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Book Reviews

A conversation between Marla Rose and Deb Olin Unferth

A Conversation between Vegan Street's Marla Rose and author, journalist and University of Texas professor Deb Olin Unferth

Deb Olin Unferth is one of my oldest friends, but actually, she’s not that old, so I think I will call her one of my friends from longest ago. Deb and I met as two misfits in the preppy, Old Moneyed milieu of Chicago’s North Shore suburban landscape and we immediately recognized kindred souls in each other, as misfits do. It’s been, um, a few years since we first met and while we’ve always been friends, we haven’t always been very present in one another’s lives. For the past five years or so, though, we have kind of woven together again on our own vegan paths. While we’ve had the occasional falling-out that is the time-honored way of longtime friendships between women, we’ve always effortlessly fallen back in as well. Deb is one of the most interesting people I know, full of curiosity, passion and intellectual daring; I know she is going to do a lot to continue to create a difference for animals with her penetrating lens into the indefensible injustices that we inflict upon other beings. For now, though, I will just let our conversation do the talking

The Conversation

Marla: So, Deb, do you remember the first time we met? I don't remember the specifics -- all I remember is that you were in my life. What do you remember?

Deb: I remember. Maybe not the exact moment, but I remember we had lunch at the same hour. We used to stand in the lunchline and ask for -- this is funny now -- "Cheeseballs," these little crunchy round balls in a package.

I remember the exact moment you told me you were a vegetarian. Did you become a vegetarian in high school? Because I have the impression that you were telling me you had recently decided this. I was so surprised. I wasn't even sure what a vegetarian was. I asked you why and you said you didn't want to eat animals, and I had no idea what you were talking about.

I remember spending a lot of time in your car. Riding around purposelessly.

What do you remember?

Marla: Yes, I remember that lunch period and now that you mention it, I do sort of remember "cheeseballs." We would say it in an alien-like monotone and it was some kind of code to us that would make us start giggling and the lunch ladies would stare at us. We thought we were hilarious, right? What did cheeseballs mean to us?

Yes, I went vegetarian at 15. I do actually remember us having a conversation about me being a vegetarian in the cafeteria but I don't remember if it was the first one or the same one you're remembering. I remember eating pretty much a steady diet of egg salad sandwiches in that cafeteria (which, I know, hurl, but I didn't know anything then) because that was pretty much what I had for options. I also remember accidentally dropping an egg salad sandwich on the cashier's foot once and she got so angry and I almost died of embarrassment. Not that this was all that different from the 9,887,012 other daily humiliations at New Trier High School. I do remember you being a little more curious than the average person about my vegetarianism and I remember you repeating a lot that I had so much willpower, which I disagreed with but I couldn't convince you of that.

Yes, we drove around a lot. There really wasn't a lot more to do and if there was, we weren't invited to do it. I was the first one in our wee little clique with a license. We would drive around, as we said, looking for guys to flirt with and we drove to the beach a lot. There was also that famous incident with your father and the car.

Deb: My father and the car. It should be said, to anyone reading this, that my father has a special love for Marla Rose, one that has at times impressed and perplexed me. He is way more excited about any accomplishment of yours than he ever has been about any of mine. When you published your first book, a vegan guide to Chicago, he carried it around the house, read it several times, and showed it to everyone who came over, which was a little strange since he lives in Phoenix. All I have to do is say your name for him to break into smiles.

But yes, before all that love... what happened? I don't remember exactly, except that you never came over or even picked me up again.

Marla: Well, we all deserve at least one parent who is impressed by us, even if that parent is not our own, right? To be honest, Deb, I don't even think that your dad is impressed by me as much as he wants to get under your skin. But, yes, it was a bumpy beginning between your father and me.

For those who weren't there, I was picking up you for a night of shenanigans (in other words, to drive around semi-aimlessly looking for boys) and when I got to your house, I honked the horn. This was in the days before cell phones. I may have honked the horn liberally and it may have been more than once so the ensuing events may have been at least a little justified, though I was limited by our lack of telecommunication devices in the 1980s. The next thing I knew, your father came storming out of your house and you were running in front of him, trying to push, block, shove and stop his momentum with your petite body. He was like a boulder, though, rolling past you. It wasn't happening; your father rolled on toward me in the car and I was perplexed about what was happening. Anyway, he strode on completely undeterred to the car (you were also yelling, "Dad, no!" as you tried to hold him back, which added to the drama and confusion) and bent down to the window, which I tentatively opened. "You. Do. Not. Ever. Honk. The. Horn. Like. That," he informed me. "This is a residential neighborhood and I will call the police if you ever do it again."

