By Katie Barbour, University of Michigan Student Journalist
“I was terrified to eat it, frankly, because I’d always been told that if I ate meat, I’d throw up. But it also would have just been unspeakably rude to turn it down. So I ate it. And it was delicious.”
This event marked the slow, gradual progression of Margot Finn, 32, a University of Michigan American Culture lecturer, from a health-conscious vegan to an adventurous food blogger, who will cook, and eat, anything at least once. Finn, who adorns a purple streak in the front of her cropped, auburn hair and a mysterious back tattoo peering out of a sleeveless cardigan, refutes the claim that organic is healthier or better for the environment. These opinions are based upon extensive research, which Finn says she surprising fell into after a few stumbles and setbacks.
Finn, who earned her Ph.D. in 2011 from U of M, didn’t always know her life’s work was to be dedicated to food studies. After majoring in English and sociology as an undergraduate at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she began her Ph.D. coursework in English at New York University, where she planned to study 18th century British literature because it was “so weird—full of strange cross-dressing farce, illicit master-servant romance.” After discovering those archives did not really exist, she decided to change paths and study media at the University of Michigan. But after a few years, Finn became disenchanted with the project and thought about dropping out to become a sommelier. She was drawn back, however, into academia after her advisor suggested that if she was so fascinated by wine, then she could write her dissertation on that. The seed was planted, and Finn cultivated the idea to her final dissertation entitled “Aspirational Eating: Class Anxiety and the Rise of Food in Popular Culture.”
She reflects back to her high school years in the mid-1990s, where she learned all energy comes from the sun, and decided that it would be better ecologically to eat low on the food chain—a plant-based diet. She also had this “vague sense that meat was unhealthy or fattening and eating burgers and fried chicken was just this kind of dumb, slobby American way to be.” Finn became a full vegetarian once she moved away to college and a vegan when she started grad school at NYU, after vegan friends made her more aware of the horrors of the dairy and egg industry. She added eggs, dairy, and fish back into her diet when she moved to Michigan, realizing her hypocrisy of not eating eggs because of the chicken industry, but still consuming coffee and chocolate, much of which is produced in third world countries with slave labor. Finn tasted meat for the first time since high school when her host at a conference offered her a beef-stuffed pepper. Since then, she has never looked back.
Now Finn, who teaches an introductory class on food studies, eats everything, but surprisingly does not view organic or locally grown food as nutritionally superior. Based upon her research, she says there is “little reason to believe that eating those things makes anyone healthier.” Finn actually avoids buying organic foods, and does not worry about the pesticides used in conventional farming, calling organic pesticides “far worse” and “stupid”, because it requires, for example, guano to be harvested off small islands in Peru and shipped to the United States. Mackenzie Corbin, 20, who took one of Finn’s classes last semester said, “Margot opened my eyes to just how little most Americans know what they eat. Organic and local is not as great as many make you believe.”
Not everyone, however, is so convinced with Finn’s arguments. Finn’s husband Brian Cook, 33, has witnessed some of Finn’s naysayers. He said most of the conversations are “badly one-sided” because people think “industrial food is bad and organics are good because people told them that…she gets the inevitable pushback from someone who feels good about shopping at Whole Foods.”
And although Finn’s newfound food consumption habits are all based on extensive research and rational assessment, she is also willing to admit the convenience that goes along with her beliefs, quipping, “Being a vegan is socially just a pain in the ass.”