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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
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. 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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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 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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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
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?
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
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?
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
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.
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.
© 2015, Vegan Street