In the Raw

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I spent $78 on nuts in two days. I watched seeds sprout inside Mason jars, their pale shoots spooky, subterranean, and definitely alive. On the raw food diet, I covered every available counter in my kitchen with nuts soaking and seeds sprouting and fruits dehydrating and thought: I have nothing to eat. I came to know new hungers but also new levels of full. I learned that crunchy and cool can still mean savory. As my colon "switched over" to raw, I moved through the five stages of digestive grief-denial, bloating, cramps, explosiveness, and acceptance—and
survived. I fell in love with my juicer, broke up with my blender, and came to see my big, boxy dehydrator as glorious because it's warm and,
on a diet of cool food, I craved warmth more than anything else.

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In late spring of this year, I migrated to the raw food diet, also known as "live food" cuisine, consisting entirely of uncooked vegetables and fruits, soaked nuts and seeds, and sprouted grains. (All the soaking and sprouting, advocates say, is necessary to transform the dormant seeds of plants into "living foods.") Raw foodists avoid pasteurized and chemically processed foods, and argue that cooking food at temperatures higher than about 118 degrees Fahrenheit destroys its enzymes, making it harder to digest. (For the scientific rationale behind the raw food diet, see "Raw Data".)

And these raw food zealots are gaining converts. While research is scarce on the popularity of the diet, the advent of dozens of raw restaurants, raw "cookbooks," and the growing number of hard-core vegetarians-experts now estimate that one-third to one-half of North American vegetarians are vegans-point to a growing interest in raw cuisine.

At first, raw food seems simple—in fact, the simplest diet possible. But is that simplicity possible for everybody, everywhere? I'm an omnivore who loves a Sunday roast. I live in Iowa, which may be the agricultural center of the country, but in the late spring, it sure doesn't look it. Where would I get my coconuts? Mangos? Green zebra tomatoes? I wanted to see if the raw diet, with its high bar of healthfulness, was possible far from sunny climes or the gourmet produce aisles of a Whole Foods Market. I wondered: Is raw food just big-city hype?

Gearing Up

Raw food cuisine requires gear, none of which is cheap but some of which is
essential. My Champion juicer, hardy and easy to clean (about $250), quickly became my main appliance and ally during my raw experiment. Every morning for breakfast I fed it different fruits and vegetables, and got bolder as I went. Familiar grapefruit yielded to a carrot-ginger-apple blend (tasty!), which led to a frothy brew of leafy greens including kale, parsley, celery, apple, and lemon. A pinch of sea salt (no iodized salt, since it's processed) improved even the most bitter, unfriendly combination.

After a few days of fresh juice, I felt like I'd jumped up to premium octane fuel after a lifetime of sludge. A hearty glass, occasionally spiked with spirulina, filled me for the morning, and shakes became a quick dessert in the evening. As I became more confident, I ran almonds and cashews with honey and salt through the juicer to make nut butters. I even shoved frozen bananas, with cocoa powder, into the juicer and
produced a plausible chocolate pudding.

A dehydrator (upwards of $200) is less essential than a juicer, but it can greatly expand your menus. Resembling a giant sealed toaster oven, it's used to dry nuts and fruits at low heat. My Excalibur model allowed me to simultaneously dehydrate strawberries for jam, a gloppy "grawnola," and spiced almonds. The only thing I had to do was remember what needed to come out when. (One of the main challenges of the diet is tracking all the different sprouting, dehydrating, and soaking times; I wound up resorting to stacks of Post-it notes.)

Some raw fooders use dehydrators to warm plates for soups or to lightly "cook" vegetables, like asparagus, that just aren't as appealing in their natural state. "Raw mushrooms don't taste that good," admits raw food chef Sarma Melngailis, "but toss them with herbs and oil and dehydrate them, and you end up with amazing 'sautéed' mushrooms." But dehydrators are primarily used for crispness. "We're used to a satisfying crunchiness in our foods," explains Melngailis, the coauthor of Raw Food, Real World: 100 Recipes to Get the Glow (Regan Books, 2005).

Planning Meals

The most exhausting aspect of the diet is the time it takes to prepare meals. A week before transitioning, I found myself sitting with a stack of raw food cookbooks, trying to schedule what I needed to do and when. Sprouting lentils and quinoa-to break down their cell walls and allow for easier digestion-takes at least a day. Nuts need hours to soak (to remove bitter flavors and the enzyme inhibitors in their skins), followed by days to dehydrate. All this meant I had to plan my every meal way in advance.

