by Phyllis Louise Harris
Across the world food brings people together in a way nothing else can. Daniel Klein found hundreds of examples of this during his three-year effort to produce the James Beard Award winning online documentary series, “The Perennial Plate.” Along with his partner (and now wife) Mirra Fine, Daniel travelled through thirteen countries to learn more about the food of the world from the people who make it.
From the farmer in Japan who fought to keep acres of farmland from being turned into housing developments so that he could continue to grow wheat and then opened a restaurant to turn that wheat into flour and wonderful udon, to the coconut growers in Sri Lanka who find a use for every part of the coconut tree, the team met the people who produce the food we all need and want.
In our world of supermarkets and instant meals we tend to forget the effort made by so many people who spend their lives keeping our plates full. Daniel and Mirra went back to the sources and found a passion among food producers worldwide.
“We wanted to revive the human connection to food and the business of food,” Daniel said. “We wanted to create a series with a positive approach to food production and to get people thinking about the food they eat.” And, they wanted to have fun doing it. They also wanted to change eating habits and to talk about sustainability. What they did surprised them both.
In November of 2009 the first episode of The Perennial Plate was all about turkeys – raising them, killing them and eating them. It is a short, graphic film that some people find too realistic to watch. It is the piece that convinced Mirra to become a vegetarian. “Turkey” ran on the Internet and the series was born. Every Monday for the next year a new short film focused on the food of Minnesota, attracting an audience of about 10,000 viewers who were watching and commenting on each episode. In the second year Daniel and Mirra travelled throughout America and then decided it was time to go abroad. They selected 12 countries with centuries-old culinary traditions and where travel was relatively easy. That included China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Spain, Morocco, Italy, Turkey, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa and Ethiopia. Intrepid Travel thought it was a good idea and became a sponsor.
The intriguing thing about the series is the visual way the team tells a simple food story in three to five minutes. One of my favorites is “Tea for Two,” episode number 117, April 2, 2013. It is a very sweet story of a couple in Sri Lanka whose marriage was arranged for them by their parents and has lasted for 35 years. Today, the couple manages their small tea farm handling everything from the growing to the picking and delivery as a team. In those few short minutes the viewer is suddenly involved with this loving, hardworking pair as they go through their daily routines together, making their own contribution to the world through their beautiful Ceylon tealeaves.
The series also touches on some of the problems of sustainable farming with a cranberry grower in Minnesota who is trying very hard to maintain production while bugs and weeds are killing his crops.
One of the most fascinating stories follows the Dabbawalla of Mumbai where every weekday 4,000 men deliver 175,000 lunches from homes to workers at their jobs. In Episode 115, March 10, 2013, we see a deliveryman stopping at home kitchens to pick up hot lunches packed in special containers. As each pick-up is made it is added to dozens more on a large board that is balanced on the head of the deliveryman as he bicycles through the crowded streets to make each delivery. Other lunch containers are added to hundreds more on a commuter train for a quick ride then delivered on foot. Surprisingly, no delivery is lost and not a single lunch is spilled. Then the deliverymen make the same route in reverse to deliver empty lunch containers back to their homes. As one of them said, bringing good, home cooking to the people at work is very important.
Daniel is an experienced restaurant chef with a film background and Mirra has a wealth of marketing and film experience. Together they have created a food series that educates and entertains in a memorable fashion. I have been a food writer for more than 40 years and found each episode a new lesson in the business of food and gained a new appreciation for the people who spend their lives producing it. Their passion, their dedication, and their hard work clearly transmit to the food we all enjoy everyday. The series is truly enlightening!
Today, Daniel is editing the final episodes of the three-year project. Each three to five minute piece takes three hours to film and additional time to edit. By July the project will be finished but will live on at www.theperennialplate.com. In reviewing the past three years Daniel found that across the world most people want good, real food whether they grow it or buy it. He also found a number of surprises including the episodes that went viral reaching two million viewers. As to his goal to change eating habits, Mirra’s entire family is now vegetarian.
Read more about Asian food in Minnesota and try more than 160 recipes in Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesota since 1875, now in bookstores and on amazon.com.
Watch the EMMY® award winning “Asian Flavors” television show based on the book on tpt MN. Check local TV listings for broadcast times or view the show streaming online at: http://www.mnvideovault.org/mvvPlayer/customPlaylist2.php?id=24552&select_index=0&popup=yes#0