Interviewer: Judith Weinraub New York City
Date: April 14, 2011
Q: This is Judith Weinraub. It’s April 14, 2011, and I’m speaking with Dan Imhoff in New York this morning.
Imhoff: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
Q: Why don’t we start, if you could tell me where and when you were born and something about your education, your family, growing up.
Imhoff: I grew up in York, Pennsylvania, where I was born in 1959, and went to public school there. My last year of high school, I went to the York College of Pennsylvania.
Q: What is that? The York College of Pennsylvania?
Imhoff: It’s a four-year college right down the road. I was increasingly feeling penned in by the administration of high school, and even though my father was the president of the school board at the time—
Q: Especially. [laughs]
Imhoff: I had two older brothers in college at the time. He let me take off that last year, and the agreement was that I’d just pass my classes and then I graduated with the rest of the class. But that got me ahead, a year ahead, [and after that] I spent a year at Penn State. Then I went on an abroad trip to Rome, through the Temple Tyler School of Liberal Arts and Art. They had a program there. I took one semester there. That would have been the fall of 1978. Then I ski-bummed in Utah until August of 1979, and I went to Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. I spent two years at Allegheny. I was a transferring junior. I graduated from there, Allegheny College. International relations was my major.
I always wanted to be a writer. My father and I were pretty much at odds that you could go to school to be a writer. He was an avid reader. He still is an extremely avid reader, though he’s going blind. He was of the opinion that you went out and you had a useful, very interesting life and you wrote about it. He didn’t know that there were all these amazing writing programs that were cropping up all over the country.
So instead I took international relations, I studied Spanish—it was the one thing I really learned coming out of college—and economics and history and poli sci. I moved away from sciences.
Q: I saw from your Facebook page you went to Berklee College of Music first.
Imhoff: No, I just went there on 2010 on a Sabbatical. That was most recent.
Q: Oh, not first.
Imhoff: I was trying to avoid the workforce. I got offered a fellowship to do a master’s at the Maxwell School in Syracuse University, so I went there for two years again. I was a South Asian Scholar. [The funding] came from the National Endowment for the Humanities. They wanted so many scholars in so many regions of the world as sort of a national defense mechanism, right?
Q: It’s a wonderful school.
Imhoff: It was a wonderful school. I really learned at that time that I didn’t want to become a pigeonholed academic. When I got out of Maxwell in ’83, I was still a pretty young person. I spent the next year in the Far East. I spent four months in China with Columbia University in Shanghai on a program, and then I moved to Taiwan, was teaching English, making and saving money, learning Chinese, the old-fashioned system, Stanford system. Then I spent a number of months that next year, the spring of 1984, just traveling all through China, Indonesia, Malaysia. I really got a dose of the Eastern world.
I had very little money and a backpack. My dad said, “It’s really time to settle down. You have a brother in San Francisco.” I had a girlfriend at the time who was going to the Wright Institute of Psychology in Berkeley. I moved to San Francisco, and I’ve really been a Californian, for the most part, since 1984.
Q: Let me just take you back a little bit. When you were growing up, could you tell me about your family’s attitudes toward food and what that atmosphere was like when you were growing up?
Imhoff: I came from a generation with nine boys. There were four in my family and then I have five boy cousins. [No sisters or girl cousins]. It was a very close family. My mom had no brothers and sisters; my dad had a sister and brother. [My dad] lost his mother at a very young age, and my grandpa, his father, was really the patriarch of our family, and he was a great cook. He had a second wife, and she canned everything. You went over to their house and they had a beautiful Concord grape arbor and nice apple trees. They lived in a little suburban area of York, Pennsylvania. They traveled extensively. But the holidays were really big, and food was really important.
At a certain point, my father has had a long illness. He’s been not well for most of my teenage years on. Cooking became therapy for him. So my father, like his father, was the cook in our house, and he was really of the French Julia Child cooking school. I mean, he would spend like days clarifying soup broth for these really extensive meals, right? As we went on, he just became better and better. He was a really excellent cook, and dinner was always a very important part of our household.
I had some really dysfunctional eating habits growing up. I really didn’t like fish. Some things I really didn’t like. As I read today, maybe it’s just because they weren’t good; the quality of the carrots weren’t good or the beets. My mom was a big fan of beets, and I used to really not like beets at all, but you had to eat your food to go out and play. I wanted to play, so there were some tough times there.
So food was very important. My mom was really anti-pizza, because she didn’t consider that food. You would never find things like American cheese or stuff in cellophane if you could help it. We still lived just thirty miles from Amish country, so there were a number of vibrant farmers’ markets. There still are. My parents would go out and they’d seek out really good food, and my friends all wanted to eat dinner at our house because it was so good. [laughs]
Q: I was going to say, that probably wasn’t all that common—and this is a terrible stereotype for me—in York, Pennsylvania.
