Just Give It to Me Raw
I’m a guy who likes his meat. I figure I have incisors for a reason, and if there’s a dead animal I wouldn’t enjoy eating, I haven’t encountered it yet. More than that, though, I love to cook. A vegetarian diet – or even, may the fishmongers of Seattle forgive me, a vegan one – is fine with me, as long as I can fire up the stove and create all the art you can eat. So a while back, when the editor of a now-departed weekly publication asked me to go on a raw food diet for a freelance assignment, I had my doubts; trendy as they are right now (these things tend to come in phases, depending on how much self-immolating people are feeling at any given moment), raw food diets pretty much take the ‘cook’ out of ‘cooking’.
On the other hand, besides eating, one of my hobbies is doing ridiculous things to myself so I can write about it. So I jumped at the chance.
A raw food diet, if you’re unclear on the concept, is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: you eat only foods that are uncooked, and preferably unprocessed and untreated as well. As eating regimens go, it’s one of the strictest around, limiting you even more than paleo or macrobiotic diets; very little in an average American’s diet isn’t cooked or processed in some way, so going raw takes a lot of planning and preparation. My early dreams of sushi and steak tartare were likewise dashed: most raw foodies are vegans, and dairy products are shunned as impure, not to mention raw meat.
So why go raw? A lot of people recommend it as a way to generally cleanse the system; others – like, say, my friend Tami Mahoney, a world traveler and a veteran gourmet, who warned (in the course of advocating the raw food diet) that “your poop schedule is going to be messed up” – said that it exposed you to new foods and ways of eating. But the real evangelists of raw food make claims for uncooked food that are nothing short of miraculous: when the nutrient depletion that comes from cooking is eliminated, the result is “no pains, no ailments, all sickness and disease are gone,” says Alissa Cohen, raw food diet pioneer and author of Living on Live Food. Biologist Gary Novak likewise claims a raw diet “creates major improvements in health”, and also says it’s “probably the best way to approach eating disorders.” Some doctors aren’t so sure, however, noting the difficulty and inflexibility of the diet, the necessity of supplementing it with proteins and vitamins, and the general inadvisability of giving a raw food diet to children: “Any restrictive diet, if not monitored closely, can lead to nutritional deficiency, says Dr. Jane Klerk, “which can be especially damaging to children.”
Lucky for me I’m not a child. For one week, I tried a raw food diet. Here’s what happened.
Here’s what you can eat on a raw food diet like this one: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains. Uncooked. As in not heated or treated. This is the stuff your mom called ‘roughage’, probably because it’s rough on the ol’ kishkas, and told you that you weren’t eating enough of. Luckily, I like salads, and so day one is raw fruit in the morning, a big and hearty (but not too hearty, as dairy is forbidden on my particular diet) fruit smoothie for lunch, and a gigantic mixed green salad for dinner. I had to improvise a bit on the dressing, as vinegar is verboten (fermentation is considered by some raw foodies second only to cooking in sheer nutritional heinousness, and I’m trying to be hardcore about this), but all in all I’m a pretty happy man on Day One: nothing’s sticking to my ribs, but I feel full, and I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. Yet.
One of the big problems on a raw food diet is that, if you go all out and eliminate dairy and meat, you have very few ways of getting protein. Tofu is out (it’s cooked), beans are out (they’re pretty much inedible without cooking), and most meat substitutes are out, since they’ve all been heated at some point. So that leaves: nuts. Nuts! So, I thought, no problem – I like nuts. Well, as it turns out, not as much as I thought I did. Most people, you see, when they eat nuts, are eating nuts that have been cooked in some way – baked, boiled or roasted. Raw nuts are what are called for here, and raw nuts are missing a little something. A little something called…flavor. Raw peanuts are more appetizing than raw almonds, but in much the same way as wallpaper paste is more appetizing than library paste. After preparing my lunch of “nut loaf”, which is exactly as delicious as it sounds, I find myself painfully longing for a big bowl of bar peanuts.