If I screwed up (like the time I neglected to soak and soften the sun-dried tomatoes), my options were few: either make an emergency salad or starve. The assembly of certain meals, like the delicious soft corn tortillas (made from corn, ground flax seed, and chopped bell peppers) with spicy "beans" (sunflower seeds with sun-dried tomatoes) from Raw Food, Real World, took two and a half hours, and I must have cleaned the blender four times. Still, it was almost worth it. I served the tacos to friends who didn't know they were raw. They loved them, but I was exhausted. And there were no leftovers.

So what did I actually eat? Monster
salads, mostly, with inordinate amounts of avocados, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, carrots, celery, shredded daikon, and the like. As I stretched to more elaborate and gourmet combinations, I quickly learned that "experimenting" with raw food while hungry is a bad idea.

One lunchtime, my calendar called for quinoa tabbouleh with a red grapefruit, avocado, and fennel salad, both recipes from Raw Food, Real World. But the tabbouleh was acidic—too much lemon juice—and the grapefruit-fennel salad tasted like wet packing peanuts. A disaster. And salads were supposed to be my backup meals. Fortunately, that morning I'd put slices of unbaked sprouted bread into the dehydrator to warm. I slathered them with almond butter and dehydrated strawberry "jam" (more like a mash of strawberry chips) and ate the entire loaf.

Cuckoo for Coconuts

Raw dinners are usually a metaphor: lasagna, pad thai, pizza, pasta. Because the diet itself is fairly estranged from a traditional American meal, raw chefs seem to feel obliged to build the cuisine around familiar standards. The lasagna from Raw Food, Real World substitutes zucchini slices for pasta and pine nuts with nutritional yeast for ricotta. Melngailis calls this the "perfect introduction" to raw food, and as my inaugural dinner, it was. The dish tasted gigantic—every layer of the lasagna seemed bolder and more intensely itself. Pad thai, from The Complete Book of Raw Food (Hatherleigh Press, 2003), was similarly tasty. Instead of noodles, I used shredded daikon. The sauce, of blended dates, spicy garlic, and almond butter, was especially delectable.

But showcase meals were beyond the reach of my Midwestern grocery. Coconut meats and butters show up regularly in raw recipes. I bought all three coconuts available at my co-op, cracked them open, and nearly gagged on their aged perfume; at that, I had to write off nearly the entire dessert section of Raw Food, Real World.

On the other hand, a carob mint pie, made of frozen bananas and an almond-date crust, was a hit at a potluck dinner. "What is this?" one woman asked, eating a slice. "It looks like chocolate cream pie but it's not." When I told her, she paused. "So you mean I can have another slice?" Exactly. On raw, you can have your metaphor and eat it too.

Struggling to Adjust

The hardest adjustment to raw had to do with the pleasures of food itself. What is mealtime but the joy of anticipation, with scents wafting out of the kitchen or up off the plate? With raw food, all those anticipatory cues are missing: Your food rarely has an aroma. Your kitchen is cold, and a cold kitchen on a cold day is almost tragic. Melngailis argues that while the bigger aromas might be gone in raw cooking, the quieter ones finally get their due. "I'll run into the kitchen when they're using kaffir lime leaves," she says, "and the whole place smells wonderful. In a regular kitchen, such subtle smells would be lost."

The second-hardest adjustment was gastrological. Three days into the diet, I was ravaged by diarrhea, a not uncommon response to lots of roughage. I was so weak that my regular Saturday vinyasa yoga class was out of the question. So were salads, which seemed only to induce more pain. Melngailis admits that her partner Matthew Kenney's own transition was similarly bumpy. "He wouldn't really come out and tell me, but I think he suffered from some bloatedness," she says.

Stuck in my frosty heartland, I found a 100 percent raw diet to be impossible, but 80
percent was possible and probably ideal. As I recuperated from the transition, I brought chicken soup back into my diet and felt resurrected. Once a day, I fed myself the meals I was used to—including meat dishes—and complemented them with juices and nut butters for breakfast and those monster salads for lunch. I continued to snack on spiced Brazil nuts and dates instead of my habitual cookies. Suddenly, I realized I was eating raw without even trying. "Raw food isn't like Atkins, where if you take a bite of bread, you've fallen off the wagon," Melngailis says. "It's about incorporating it into your life as much as you want." Which is to say that if you're eating right, you're probably eating a lot of raw foods already.

I can't say I have a raw-food "glow" yet. But the jar of candied pumpkin seeds is already empty. The watermelon has vanished after two days. The crisper drawer of my fridge, which used to be a graveyard, has become as busy as a train station. Raw food reintroduced me to every fruit and vegetable I'd ever met. It opened my palate and now I don't want it closed.

Austin Bunn has written for the New York Times and Salon.com. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa.