Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine have arguably the best job in the world: travelling and eating. Known as The Perennial Plate, they produce highly entertaining videos that dig into the local cuisine and culture of their destinations. They are also Intrepid Foodies on a Real Food World Tour and the duo recently took time out from a speaking engagement in Copenhagen to chat with Matador Network’s Carlo Alcos about their work and travel and eating tips…
Carlo: I just spent the past half hour watching some of your videos. The latest was the coconut one you posted on your Facebook page. It’s so interesting how they use every part of, not just the coconut, but the entire tree too.
Mirra: Yeah, it’s really important to them. It’s really part of their lives.
Carlo: When you compare it to how most of us here in the West eat things like meat, like beef, we only want the so-called good cuts, then get rid of the rest. Would that [using the entire plant or animal] be a common thread you’ve seen in your travels?
Daniel: I think the less you have the more you need to make use of every part of what you have. In poorer countries you certainly see people being extremely resourceful. Like you have this self-recycling system, just because anything that’s thrown away is fetched out of the garbage and used to make any number of things or sold. Not so much waste.
C: Yeah, I think we could probably learn a few lessons here in regards to that.
How hard was it for you, Mirra, to let go of your job and become fully involved in this project?
M: Oh, it was so…easy. [Laughter]
I had worked in marketing in New York City and I kept on going from one company to the next because I just wasn’t feeling it, and I thought it was the company that I wasn’t passionate about, but it was really the work that I just didn’t feel inspired by. And then I quit…I started a dog-walking company in New York, and then I worked for the city, then I did freelance graphic design. I was just trying to figure it out…and when I moved to Minnesota I worked at a cheese shop, which was so wonderful and liberating to not be in an office every day and to just be around people who loved cheese. And then Daniel actually started working there…and that’s how we met.
C: That’s a neat story. It sounds serendipitous.
M: Yeah. It’s cute. And an even cuter story, if you want to get cuter, is: We met in a cheese shop, and we were just in Italy filming, and Daniel proposed in a parmesan cheese cake, because he thought that would be adorable in case anyone ever interviewed us about something.
C: I’ll make sure that makes it into the interview!
On your site you talk about the project being dedicated to socially responsible eating. What does that mean in the context of your travels?
D: In our day-to-day lives we try to eat as best we can. Mirra’s a vegetarian and I only eat meat that’s from a good source, while in Minnesota. I make exceptions while traveling because you’re there to learn about a culture and taste their food…to be walking around asking if this is a free-range chicken or organic whatchamacalit…it just doesn’t really work. If you’re visiting for a week you’d be missing out on a whole aspect of life, but of course I do look into some of the specialties that are served there. If something’s endangered I’m not going to eat that. So it really more applies to the videos we make and the people we search out for telling the stories, and looking and seeing who these people are and [how they are] creating a livelihood and producing food outside of industrial food systems.
C: We recently posted your “A Day in India” video at Matador and it was a pretty big hit with our readers and amongst the staff too. I’ve never been to India before but one of the things I always hear is it’s not a matter of if, but when you’ll get sick. Did you get sick?
M: We did. Thanks for asking!
D: Well, this is my third time in India, and this was the first time I’d been sick. I was there for three months before and one month before and never got sick.
M: This is actually really, really interesting, because we ate so much street food. There was some street food where they were just glopping stuff out of these huge vats, by this really hairy guy in a see-through tank-top. Places where you’re just like “hmmmm?”
C: Questioning the hygiene?
M: Yeah. But it was delicious. And I was fine, and then we went to Udaipur, which is a very touristy town. It’s beautiful, but it’s very hard to find places that aren’t focused on tourists unless you go outside the main area. We were there late and we had to go to a restaurant. We went to a really nice tourist hotel restaurant and we got sick there. Most people that we’ve spoken to, and even Daniel – because when he was in India before he cooked at a hotel – [described] how the practices are kind of shady in a tourist hotel. Where if you eat what the locals eat, that’s where you’re going to be the safest. That’s your best bet.