A few things happened in that moment: 1. I became embarrassed because then it was like he thought that I lived in a place that wasn't residential, like I was feral and raised in a garbage can house. 2. I instantly and intuitively learned a proper hand-to-horn ratio that stayed with me for life (seriously, to this day, unless someone is pretty much barreling at me, my honk doesn't deviate from what I would describe as a "polite beep to please pay attention" range) and 3. I became terrified of your father. I should add that while this fear lasted through my teens and most of my twenties, today, your father and I have a fabulous rapport whenever I am lucky enough to see him. I am still a little afraid of him, though. Mostly, I am glad that he taught me an appropriate honking protocol that has stayed with me for life. But, yeah, I wouldn't come over again because he scared me. On a bright note, I am at least not driving around and honking like an idiot, adding to the noise pollution, because of that single lesson.

So when I wasn't recklessly honking and we weren't driving around aimlessly, we did our best to fit into this preppy north suburban environment as a couple of dweebs. We've established that I was vegetarian, too, and you were not but you were curious about it. When was the next time you thought about not eating animals? What motivated this? We will probably be jumping forward a number of years.

Deb: Oh it was all you. I remember when you became vegan. This was after college, when you and I were living in Chicago in slum apartments -- a bit like feral creatures in garbage cans, as many young people do after college. You had found true love, at least, in the person of John Beske, while I was careening from one rotten boyfriend to another. I mostly just thought you were mad. I didn't understand the vegan thing at all.

My first true engagement with veganism was a few years later. I was in graduate school in Syracuse and had very little money. You and John invited me to come stay with you for the summer in Chicago on condition that I respect the vegan lifestyle when in the apartment, in other words: Don't bring your gross egg salad sandwiches into the home! So I showed up with my backpack and moved in.

I kind of can't believe you did that. It was so generous. You put a sign on the guest room door that read, "Deb's Room." I don't think you knew how much it meant to me. You two welcomed me like family, included me in everything you did and asked for nothing back. I was tremendously lonely and full of doubt at that point. Your kindness healed me in ways that you will never understand. It was easy to be a vegan in your home. I didn't even think about it. I didn't want to do anything that might make you not want me there. In August I went back to school, and the next summer, I came back and we repeated the summer before.

At that point I wasn't really thinking about veganism that much or about animals. I think what you and John did is demonstrate how easy it could be. You never pushed it on me or badgered me about it. You just made a lot of good food and got a lot of good take-out.

Honestly still to this day, I have never known anyone as generous as you and John. Not only to me. I have been watching you take in strays all these years. To the most downtrodden, you show the lightest, most natural respect and lack of judgment. You don't try to fix or help, exactly. You just accept. That is so rare. It is a true gift.

Marla: First of all, I don't expect anyone to ever say such nice things about me again except at my memorial service or something so thank you. You have always thought that I am a much better person than I really am. Second of all, we treated you like family because you are family. Third, it was such a pleasure and so much fun having you stay with us those summers and I will always look back on those months with fondness and gratitude. You depict yourself as this pathetic moping mass but I didn't ever see you as anyone but my fabulous friend who was working through stuff. Remember how much we discussed that Alanis Morissette song about irony and how much it drove us bonkers? Not one example of irony. But then the more we thought about it, the more confused we became about irony until we thought that she might have been a savant all along.

I will remember those summers and the blender drinks and sitting out on that amazing balcony (I would do anything for a balcony like that again) and you holed up in your room for hours with your grandfather's gorgeous copy of Remembrance of Things Past. Those were great summers. I also remember when we had Howard Lyman speak at our apartment. A couple dozen people came over to hear his rousing talk (of course, in the middle of it, a neighborhood kid came in with a stray cat) and I remember you saying afterwards, "Well, okay. I'm going to be a vegetarian. There is no way on earth that I'm going to be a vegan, though." And look at you now, a passionate, outspoken vegan who wrote an incredible exposť about the egg industry for Harper's that I'm sure has already changed lives forever. When you told me some years back that you were vegan, I was excited, of course, but I wasn't surprised. You've always been that kind of person who takes her time to process things but once you've made your mind up, you are resolute and unshakable.

So this leads me to my question: what connected the deeper dots for you most specifically? I understand that John and I modeled that being a vegan was easy and accessible, but what or who helped to inform your ethical foundation? I've always been curious about this.

Deb: How funny about Remembrance of Things Past! In fact, I am working through it again now -- the latest translation, which uses seven different translators, one for each volume.

Actually I am rereading Frederick Douglass: Narrative of an American Slave at the same time, and I have to say Proust is suffering a bit. His five-page descriptions of a dress and so on are seeming somewhat ridiculous and bourgeois beside the horrors of slavery. My husband is saying it is not a fair comparison, and of course he's right, but still.

I remember Howard Lyman. I did not stay a vegetarian. I went right back to eating everything in sight.

Years later, I was a professor at the University of Kansas. I had the idea of trying to learn how to cook a little, beyond my three signature dishes. This was in 2007 or 2008. I went to iTunes and began downloading several cooking podcasts, and I downloaded one that I didn't read the description of very carefully. The podcast had the word "Cooks" in the title and the word "chicken" in the description, so I clicked on it, figuring it was tips about how to cook chicken or a chicken recipe. The next day I was working out at the gym (absurdly pushing my arms and legs back and forth on a grotesque mechanical jalopy in simulation of "running" -- who thought that up and how are we able to do it without suffering massive suicidal depression?). I was listening through my cooking podcasts, and I came on the chicken one. It was not tips for cooking chicken. It was about how industrial farms raise chickens and it was Colleen Patrick-Goudreau from Compassionate Cooks. By the time I finished the episode, I was like, "Wow, I am never eating chicken again." And I didn't.

I downloaded a few more episodes. She had one on pigs (which I clearly remember listening to while hiking, I remember the rocks on the trail, I remember the sunshine). She had several on cows. And at the end of each one, I was like, "Jesus, more things I'm not going to eat." Then she had one on "how to get your calcium if you're a vegan" and "how to order in a restaurant if you're a vegan."

Her format was effective: Each podcast opened with a description of the animal in focus. What they are like in nature, their social systems, their unique qualities, and so on. Then she gave you the bad news. But unlike when you watch nature documentaries -- where you see this adorable little creature hopping around, snuggling with its mother, only to have the voiceover say, "Sadly there are only twelve of these left in all of southeast Asia..." -- Colleen was like, "It's not completely hopeless. You can just not eat them!"

I listened to the one on feathers, the one on leather. I listened to the one on vitamin B12. I did my own research online and in books, to make sure she wasn't making this stuff up. And within a few months, I was vegan. (But it took quite a long time for me to get rid of all the leather and wool in my closet.)

My boyfriend (now husband) was not convinced. But he was a philosophy professor and was not afraid of argument (in the debating sense) so every night at dinner, I told him what I had learned and we argued back and forth. Within ten months, he was a vegan too (though he does eat oysters and mussels).

At the time it felt like a big deal. It felt difficult and I had many bumpy moments. But now it feels very natural and easy. I don't really think of animal products as food anymore. If I see a piece of chocolate and I think it's vegan, I desire it. If I find out it isn't vegan, my desire weirdly evaporates. I find that I refer to "bacon" and "milk" and "sausages" and I mean the vegan kind. I don't say "vegan sausages" or "almond milk," I just say "sausages."

When I was investigating the egg industry last year, I went to an industrial egg conference that lasted two days and I had several catered meals with the farmers. To not give myself away -- I was so lucky to have such access! -- I ate everything they put in front of me, including eggs and meat, and I fully expected to be reminded of the good tastes and afterward have to struggle a bit not to eat more of it in the future. But I was surprised by how tasteless it was, rubbery. It reminded me of the fake meats that I find tasteless and rubbery. And I was like, "Are you kidding? This is what was so hard to give up?"

Anyway, I'm sure this is way more information than you wanted.

Marla: No, it's not more information than I wanted. I will never get bored of hearing "how I went vegan" stories and yours doesn't disappoint.

It was so interesting to hear from you while you were investigating the piece on the egg industry, Deb. I remember you calling me and feeling pretty distraught that you felt you'd have to eat eggs and flesh at the conference so as to not blow your cover. Your dilemma immediately brought to mind undercover investigators and what they have to do to not draw attention to themselves as vegans. What a difficult decision and I honestly don't think I could have done it (I played out scenarios in my head and they all kind of begin and end with me discretely spitting anything out in a napkin, which would get weird after a while) but it isn't a decision that I would ever judge. I know you are motivated by the greater good here and a momentary squeamishness - while certainly understandable - is worth it in terms of net benefit, meaning you wouldn't be detected, you could gain access and you would be able to write your exposť. Still, I am so glad that I have not found myself in the same position.

Isn't that amazing about Colleen and her podcast? (By the way, she has a new book out that I just reviewed, The 30-Day Vegan Challenge, that aims to do for many more people what her words did for you, walking them through the transition, day by day.) I love the structure of her podcasts, the diligence of her work ethic, her passion. It's not a surprise that she was able to reach you in such a meaningful way. She is one of the vegan movement's most eloquent and persuasive communicators.

I'm curious about what you think might have happened if the podcast you'd listened to communicated to you in a different way about veganism, in a way that didn't resonate with you. Like, say, the podcaster was abrasive or silly or illogical. Do you still think you would have found your way here? It's hard to know, I suppose.

So you've been a vegan for how many years now? Do you mind if I ask you a few questions? How has it changed, being a vegan now versus when you first became one? Better food now, of course. I don't know how the world existed without Field Roast. Have you noticed other differences? The undercover employment-based investigations, which feel like such a mainstay now, didn't begin until 2007 or so. What were the forms of direct action that you heard about back in the 90s? The ALF was active in the 90s and there were investigations that involved sneaking onto farms, and there were open rescues. What do you remember about all that? I recall you went to jail once. Didn't my dad's friend defend you or something?

Marla: Ooooh, fun questions.

February 1 will be our (meaning John and my) 20th anniversary as vegans, or our 20th veganniversary. The landscape has changed and improved dramatically as far as what it's like to live as a vegan, most significantly, I think, for urban people with increased access to variety of all sorts: more restaurants, more businesses, more products at the grocery store, more of a population, more visibility of veganism and more dialogue whereas 20 years ago, it was barely a blip on anyone's radar. So this sphere has shown a lot of growth and improvement. In terms of what these two decades have meant to the lives animals living in subjugation to agribusiness, sadly, I don't think we've made a major difference yet but it is happening incrementally, bit by bit, at least in some countries and this will ripple out. I believe that meaningful change in the lives of animals going to take a combination of a shifting of consciousness along with epidemics (such as widespread water shortages, food-borne diseases, world hunger, the ramifications of climate change that actually have a negative effect on affluent peoples' lives and so on) and that will force the issue toward more of a widespread adoption of veganism. I also believe we're in a three-steps-forward, two-steps-back pattern of social change. For each perceptible victory, like outlawing bullhooks and thus circuses in Los Angeles, there is something negative, like the recent overturning of the foie gras ban in California. This is the pattern, this is how we are advancing, and we should understand that it is a maddening process and not just throw up our hands in frustration or believe that it is futile. It is going to take a while and with each setback, we have to brush ourselves off, redouble our efforts, work smarter, more creatively and with more courage. Don't expect the big, bright shining victory with horns blasting and eco-confetti: instead, expect to humbly chip, chip, chip, chip, chip away and build, build, build, build, build anew. It's important to be okay with this or you are on a collision course with burn out.