Both salt and soy sauce are frowned upon in my extremist interpretation of the raw food diet (I got it from a scary-looking book featuring naked dudes scowling in a tree), so by evening’s end, it’s back to a big green salad to remember what it’s like to have taste buds. By the way, Tami was right – my intestines aren’t taking long to decide what they want to do with this stuff, and what they want to do is show it the way out pronto. Another friend advised ‘pressing’ the salads in order to remove excess water, mashing them into flattened vege-Legos – this breaks down the cell walls and makes the raw vegetables more digestible – but the last thing I want is for this stuff to be even easier to get out of my system. Plus, I’m haunted by the unshakeable fear that pressing will somehow remove the flavor, and after 48 hours, I’m getting scared I’ll never taste anything again.
Many raw food websites and books recommend dehydrating your food. This makes it easier to work with, more digestible, and allegedly more facilitative of weight loss. Here’s what they don’t tell you: dehydrating things is a big fat pain in the ass. For lunch today I had a ‘raw food burger’, the very existence of which is a hate crime against the very concept of burgers. The ‘meat’ portion is mostly nuts, carrots and a couple of spices, and the ‘bun’ is supposed to be a formed, pressed, dehydrated shape made of sprouted grains. But it turns out to be such a hassle to make it that I just eat the sprouts by themselves. It all tastes like nut jerky, if you can imagine such a thing, and if you can, you have gone terribly wrong in your life.
Dinner is meant to be rice. Yes, yummy rice! Staple of billions of Asians! Only I’m not allowed to cook it, so I’m meant to soak it for several hours and then season and serve it. When I sample the soaked rice, its texture is pretty much the same as if I ate it plain and unsoaked; it’s a yummy mouthful of brown gravel. I end up eating a big salad again.
The constant salad-and-raw-fruit thing is starting to worry me. Not because I think it’s unhealthy; I’m lacking a bit of energy, but otherwise, I feel fine, and I’ve lost weight, and frankly, the cleansing effect is doing me some good. It definitely beats my poisonous regular routine of tater chips and sody pop. But it feels lazy on my part. There’s tons of raw food recipes out there, but since most of them are really hard to prepare or pretty tasteless, I’ve fallen back on just eating stuff that I like. Today, I vow to make at least two of the more elaborate recipes. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of emphasis in these recipes – most of which I got online or from Alissa Cohen’s book – on making them look like regular, non-raw food, and not much emphasis on making them taste like regular, non-raw food. It’s the old sex-toys-for-monks gimmick. Take lunch, for example: it’s a ‘raw foods pasta’ dish. The ‘pasta’ part is thin strips of raw cucumber. (No, really!). The ‘sauce’ is herbs, raw tomatoes, and some seeds, for texture. If you squint your eyes, you might mistake it for a plate of spaghetti, but once you put it in your mouth, it tastes exactly like a bunch of mixed raw vegetables, which makes you wonder why you went to all the trouble and didn’t just eat another green salad.
Still: I feel pretty good. And I’ve lost weight. But how much of that weight loss is attributable to my Speedy-Gonzalez-like digestive process? Could I have gotten the same results with a case of Rainier and some spicy Thai food? One day left.
Breakfast: fruit smoothie. I am beginning to feel like Violet Beauregard. Lunch is raw potato salad. The less said about it the better; men did not sweat at a million picnics for this. Dinner is a raw foods pizza. It’s pretty fun to prepare (I’m getting a modicum of energy back, and it actually looks like a pizza), it tastes fine (the seasoning blend is good, I used a fine, tasty olive oil base and some delicious mushrooms for toppings, and the sprouted grain crust is…well, the rest of it is pretty good), and it’s gorgeous to look at. I’m down a few pounds, I feel healthier than I did last week, and although I can’t say I really enjoyed this experiment, I didn’t die, either. It convinces me that I could actually eat a raw foods diet. For, say, one meal a week, starting next week, when I intend on starting the day with three bratwursts and building from there. Bon appetit!