustainably." We do want to change the connotations associated with that word. We love the young farmers who are leaving the big city to go back to the land, but we are even more interested in the people who have been doing it their whole lives. The recent additions to the scene are too similar to us and also media savvy -- they tend to get a lot more attention. We want to share stories about the more unknown people who are just living their lives in a way that they find sustainable. None of our subjects are perfect; they are just real, and that tends to draw stronger connections to the viewer than the overplayed cookie cutter story.
The series seems perfectly tailored to the social web. Coming from making feature length documentaries, how did you approach developing the series for a web audience?
The reason that it’s on the web was actually a reaction to my previous experience of making a feature length documentary. Years can pass between when you film and when the documentary is actually released. Even then, the likelihood of anyone seeing the film is slim -- and you can't even think about making money. The same issues can happen with TV. First you make a pilot, then you wait for someone to pick it up ... and then who knows? But by putting stuff out on the Internet (if you make good content and work hard to tell people about it), there can be a real audience. So we made the show for the web, which requires consistent output. That meant putting out lots of content on a regular basis. It’s a format that works for me: instead of spending months fussing over tiny details, create something and then put it out right away. I think by putting out these fast films, the reality of the situation comes through. And you get to be creative every week.
What's next for you?
We still have lots more videos from the road to release. But meanwhile, we are starting to write a travel/cook book. We are also starting to film some more straight up cooking videos. And then we are planning for what comes next -- we hope to have that figured out by March. This could be another web series, or TV series or something new. We'll see.