Imhoff: Well, my dad was really into cooking and he was really good. There were things that weren’t part of their culture. They weren’t wine-drinking people. They thought Mateus wine was good, and Inglenook and stuff like that. So things changed over time. However, we weren’t wealthy people. We were maybe slightly more than middle class. My dad had a business; he employed lots of people. We were just a family that was trying to find our way, you know, and food was a big part of it, good food.
I, at an early age, kind of gravitated toward the growing of things and biology. I really liked biology. I remember just for fun, there was a greenhouse on the roof of the high school, and I got permission to go up there, and I was trying to raise gigantic tomatoes, because I’d learned about polysom. I was trying to do some experiments [to see if I could grow unusually large] tomatoes.
One thing that really changed my attitudes toward food a lot—I think I was still at York College at the time—my brother handed me a copy of Diet for a Small Planet. I was probably eighteen years old. He decided that he was going to become a vegetarian. So I read it. It was very convincing to me. It changed me.
Then it suddenly lit a little bomb there in the middle of our family dinners. My father, who was really French with all these sauces and extra heavy-duty things and meats, suddenly had some vegetarians to contend with. You didn’t want to make a big deal, so you tried to be accommodating, but for the most part, that really sent me in this very—it’s been a meandering relationship with what kind of diet I felt right, made me feel good, etc., But for many years I was a vegetarian and either cooking for myself or, when I was at Allegheny, they had a dining hall that I was part of, and the vegetarians all took turns cooking for each other. So you learned some things over those years as well.
It was really cool. Instead of being at a dining hall, these folks long ago, far-sighted people, bought a house. The money that you would pay for one semester’s worth of dining went to this house, this dining hall, and we hired our own cook and we bought our own foods. A lot of the stuff came from the coop, and it was a really great place to eat in a real social club right on the campus. It doesn’t exist anymore. But while I was there, it saved me. You know what I mean?
Q: I imagine Asia introduced you to different kinds of foods.
Imhoff: I remember never, ever experiencing poverty like I really saw when I was in China. So we’re in the summer of 1983. I’m going to this school called the Shanghai Normal University. We’re in foreign experts’ dormitories. You still have the currency that is just for foreigners and you spend it in these stores that are just for foreigners, so you know you’re getting special food. They would do the strangest things, like you would have fried fish that had lots of bones in it. [laughs] I mean, like why would you fry the fish with [bones in it]—but they were such unbelievable eaters, right? They could pop a shrimp in their mouth and spit the shell out. That all seemed somewhat magical to me.
Then I had a bicycle. We all bought these Flying Pigeon bicycles, and every weekend I would put it on the train and go somewhere. I remember picking the bike up one day and going back into the freight area of the train station, and there was the worker there—
Q: This was where?
Imhoff: This would have been in Nanjing. I can’t remember exactly, but Suzhou or somewhere, where we took the train to. He had his little tin, because everybody got a tin, your allotment of rice, and the people who were in charge of the allotments of rice would put rocks in it so that they could take some for themselves, right? So they would give them the right weight, but there were always a few pebbles in there. He had his tin full of rice and a bone, and he would eat some rice and then suck on the bone. I knew the bone was really the only flavor that he had.
Shanghai was still very much a three-story city. People shopped every day, and they either rode their bicycles by the millions or they were on very crowded buses. You would go by these corners, which were these dropoff areas, and one week there would just be this mountain of watermelons, and then the next week there would be this mountain of cabbage or lychee nuts. It was never really super well coordinated, and you realized what these folks went through food-wise. But they made it and they did it. It was very eye-opening.
Then, of course, from there I went on to Taiwan, Taipei, this free-market industrializing country in which food was way more available and the standard of living from a food perspective seemed higher, and you had a refrigerator. You know what I mean? Just everything really changed from that perspective.
Q: It was international relations in one way or another that you were studying?
Imhoff: I was a generalist. I was trying super hard to be a generalist, and that is really what international relations was. I thought of going to law school. As a matter of fact, I got into law school halfway through my master’s program at Syracuse. Everybody had always told me, “You’d be a great lawyer. You should be a lawyer.” And I enrolled in Dickinson College of Law. I still had the fellowship there at Syracuse as a backup plan, and I went there for two days and I just realized, “I’m not ready for this. This seems like it’s going to be the end of my life if I do this. Then I’ll be a clerk and then I’ll be a partner and then I’ll be dead. My parents will have invested this big amount of money in this, and I’ll be obligated.”
So I went to the dean and I said, “Everybody seems really happy here except for me.”
And he said, “Come back when you want, and we’ll refund your parents’ money.”
And—boom—I went back to Syracuse, I finished up, and I kind of got out of—well, I didn’t totally get out of school, because then I went to this program in China. Then I started to teach English. So I was just sort of in limbo, not knowing what the world held for me.