Regarding your other questions, in the 1990s, there was a lot of sign holding, street theater and, yes, some direct action, like mink farm liberations and monkey-wrenching along the lines of what Earth First! was doing to protect the redwoods from the lumber companies. I remember reading all about actions happening in my old issues of the No Compromise magazine. We were small in numbers, though. We can do so much more today and we're starting to see some of that with the work of Direct Action Everywhere, which reminds me a bit of Act Up, at least tactically. No matter what you think about their approach, I think they are clearing away the cobwebs and forcing us to remember that just because we have access to vegan cupcakes, it doesn't mean that the lives of animals has improved dramatically from before we had access to vegan cupcakes. I'm not trying to be condescending or dismissive: vegan cupcakes are a very good thing and I am fully in favor of them! Changing consciousness is a very good thing, too, and we can't have our passion for creating social change be mollified by the availability of vegan cupcakes or mayonnaise or whatever, if that makes any sense. It's all these groups - Vegan Outreach, The Abolitionist Approach, the sanctuary movement, vegan entrepreneurs, and so on - working concurrently that is going to create change.

Last, I don't remember if that lawyer was your dad's friend or a friend of your family, but, yes, I got arrested (oops!) at a rodeo protest in Wisconsin in 1998, a few months after John and I got married. I was standing outside the entrance to the rodeo with a very small group of activists and I was asked by the protest organizers to hold a cattle prod to show any reporters who might be there. Anyway, as I had both a megaphone and a cattle prod and there were no reporters, I decided to show the people entering the parking lot what they were using in the rodeo. Remember, they were in their cars and I was standing at the entrance on the road. Somehow or another, a police officer decided that I was "threatening people with a stun gun," and I was ordered to drop my weapon, I was handcuffed, put in a squad car, strip searched, booked and in jail for 24 hours. Meanwhile, back at home, you, John and our friend Kelly were furiously calling any possible connections to figure out what to do next. The lawyer you connected us to in Kenosha represented me before the court the next day and I was allowed out on bail but warned against bringing a weapon into the state of Wisconsin during the ensuing months, which really cramped my style. (Kidding!) Annnnnnnyway, they issued a felony charge against me of threatening people with an electric weapon, with the possibility of two years in prison and $10,000. I have to hand it to myself, I really knocked it out of the park with my first arrest. So for about a year, I drove back and forth from Chicago to Wisconsin to fight this charge, which was ultimately dropped and then reissued (this wasn't considered double-jeopardy because I didn't go before a jury). By the time it was reissued, we had spent all of our wedding money on this stupid thing, giving a lawyer a nice little check each time we saw him. It was also reissued as a much more reduced charge, a misdemeanor of disturbing the peace and $100. Oy vey. Despite my very stubborn nature, I finally said uncle. Bastards. I think that if it happened today, I would have fought this till the end with crowd-sourced funding and support.

Hilariously, I was arrested a couple of years later with Bonnie Raitt, Julia Butterfly Hill and the drummer guy from The Doors when we did a protest of Boise Cascade, which has a corporate office in Illinois, for their cutting down of old-growth forests. That was a much different arrest experience. The police officers offered us pretzels and juice, mugged for cameras with Bonnie Raitt. We were in and out. It was surreal but that is our criminal justice system for you.

Oh, my gosh, this is a lot to read. I feel light-headed.

Deb: Wow, twenty years! It was very different back then. What special plans do you have for February 1?

Yes, I remember that felony charge and bailing you out of jail. I love the story about Bonnie Raitt and the pretzels and juice.

Yes, I do think it's an interesting time in animal protection. I love the concurrent debates about personhood and the law. And it will be interesting to see what falls out with regard to the ag gag laws, drones, and so on. Legally speaking, I think it's a very creative period.

Marla: I don't know our plans. It's kind of a stressful thing because it is a big anniversary and we may end up celebrating in a way that is uninspired! My bigger thought, though, is that we'll spend the year doing special things around it being our twentieth veganniversary, like promotions and special content. I'm really not sure and the challenge is that we are always so busy with the day-to-day (we're on a seven-day-a-week calendar) that it is hard to put much thought too far ahead. I don't know what to say other than I hope that it's fun.

I agree that we are in a time of great efforts that will ultimately pay off for the animals. I have no doubt about this. There are so many smart, creative, talented and dedicated people focusing on advancing veganism.

What's next for you? I loved your piece in Harper's -- what an amazing exposť. What are you working on now?

