The average 26-year-old New Yorker might get what for his birthday? A shirt and tie from mom? Tickets to the Mets game from his sweetie? A few six-packs of Brooklyn Lager from his pals? When Daniel Klein recently reached that milestone, his cousin bestowed on him a gift reserved for only the most adventurous of foodies: a live, squealing pig.
The swine was at Klein's cousin's house in Minneapolis (or it was until city inspectors forced it to relocate from a Powderhorn pen to an old horse barn near Stillwater), so Klein flew into town and celebrated his 26th year by slaughtering, roasting, and eating the pig with the help of family and friends. The cooking took so long that most of the guests had departed by the time the meat was served. But the day still counts among Klein's favorites. "It's gotta be my most memorable birthday," he says with a laugh.
The same curious spirit has led Klein, now 27, to a wooded Vadnais Heights backyard to film a segment on maple syruping for his new weekly video series, The Perennial Plate, which explores sustainable eating in Minnesota. Through his five-to-ten-minute films, posted online every Monday at www.theperennialplate.com, Klein hopes to introduce viewers to some of Minnesota's small-scale food producers—as well as supplement his own burgeoning agricultural skills.
Video camera resting on his shoulder, Klein, who looks rather like an urban lumberjack with his trim beard and flannel shirt, shadows syrup-maker Chris Ransom as he dumps a bucket of sap into a tank mounted to his garage. Inside, replacing the usual automobile or ride-on lawn mower, sits a large wood-fired boiler that releases a sweet, pancake-scented vapor. The room is steamy enough to fog up a pair of glasses. Klein films Ransom standing over the boiler and scooping foam off the top of the bubbling sap, a practice that Klein, who has worked as a chef, likens to skimming a stock.
Klein conceived of The Perennial Plate, which launched last month, as a way to combine his interests in food, film, and activism. He learned to cook and garden from his mother, who ran a bed-and-breakfast in England, and made his filmmaking debut as a teenager when he and his brother produced, directed, and starred in a rollerblading film styled after skateboarding stunt videos. After studying political movements at New York University, Klein traveled from Cairo to Cape Town with his two brothers and cousin—the one who gave him the pig—to document Africans' response to Western aid and development programs. The documentary they created, What Are We Doing Here?, screened on television as well as at theaters and film festivals.
After moving to Minnesota last spring with the intention of starting his own restaurant, Klein hatched the idea of the film project and limited his professional cooking to supplying France 44 with some of its charcuterie. With only a few thousand viewers so far, Perennial Plate is more labor of love than cash cow—though it's certainly a less risky endeavor than getting into the restaurant business.
The Perennial Plate's first episode follows Klein's efforts to procure a wild turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Heading into the woods, he makes a brief appearance on camera in the role of a curious, affable narrator. "I've never shot a bow before to kill anything," he admits. "I've never killed anything while hunting. ...This may end up being a squirrel Thanksgiving instead of a turkey Thanksgiving."
The videos have slick production values but a raw, realistic feel. The soundtracks include gooey folk tunes by Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles that are perhaps more evocative of scenes from 500 Days of Summer than of grandmotherly farmers with thick Minnesota accents showing off their beets. The Thanksgiving video includes a hilarious chase scene in which Klein struggles to catch a flapping, zigzagging turkey that he secured from a local organic farm. But it also shows the solemn moments when Klein prepares to slaughter the bird and winces as he stretches out the turkey's neck before slitting its throat.
In the months after filming the turkey episode, Klein traveled the state, visiting a greenhouse that supplies a year-round CSA, drinking brandy with deer hunters, catching crappie while ice fishing, and touring a mushroom cultivation facility. Soon he hopes to follow foragers, commercial fishermen, and grape harvesters, as well as produce episodes about his flock of backyard chickens and the challenge of providing low-income communities with access to local food.
While plenty of writers are covering the local sustainable-food movement, Klein's series is among the first to thoroughly document it on film—the next best thing to an in-person visit. During the series' second episode, on cheese-making at Star Thrower Farms near Glencoe, a flock of sheep stampedes toward the camera with such intensity that home viewers can practically feel the trample of their hooves. "I want to bring the audience along on an adventure with me," Klein remarks. His most dramatic encounter with sustainable eating thus far unfortunately won't become part of the series—when Klein loaded a freshly road-killed deer onto his car and brought it home for butchering, he didn't have his camera along.
Klein says he likes documentary film's primary, realist perspective, which allows the viewer to form his own opinion. "I show them what it is and let them make up their mind about it," Klein says of events like the turkey killing, which, as it happens, was a significant factor in his girlfriend's decision to adopt a vegetarian diet. Klein isn't trying to persuade viewers, he says, so much as simply give them more knowledge about food and encourage them to think more about their dining decisions. "I want to change the way food is in the United States, but I don't want to push it down people's throats," he says.
For example, it's unlikely that most urban dwellers will ever take up Chris Ransom's syruping hobby, as it's a lot of work to tap trees, collect sap, and boil down the 30 to 40 gallons it takes to make just one gallon of syrup. From the garage, Ransom takes Klein inside the house, which smells faintly of caramel corn, and shows him the final step of stovetop reduction.
Ransom demonstrates the ways to test when the syrup is finished: measuring the temperature and checking the golden liquid's sugar content with one instrument and its density with another. Klein moves around the kitchen to film various angles and occasionally poses questions from behind the camera lens. A few times, he asks Ransom to repeat an explanation or demonstration to be sure it's properly captured. Is Ransom's syrup-making motivated by a desire to be more self-sufficient or notions of going back to the land?, Klein asks. It's just for fun, Ransom replies as he fills his syrup jars. "It would certainly be cheaper to buy it at the store," he admits.
A week after visiting Ransom, Klein hosts one of his many Perennial Plate fundraiser dinners, this time at his south Minneapolis home. Two long tables are set for 20 guests with decorative centerpieces made from potatoes piled into glass vases. In one of the rooms, an accordion sits on the floor next to a piano piled with cookbooks and wine tomes. In the corner, several two-week-old chicks, their fuzzy coats transitioning into feathers, peck at feed and strut about in a small pen.
A few days before the dinner, Klein had arrived at France 44's kitchen with a 45-pound lamb slung over his shoulder. He butchered the animal, which had been raised at Star Thrower Farms, to use as the meal's focus. First, Klein offers bowls of wild rice, sprouts, herbs, onions, and seeds that creates a nest for a barely cooked backyard egg—sunny-side raw, if there is such a thing. Hot lamb consommé is poured into the bowls to further cook the egg, and its yolk thickens the broth in a way that captures the transitional nature of the season, halfway between late winter and early spring. For the second course, Klein prepares plates of thick, robust sheep's-milk yogurt, paired with lamb pastrami, beets, and whole mustard seeds—a playful take on classic deli fare. The final, and equally delicious, savory course is a hulking raviolo—a delicate sheet of pasta wrapped around a ball of shredded lamb meat. It's drizzled with just a touch of something sweet: Ransom's maple syrup.