Q: When was it that you had to start making some kind of living for yourself?
Imhoff: As soon as I left that program in Shanghai. So I went to Taiwan, I was teaching, studying. I was really pretty much in charge of my finances. Then I got back to San Francisco, and that was the spring of ’84. I was in international relations. I took the Foreign Service exam. [Ronald] Reagan was the president. It was pre-Iran Contra, but it wasn’t a foreign policy that I particularly felt super proud of or wanting to participate in. There wasn’t a vibrant NGO community like there is now in San Francisco. There was not the Rainforest Action Network or the Earth Island Institute or many of the other great NGOs that are out there for somebody like me who was somewhat public policy oriented.
Q: I’m not even sure I knew what an NGO was at that point.
Imhoff: There were some, but they were more oriented toward promoting trade and things like this.
So I ended up working in business. I ended up working for a shipping company first, and their M.O. was—it was a Chinese company, and they, on a monthly basis, sent containers back and forth to Tahiti. They pretty much controlled the whole trade in Tahiti of commodity goods. Things were constantly rusting in Tahiti, so they were constantly sending appliances and things back and forth, and grain for animals and things like that. So I did that for a while. I got fairly good at it.
Then I answered an ad for a company called ESPRIT. They were this really hip clothing company that employed lots of people, and it was sort of a lifestyle place to work.
Q: Why don’t you explain the ethos of ESPRIT? Because I remember it, but sooner or later, people will have forgotten.
Imhoff: It was a fashion company mainly for [women and] girls, but at the time it had expanded to many, many different countries. It had a European wing; it had an Asian wing; then it had North America. But we were probably in at least forty-some countries. It was a billion-dollar business at the height of its success. I don’t know where it is today necessarily, money-wise. It was a place to work where they gave you a lot of perks, really good food in the cafeteria, no smoking in the building, really beautiful offices. You were really encouraged to go out and participate in theater and artistic events and things like that. There were kayak trips and outdoors things. It was really to promote teamwork and pull the best out of everybody.
I was in the shipping department, and at a certain point I became the Carnet expert. A Carnet is what you have to file when you’re going on a tour. Like if you’re a rock band, let’s say, and you’re touring around Europe, you have to have all the documentation that shows what you’re traveling with, and it gets presented at the Customs as you’re going through country through country. So whenever there was something really complicated, it was my job to do in the international shipping department. I was there for a year.
After a year, you were allowed to apply to some other department. There was a big international meeting, and I stuck my résumé into the mailboxes of a bunch of the visiting people who were in charge of other countries. I was still thinking of international relations at the time. The lady who was in charge of ESPRIT Italy was setting up a new headquarters in Milan.
Q: You hit the jackpot. [laughs]
Imhoff: She hired me. My job was to just coordinate with the other companies in Europe. Italy was producing a line of clothing, and these guys would do advanced orders, and I would make sure that their orders came through and their money came through, and settled their accounts. I was no accountant by any means. I was just doing this job, really, to be in Italy.
Milan was really not my [kind of] city, and every weekend I would get on a bus and go somewhere and ride my bike or ski or whatever. One time I rode my bicycle around Sicily.
Q: It’s not an outdoor city.
Imhoff: It’s not, and it was really hard to just be fit. But I was an athlete. I was a squash player. I’d learned squash at Syracuse. The owner of the company, of the whole company, was a squash player, and so when he would come to town, he would always want to play me, to just get some exercise. We were kind of compatible. I got to know him, and he is my father-in-law now. [laughter]
Q: You really got to know him.
Imhoff: Yes. It took a little while. I had no idea that would ever happen, but along the twisted way, anyway, we met and we stayed in touch.
Q: Was his daughter working in Italy?
Imhoff: No, his daughter was in college.
So I spent that year in Italy. That certainly influenced my understanding of food. Again, that was a deep food culture. I was really beginning to get this feeling like, “Shoot. I’m getting older. I’m working a job that’s not really what I want to be doing. I really want to be a writer.” I started to just teach myself how to write, and I have to say I don’t think I was very good.
Q: How did you do that?
Imhoff: I just started reading books, started writing stories, taking little assignments. I’d maybe been doing it before. Now I was pushing harder. I had been doing it before. I take that back. I took some playwriting classes while I was still working in San Francisco. I started that process of educating myself. I had a typewriter and a teletype roll like [Jack] Kerouac, and I typed [Ernest] Hemingway’s—what’s the fantastic story where the hunters are out and the wife—The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. I typed that story word for word. I did all kinds of things to try to get myself to really learn what it was to be a writer.