Deb: I think you should have a huge party for your anniversary! You and John will come up with something extremely creative, I'm sure. You always do.

Thanks, I'm glad you liked the piece in Harper's. If I were going to do journalist-style writing again, I think it would be on the topic of animal protection and the law -- and I suppose I am looking into it a bit already, so at some point, I might get serious about it. But at the moment I'm not doing any journalism.

How about you? What are you working on? Also, I wanted to ask you: you do so many different kinds of writing -- fiction, articles, activist writing, and so much more. I see your work pop up all over the place. How does your writing process differ from piece to piece?

Marla: Okay, I don't know if a huge party is happening Feb. 1 as that is nearly upon us but we will do something - or somethings - and make the anniversary fun.

Right now, we are just very immersed in Vegan Street, and I'm creating new content every week. The days of waiting for my muse to speak to me and really spending time ruminating over my work are over but it's all for the best. The less enjoyable aspect of doing Vegan Street, really the only downside from a creative angle, is that I don't have time to take on longer free-lance projects, but there is one I took on that I really can't talk about yet but is very exciting. Other than that, I haven't been able to take on longer assignments and I miss really immersing myself in a topic, lining up interviews, researching, finding the heart of a piece after hours and hours of work. Wacky me, I miss that but I am guessing that I will get back into it once Vegan Street is operating on its own a little more.

My writing process does differ from piece to piece but I always try to insert a bit of myself into anything that I write. Research-intensive journalist pieces obviously have less of this but still some will always be there. I think the common thread is always trying to find the thumping heart of the piece, finding my voice, filing off some of the original harsh judgments, making sure that I didn't de-fang or neutralize the whole piece in the process of that filing away, and revising like mad. The North Star is being as authentic as I can be, as pretentious as that sounds. That is what my magnet is pulled by no matter what I am writing. How about you, Deb? As a longtime writer of fiction and memoir, journalism must have been a bit of a leap. Was there anything you learned that you didn't expect about the process?

Deb: I learned a lot, yes. First, it is easier to write journalism than literary work. Whenever journalists tell you it is just as hard, don't pay any attention. I mean, I worked my ass off on that article, putting in twelve hour days for weeks, but in the end it was more fun, more social, and easier to construct the sentences. Another thing I didn't expect is the heavy editing process. In fiction and literary nonfiction it is a sin to remove the author's voice or to mess with the swerves and sounds of a sentence, take out their sense of humor. Not so with journalism. Third, I became familiar intimately with the phrase "kill the story." I didn't realize that it might be possible that after all the work I put in, even with a signed contract, that the editor might decide not to run the piece for any variety of reasons and simply hand over a "kill fee" as if that might assuage the broken heart. That didn't happen, obviously, but as I was writing, I spoke to many writers who told me horror stories of spending months on articles that got killed. I lived in terror of the kill. Fourth I learned that investigative reporting is deeply fun and exciting and contains a real-world urgency that is somewhat absent in fiction writing. Not that writing fiction doesn't feel urgent -- it does -- but nothing like investigative reporting.

On the other hand, perhaps urgency is an illusion. When Harper's kept pushing the article back -- it was supposed to appear in September, then October, then finally it came out in November -- and I felt all this urgency and impatience, my husband was like, "Well, presumably the chickens will still be cages in November."

Is it worth it? Absolutely. Will I do again? Undecided.

Marla: Yes, I agree, far easier. Journalism is easier on the brain than fiction/literary work but, yes, a heavy-handed editing process and the looming threat of "the kill" kind of evens it out. Maybe this plays a small part in why I am mainly focusing on other writing these days, too. Unfortunately, like you, I have found writing a journalist assignment to be a lot of fun as well so I also miss it at times.

It's so interesting to me that having been friends in high school, then weaving in and out of one another's lives, and today, despite taking things in very different directions, we share these deep passions for writing and veganism. I kind of love that. Who would have thought all those years ago when I was eating those egg salad sandwiches (those that I didn't drop) and you were baffled by my vegetarianism, we'd be here today, two vegan writers and dear friends?

Deb: I know! It's beautiful.

I wonder what we'll be like in another twenty years. Living underground and traveling by tunnel, perhaps.

Marla: With our vegan cheeseballs.

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