Raw Power: The Ups and Downs of Raw Foodism and Raw Food Diets
I am a content omnivore. I'm no meat freak or anything, but I like a steak every now and then. I also like apples and bananas and baby spinach and, come winter, clementines. I have an unhealthy addiction to bacon, because bacon is one of the most delicious things on Earth. Bacon is the measure of all things. I am a content omnivore.
And then there is raw foodism and the living foods movement. Celebrities such as Demi Moore, Carol Alt, Woody Harrelson, and Laura Dern are proud raw foodists. The idea of the dietary lifestyle is that 60 percent or more of the food one consumes should be uncooked and unprocessed. The food can only be warmed to 120 degrees. Raw foodists believe that foods maintain their digestive enzymes, nutrients, and other health benefits if they remain uncooked and unprocessed. Further, they believe that cooking not only deprives foods of their health benefits but can potentially make foods harmful to one's health. Perhaps most interesting, some raw foodists report a spiritual or religious sensation from their living foods lifestyle.
I decided to see what a 100 percent raw vegan diet was like. I did need to get more raw fruits and vegetables into my diet, and some raw nuts would be good as well--nuts, of course, are good for your heart. I approached this raw vegan diet as a daring detox, a feat worth attempting if only to test my limits. Some people go bungee jumping or join a polar bear club. Others enrich their lives through incredible tests of endurance and outdoor survival. I opted to eat the hell out of raw broccoli.
Out to Whole Foods I went for flax seeds and raw cashews and raw almonds and sprouts and bell peppers and sunflower seeds. Out to the local market I went for spinach and apples and bananas and broccoli and lettuce and tomatoes and avocados and baby carrots. I would assemble salads, make my own dishes, devour, test myself, and enjoy the food before me. Then out I went, out to the city which seemed so full of raw possibilities; such expensive, expensive raw possibilities.
Gimme Danger: The Health Risks and Difficulties Associated with Raw Veganism
Raw veganism is not without its risks. One of the greatest risks is deficiencies in vitamin B12, which is found in many animal-based foods and is essential for the brain and nervous system to function. Other nutritional deficiencies include protein, iron, calcium, and vitamin D. These can be dealt with through vitamins and approved food supplements, yet there are still other risks to address. A number of raw foodists may be underweight and severely so. This may explain why some studies have shown a link between raw food diets and amenorrhoea (abnormal or suppressed menstruation).
Cooking foods may make the digestion process easier. Such is the case with sweet potatoes and live lobsters. Some scientists even theorize that the cooking of food has contributed to our evolution, helping increase the brain size in early humans.
John Stossel of 20/20 did a piece on orthorexia, a condition in which people obsess over eating healthy. One of his subjects was Johnny Righini, a 26-year-old orthorexic and raw vegan. He grew his own produce because he didn't trust the produce in stores. He had a violent reaction to junk food ("This is the downfall of America," he said while holding a box of life-sustaining macaroni and cheese). He weighed about 78 pounds. His doctors told him his diet had left him with the bones of an 80 year old. And yet he persists.
I only had to do this for two weeks, so I had nothing to lose except a little weight and a lot of energy.
Nightclubbing: Raw Food Restaurants
Raw food restaurants are a study in culinary alchemy. If you were to bring a brick of lead into the kitchen of a raw food restaurant, you'd leave with gold (or a brick of lead covered in radicchio, grape tomatoes, and cashew sour cream). They craft fake dairy products from soaked nuts, work with dehydrators and blenders and food processors, and manage, in some way, to make partially warmed raw stuff into palatable, even delectable, foodstuff.
Many of the people at the raw restaurants I went to were curious epicureans rather than raw foodists. They had too much girth to be raw foodists (unless they ate nothing but cashews and avocados all day). I was only able to check out two major sitdown places during my time as a raw vegan, though that was due mainly to my budget. Below is a brief assessment of each of these places, both of which I intend to eat at again.
Quintessence was cozy and enjoyable, an intimate little nook from which to sample the workings of raw food cooking. It had its share of locals who dipped in for take-out orders while I ate my food, and it was nice to see that in its own way the restaurant had a sense of community.
I had a pear smoothie. It was pure and rich with a sweet, delicious foam on top. It made me remember how much I loved pears as a kid. I used to go through Bosc pears like they were butterscotch discs. (This would lead me back to Whole Foods several times to replenish my surplus of Bosc pears.)
The entree was a raw pizza, which was less like a pizza and more like a salad on top of a cracker made from a mish-mash of dehydrated grains. I make it sound unappetizing, but it was actually good. It wasn't original Patsy's (and really, what is?), but it was as close as I was going to come to pizza for awhile and I enjoyed it.
Then dessert was tiramisu, which was quite a stunt of food fakery. Given the chance to do the Pepsi challenge with real tiramisu and the raw food version, I'd be able to tell the difference immediately: No spongy cookie inside, no mascarpone cheese. Yet, it was close enough to the real thing to satisfy. On the side was a scoop of raw vegan praline ice cream which tasted like praline ice cream.
Pure Food and Wine
Eating at Pure Food and Wine on your own is like going stag to your senior prom in business casual attire. The decor screams "date place," so it's not a spot to sit alone with a glass of vegan wine and that issue of Harper's you haven't read yet. I enjoyed the raw food magic, but I think I enjoyed the people watching more, especially because the couple sitting a few seats in front of me was having one of those serious conversations, the kind that included the phrases "we can't start over now" and "the next level of this relationship."
The entree consisted of two raw white corn tamales, with a little guacamole and some sort of nut-based sour cream on the side. (Maybe cashew? Maybe pistachio?) It would be the only warm food I'd have the entire diet. As warm as the warmest September day in Phoenix, as hot as a life-threatening fever, it was at the time the best thing I had ever eaten. It tasted like a real tamale; a real, delicious tamale.
