Extreme circumstances call for extreme measures. A restaurant critic's diet is, for obvious reasons, somewhat extreme. Healthy eating is difficult and often impossible. I employ various methods to combat my profession's caloric surfeit, but many of those methods result in a schizophrenic seesaw of excess and deprivation, the multicourse meal followed by sparse salads after workouts. It's the way it has to be. But once a year, I try for a full-on cleanse, a diet of some sort that will completely reset my system.
In 2007, I attempted a fruit cleanse, where I ate fruit and little else for three days. It made me hate fruit, which seemed too high a price to pay. Last year, I drank a foul-tasting detox tonic every two hours for a few days, which did absolutely nothing but wreak havoc on my digestive system. This year, inspired by a colleague, I decided to try a raw food diet. For 10 days, I would eat only raw foods, and no meat or dairy.
As a cleanse, raw food appealed to me because it involved no crazy self-denial. A wide range of foods is allowed on such a diet, and there's no limit to how much you can eat, as long as nothing's cooked. While there's debate within the movement about alcohol, wine is generally considered raw, so drinking was allowed. I was also interested in the raw food movement, and liked the challenge of eating without the tools on which I typically rely. Often, such obstacles force us to look at food in a different way, and the science-experiment aspect of the exercise interested me.
The raw food movement dates as far back as the 1800s. While there are three types of raw foodists (and subsets within those three categories), I would be attempting raw veganism, as opposed to raw vegetarianism where raw dairy is allowed, and raw omnivorism, which allows raw meat. Raw veganism is the most common form, probably because it's a natural extension of vegansim: the next step once you've already given up meat and dairy.
But raw foodism's main philosophical stance relates to health. Proponents believe raw foods (also referred to as living foods) contain beneficial enzymes that disappear once foods are cooked, or heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit. I've read raw food texts that go so far as to assert that food is rendered "toxic" by the cooking process. The idea that the human body was built to eat raw vegetables, fruits and nuts, is central to raw eating, as is the notion that we've never fully adjusted to the change in diet brought about by the human innovation of cooking. I'm not sure how much I buy any of these claims – to me, the prospect of eating raw meant no processed foods, less fats, and a chance for my body to recover. I expected it to be difficult. I did not expect it to entirely change the way my body responded to food.
I began on a Saturday evening with a salad and a raw lasagna made by CL Editor Mara Shalhoup, who also undertook the diet. The lasagna, made of layered, thinly sliced zucchini, tomato, pine nut "ricotta" and pesto, was delicious – tangy, crunchy, nutty and satisfying. It was like a lasagna salad, but the nuts and ricotta (made with nutritional yeast) made it rich and hearty as well. I felt good. I felt healthy. It was going to be a great 10 days.
Atlanta has a number of resources for raw eaters. There's a 100 percent raw restaurant in East Point called Lov'n It Live. R. Thomas has two raw entrées on its menu, and sells raw salads and a raw breakfast cereal at Sevananda made of sprouted, dried buckwheat, dried coconut and fruits, which I ate every morning during the diet. There are raw food delivery services, lifting some of the burden of preparation (don't call it cooking -- semantics are important). Akil Amen, a chef who prepares exclusively raw food, hosts demonstrations every Monday afternoon at Sevananda.
Amen came to raw food through a series of jobs and learning experiences. He owned Turnover Time in Cabbagetown and although he served some meat at his restaurant, his vegan soups and vegetarian turnovers gave him "a reputation as a vegetarian chef," he says. After Turnover Time closed, Amen went to work at Dynamic Dish, the mainly vegetarian restaurant on Edgewood Avenue owned by David Sweeney. "David taught me the concept of slow food, of supporting local farms. When I had my own restaurant, I didn't really know anything about that."
From Dynamic Dish, Amen discovered and eventually worked for Living Foods Delight, a short-lived raw food restaurant in Grant Park. "It's been a natural progression over the last several years for me," Amen says. His own diet is now close to 100 percent raw.
Coincidentally, Amen hosted the first of his raw dinners at Arden's Garden in Kirkwood in the middle of my raw diet (the second dinner will take place at the same location Feb. 13). About 20 of us sat at a long table in the shop and had three courses of raw food, paired with juices from the Arden's Garden line. We were served a lemony soup studded with dried apples, two hearty "sausages" made primarily of nuts and doused in a tomato sauce, and a huge serving of "fettuccini" – zucchini noodles dressed in a rich asparagus sauce. By the end of the meal, I was stuffed.