After the one year at ESPRIT in Italy, I’d taken this really long bike trip through the Alps, and I came back and I said, “Okay, now I’m going to learn how to do it.” And I became a temp. I took temp jobs for a couple of years, and I went to San Francisco State’s [graduate English program]. The idea there was I was going to be a fiction writer, and I worked on fiction writing pretty hard. You know what I mean? I’m a disciplined person. I don’t mind solitude. I really worked at it. So I really began the process of figuring out how to be a writer, and it was very much through the back door. I didn’t go to [a] journalism class or anything like that.
Q: That is, of course, what you’re describing, the way to do it, and very few people commit themselves to doing that.
Imhoff: I often wonder if it was a very legitimate way to figure it out, because there was no one to really show me, and I spent a lot of time on things that I never finished. I was working on a novel, and I’d spent a good amount of time on it, really, really trying to crack the code on making this work. It was about an oil spill that hits the northern California coast, where I was living and exploring and it was really becoming my home. It happened before the Exxon Valdez hit. It was a cool, prescient thing that I was working on.
And comes back into the picture this guy that I used to play squash with in Italy. He wanted to play squash, so we were playing squash one day, and he says, “Hey, what are you working on?” I’d published some articles like in airline magazines and local places, and they were all about the outdoors and conservation-oriented-type things. He was into them. He said, “Hey, I’ve got this job for you. It won’t take long. It’ll be like half-time for a couple of months, then you’ll be done.”
He was increasingly concerned about the environmental impacts of his company, of ESPRIT, and the whole fashion business and the whole point of creating consumer demand that didn’t really exist, and he was a master at it. So my first job was to write down all the impacts of washing your clothes, and it would go on a hangtag on all the garments, and just say there’s these phosphates in the detergent, there’s huge amounts of water and electricity that often affects habitats and ecosystems, and then there’s electric drying that’s not necessary. You can dry your clothes on the line. Blah, blah, blah, right? However many, we had fifty words or something to say all this.
Then it became a series of hangtags that said “Stop and think, before you buy this, whether or not you really need it. There are 6 billion people in the world, and clothing requires huge amounts of resources and materials. When you’re done with it, consider passing it on.”
Q: See, it’s that kind of thing that I remember about ESPRIT. It did catch your attention at that time because it was quite unusual.
Imhoff: Yes. Then we started taking out ads in Utne Reader that said it was a plea for responsible consumption. I mean, look. I became like persona non grata within the company, really, among the marketing people. The last thing they wanted on their garments was something that says “Don’t buy it.” Right? But Doug Tompkins, who was the owner at the time, I mean, he also knew that that reverse psychology probably wouldn’t backfire, that people would even really appreciate that. I mean, it worked from a PR standpoint.
Then at a certain point my job was to work with designers, and we designed a little catchy slogan for little kids’ t-shirts that said something about “Seals, dolphins, and whales,” and then there would be these cool pictures, but there’d be a patch on the shirt that said something about marine life, and a dollar of every unit would go to—now there were NGOs in San Francisco. The Earth Island Institute was going, and there was this whole world that was opening up, and my job was to do cause-related marketing for that.
At a certain point I learned about how pesticide-intensive cotton production was, and so I had some articles, I gave them to Doug, and again he was unafraid. He just put those articles—bang—right on the bulletin board right as you walked into the design studio of ESPRIT, which was really like this incredible temple, this redwood, glass, all these people working on these cool artistic design projects. So I would just go around to all the designers, saying, “Hey, let’s just make one organic garment. I mean, what’s the point of making these t-shirts that are supposed to have environmental messages, but they’re not made out of environmentally preferable cloth?”
So one of the designers, a lady named Linda Gross, she is from England, really kind of an intellectual designer, she really got it. So the two of us started to develop a team, and we eventually started a whole line and a whole project, a five-year research project, where we just really got into the environmental impacts of clothing production.
Q: So this job lasted a little longer than a couple of months. [laughs]
Imhoff: So there went the novel, right? And at a certain point there was a change in ownership in the company. I thought, “Great. I’m going to get laid off and I’ll go up to Alaska.” The Valdez had hit. “I’ll finish the novel. I’ll go up there and I’ll work.” But they kept me working. At the time, I was kind of a struggling writer for so long, it felt good to have something that felt meaningful, that used my skills. But I was no longer writing my novel, and I was really writing less and less. That then took my life in a whole different direction.
Q: What direction was that?
Imhoff: Well, I mean, I was no longer a temp, you know.
Q: That’s important. [laughs]
Imhoff: Writing half-days, like really living to write, and instead I was doing this job. The job was really looking at the environmental impacts of business, from a business perspective, from a design perspective. The amazing thing was that because we were of a certain-size company, we had access to almost anybody we wanted. We could go into spinning mills. There were still some textile mills in 1990 in North Carolina. We could go into the factories where they electroplated rivets. They would electroplate the zippers and the rivets and the snaps and things for jeans with cyanide solutions.