Dessert was a sampler of raw vegan sorbets that tasted like sorbets. Make of that what you will.
When I received the check, I laughed and then looked for the hidden camera. Then I gulped and took out my credit card. As the waitress whisked my card away, I was glad I didn't take a date to this date place, not because I'm cheap or anything but because I'm poor.
I walked the long way to a subway stop and passed Artichoke, one of my favorite slice places in the city. There you can buy their namesake slice: spinach artichoke dip with cheese on a thick yet soft crust. With the money I spent at raw food restaurants, I could have bought about 35 slices at Artichoke. One fat slice on its own would have been as filling as a raw restaurant meal. I don't know if the Artichoke slice would be more interesting or necessarily more satisfying, but it was all I wanted.
Shake Appeal: Fun with the Blender and Food Processor
The blender and food processor became my best friends during the diet. One of my forays into raw food alchemy was cashew cheese, made from soaked cashews and different vegetables and herbs. It was like tuna salad except without the tuna. Wrapped between leaves of napa cabbage, it was like a sandwich, but without the bread. Soaked cashews also played an integral role in making raw sour cream. After adding enough vinegar and lime juice to make a horse pucker and wretch, it actually tasted pretty close to sour cream.
One night I made a five layer dip with the cashew sour cream, guacamole, pico de gallo, black olives, and green onion. My roommates told me it tasted great and scooped up dollops of the stuff with blue corn chips. I used raw cheese crackers ($14 for 4 ounces) and broccoli florets. To me it tasted like I'd been cheated out of an otherwise good time.
Hummus was also another favorite. It was hard to screw up, cheap to make, easy to store, and it went great with baby carrots. It meant that after the diet I had something I would definitely make all the time. Now if I could just learn how to make my own falafel, I could save almost $1 million a year (give or take).
My forays into blended cold soups were haphazard and the results underwhelming. I should have looked for some good recipes instead of going it alone. I usually wound up with these green things that tasted okay, but were comprised of a random batch of vegetables ready at hand. It was like being a kid and mixing all the water colors together, but this time I had to drink the mess I made.
When it came to a quick fix and as little prep as possible, I turned to smoothies. Raw ingredients + water = tasty ta-dah. My favorite was the baby spinach and banana smoothie. Since baby spinach has a generally neutral flavor, it was hardly noticeable after adding a banana or two, which acted as a thickening agent while giving the foamy green sludge some flavor.
My only bad smoothie experience involved making a spinach, pineapple, and coconut concoction. I'd had one at a raw food and smoothie place in Manhattan. It tasted great, like a green virgin pina colada.
The problem was the coconut. Growing up, I had seen my mom and dad expertly crack open these things, splitting the shells in half, pouring the water into a glass, and scraping the flesh into a bowl with little misadventure. I spent awhile knocking at the shell with the blunt edge of a kitchen knife, tracing the circumference with a series of tap-tap-taps. I circled the coconut a few times and got nowhere. Then I used the sharp edge of the kitchen knife. Tap-tap-tap. Nothing. I'm not the most patient person, particularly when I'm several days into a raw food diet, starving, and crave a smoothie.
Out came the claw hammer.
The delicate tap-tap-taps were replaced by not-so-delicate crack-crack-cracks. I could feel the feral raw vegan within me craving the life-giving flesh of the coconut. Water everywhere, bits of shell and coarse hair on the ground, chunks of white meat on the counter. This was supposed to be living food, but I had bashed the coconut to death. I drank some of the remaining water from a small bowl of intact shell. It was bitter and tasted more like hammer than coconut. I grabbed a spoon and sunk it into the meat. It was on the bland side, almost flavorless.
I scraped what I could out of the coconut and poured the dregs into the blender with the baby spinach and pineapple. I blended. I drank. It did not taste like a green virgin pina colada. It tasted like the green urine of a koala. I knew then what defeat tasted like.
No Fun: Going Without
During the diet I went to a friend's birthday party. She had us all dress up like characters from books. (I was T. S. Garp from John Irving's The World According to Garp.) A friend (dressed as Harriet the Spy) commented that I looked pale and seemed generally miserable. She was right. There was alcohol at the party, none of which I could drink. There were cupcakes at the party that I could not eat. There was pizza, and I could only watch as the grease dripped from each slice like liquid sunshine. I sated myself with baby carrots and water and lots of scowling.
That's one of the worst parts about my time as a raw vegan. It was hard for me to do things with friends that involved food. No popcorn at movies. Can't go to bars unless they had vegan wine. Going to restaurants proved to be a pain unless it was a raw food restaurant, and in the case of raw food restaurants, a guy can only spend so much.
I had gone through a lot of cashew cheese, but I would give almost anything for a little bread to make a proper cashew cheese sandwich. I couldn't stand to look at a napa cabbage.
I had made quite a few raw layered dips, but I craved corn chips to scoop things up. Better corn chips than expensive flax seed snacks or ridiculously expensive fake cheese crackers.
I had not had hot coffee for more than a week and rather than feeling energized, I felt destroyed. Cold drip coffee was like the grey water that accumulates in potholes after a storm.
While I developed a knack for making hummus, I would have loved to have it in a pita as a sandwich with some tomatoes, lettuce, and tabouli. Baby carrots and broccoli florets only go so far. And I would have killed for some falafel.
I felt weak and sleepy much of the time and it was harder for me to get up in the morning. The closest I came to a spiritual or religious experience while on the diet was taking the Lord's name in vain any time I passed a place that sold hot food.
So, how does my raw food diet end? Check back tomorrow to read part two of Raw Power.
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