The folks at the dinner were a mixed lot – some vegans and vegetarians, looking to understand another facet of natural food culture, and some meat eaters, curious to see how Amen could make an entire, satisfying meal without the benefit of heat. "Many people are looking to improve their health and diet," Amen says. "It's not just vegetarians and vegans; it's people who want to supplement their regular diets with more raw foods and organics."
Basically, raw foodism isn't just for health nuts – and Amen doesn't want to be seen as an activist with an agenda.
"I'm not trying to convert the whole world, nor am I trying to appeal to raw foodists, per se," he says. "My goal right now, as a chef, is actually to turn all foodies on to the possibilities."
On the table at Lov'n It Live in East Point, a flyer under the glass explains the restaurant's mission. Much of the statement is dedicated to explaining the slow food movement, of which the restaurant's owners see raw food as a natural extension. There's much in the raw food movement that shares its values with slow food and organics -- a respect for naturally raised produce, a concern for the environment, the idea that food should be prepared carefully and enjoyed slowly. But it got me thinking about the extremes Americans go to, especially when it comes to food.
On one hand, much of the chef community has linked slow food with whole animal cookery, where the entire animal is used rather than just the prime cuts. There are valid environmental and sustainability reasons for this, but it's taken a turn toward excess, where many chefs who claim to value organics and sustainability above all else also worship bacon as a deity. Meat love/offal enthusiasm almost count as its own movement these days, and it's a movement that's generally linked to slow food. I love bacon and sweetbreads, but connecting these two ideas – the health of our planet and foodways and the obsession with fatty meat – seems like a stretch. What of the health of our bodies?
On the other hand, there are vegans and raw foodists and fruitarians and on and on. Both extremes seem a little ... extreme to me, especially in a country with a glut of affordable food. Why isn't there a more vocal movement for moderation?
Apart from Amen's meal at Arden's Garden, my raw food experience went steadily downhill from the first night's lasagna. Food preparation became almost a full-time task, and at first none of it satisfied. To make raw food more than just fruit and veggies, many techniques are used to create different textures and flavors, including a lot of juicing and ground nuts. As much as the raw diet seemed healthier to me than my regular diet, I recognized I was eating a lot of nuts and dried fruits, and in doing so, consuming more fat and sugar than I usually do. In their raw state, these fats and sugars are healthier than the saturated fats and processed sugars I'm used to eating. Still, I felt none of the energy and lightness I'd experienced during my (otherwise torturous) fruit cleanse.
I began fantasizing, first about simple things – rice, beans, tofu. Then I started craving things I've never in my life wanted before. An Arby's commercial on television called out to me. Walking though the supermarket, I found myself longing for the sticky cinnamon buns in the bakery.
Eight days into the diet, I became disillusioned. As I forced down a smoothie of green vegetables, sweetened slightly by fruit but viciously bitter at its edges, I questioned my motivation. I didn't feel good; in fact, I felt slightly loopy, as if I were stuck in the beginning stages of a drug experience of the hallucinogenic or narcotic variety. I was grumpy. I wanted some damn rice. But also, I felt strangely stuck. I couldn't quite imagine eating cooked food, and was scared of what it might do to me.
I made it though the last two days, experimenting with some disastrous recipes along the way (including the faux meat pictured, made of raw beets, yams, potatoes, and turnips). Interestingly, the most difficult part for me was coming off the diet. My body rebelled. My first meal, of cooked veggies and chicken, went fine, but the following morning's toast with peanut butter made me ill. As I write this, a full week after coming off of my raw food diet, my body still isn't handling cooked food well. I'm eating partially raw to try to calm my system. If I didn't eat cooked food literally for a living, I'd be tempted to go back to raw food, just to feel less nauseous.
In his recent book Catching Fire, Richard Wrangham argues that cooking made us human. Apart from making our food more digestible, cooking freed us from the time-consuming task of foraging and eating on the spot, and gave humans the tools to become thinkers and social beings. He also argues against the premises of raw foodism, citing studies that show that strict raw diets can't deliver enough energy.
After 10 days of eating raw, I can attest to the lack of energy. But the experience did make me look at food differently. It introduced me to chia seeds and sprouted beans, made me consider different ways of thickening and flavoring foods, and turned me off of starchy, heavy meals. I'll probably continue to supplement my crazy restaurant food diet with raw food and juices. The key, for me, is balance, and trying to find it in a life of professional eating. I'll never be a vegan or a raw foodist, but I now know how to make mock tuna salad from crushed almonds and powdered sea vegetables. That's pretty cool.
And even if I can't ever truly achieve it in my own life, I'll continue to strive for moderation.
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