D: I think street food is your best choice.
C: That’s really interesting. The common perception would be the opposite of that.
D: You see a place that has a long lineup…people are going there frequently…and we can see it’s outside, we can see if the person is filthy or clean…
M: And make your own choice based on that.
D: And it’s probably going to be deep fried. There’s going to be a number of things that are good marks as far as safety.
M: The food turns over quickly, whereas in a hotel they’re making stuff for the taste of people who aren’t from there. You don’t know how much they have in the back and how long it’s been there. The food that we ate from that restaurant was not very good and as I was eating it I could tell that something bad was happening.
C: Those are really good points.
Through all of your travels, could you pick out something you could call your biggest learning experience?
M: I think that was a pretty big one for me: Don’t eat at a tourist restaurant. I was sick for like 5 days.
D: We learn lots of really wonderful things from people…the more humble they are, the more you have the opportunity to engage with them, generally the more wonderful they are. We’ve done shows or interviews with people who have a little bit of fame…and it can be challenging. But when you meet with just a simple person who’s living their life – the work they may be doing may be exceptional and amazing – those folks are really the inspiring people out there. We find that time and time again. That’s not just international travel. That’s across the United States and within Minnesota as well.
C: I imagine that in a lot of the places you travel people are still cooking in their traditional ways and eating and cooking “real food” – I’m wondering about processed foods and the quick and easy foods, if those are making their ways to some of these places and what kind of impact they might be having on local cultures and the people there.
M: It’s interesting…I haven’t been to Korea but we met with a woman yesterday who is from Korea and she was saying people our age now don’t know how to make kimchi, because that’s something you can now buy at the grocery store. So the things people have been cooking and passing down over the generations are slowly disappearing into the big commercial world, which is a hard thing.
D: Yeah, I think McDonald’s taking over India is a long, long ways off. There’s still so much culture and wonderful food. I think you see some of that stuff in the growing middle class and upper middle class, where people are starting to eat a more Western diet, which tends to be much less healthy. You see it with the more wealthy people who want an experience with something that is outside of India.
M: Back to your question about what’s the biggest thing I’ve learned…Daniel has traveled a lot, and I’d actually only been to three countries before we started this trip with Intrepid. For me, I’m going into it with eyes wide open and kind of in awe of everything…before each trip I have a couple hours of freaking out. Really nervous, not knowing what to expect. And I think I’m learning how to embrace that, and see it more as excitement and realize that everyone is so friendly and open.
D: People go on a trip to a country they’ve never been to before, they get nervous and they get scared, people tell them about the dangers, people tell them about the food they’re going to get sick from. Folks go out and buy gear, like these weird pants that breathe and they buy a funny-looking hat…they go to the travel store and buy all this stuff. You’re just going to a place where 10 million people live, it’s not like it’s this unknown place. It’s just another home for someone else; there’s nothing to be so worried about.
C: That’s a really good way to look at it, it’s just someone else’s home. That’s very true and I think as travelers you want to pass that message along to other people, but I guess it’s probably something you don’t really understand until you do it yourself.
D: But then hopefully once you get that, it’ll be like “Oh, I have nothing to worry about.” Like, OK, I’m not going to walk alone late at night down an alley, but I wouldn’t do that anywhere.
M: People going to the US… their parents are probably like, “Don’t go there. That place is scary.”
C: I have one more question for you. Do you see yourselves doing this for very long?
D: We would like to continue telling stories of people doing inspiring things, and we’d love to continue to travel…maybe a little bit less…and maybe continue to develop and change but we would like to continue. There’s so many wonderful and amazing people out there and stories and cultures to learn about. I don’t see that kind of experience ever ending in our lives. As it’s developed between our first and our third season, I hope that it continues to improve and change as we continue.
M: That’s very pretty.
Carlo Alcos is a Managing Editor at Matador Network, the largest travel magazine on the web.
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