This year has seen Jamie Oliver launch a Food Revolution in the American schools and Michelle Obama plant a White House garden. Food documentaries are hitting the big screen and novelists are writing nonfiction books about their vegetarian conversions and locavore lifestyles. Healthy, fresh food has moved to the forefront of the public consciousness, and along with it, a renewed interest in raw food diets.
If you haven't been keeping up with the habits of many a health-conscious homo celebritus—Uma Thurman, Woody Harrelson, Natalie Portman, et al.—a raw diet consists of only uncooked foods heated to a temperature of less than 100 or so degrees Fahrenheit. That means mostly fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, but it could also include raw eggs, fish (sashimi), and meat (carpaccio), or unpasteurized dairy products such as raw milk and raw-milk cheese.
Proponents of raw food diets suggest that plant foods in their natural state are the most wholesome foods to eat. While many raw foods are certainly healthful—scientific studies have shown that plant-based diets, in general, can lower cholesterol and improve glucose levels—claims that uncooked food necessarily delivers a greater nutritional benefit or that raw diets may prevent or cure diseases like cancer are less substantiated.
While raw food subsistence has been around since before hominids adopted the practice of cooking food with fire, some 125,000 years ago, I was prompted to try it by the arrival of Pure Market Express, a raw-focused prepared-meal service in Chaska. The shop consists of a small, deli-like storefront with a few items on hand for drop-ins (if you wait a few minutes, others can be prepared). Pure Market Express sells some items at other retail outlets, such as Lakewinds co-op and Local D'Lish, and the entire menu is available to order for pickup or overnight delivery anywhere in the country.
One day last month I picked up a few items to sample, to test the raw food waters before I took the weeklong plunge. I returned with a Thai salad that would have looked at home in any restaurant or deli—except for its inclusion of curly kale, a vegetable that I've never seen served raw. I also tried an order of bacon jalapeño poppers, filled with ground pine nut "cheese" and topped with "bacon" made of dehydrated eggplant. The mock bacon tasted more like salt-and-vinegar eggplant chips, but overall the poppers were juicy, crunchy, creamy, and savory all at once. They were nothing like the typical batter-fried version, but good nonetheless.
Ditto the tostadas, or flax-based crackers topped with cashew nut "cheese," ground walnut "meat," and salsa. Raw doesn't have to mean bland in terms of texture or flavor: These tostadas had essentially the same anatomy and seasoning of their cooked counterparts. Still, they bore little resemblance to any recognizable Mexican culinary tradition. "It's good," my friend remarked, as she took a bite. "But I'm not going to try to relate this to any sort of food known to man."
On the morning I begin my raw food diet, it is cold and dreary outside. I throw on a sweater and a stocking hat, even though it's mid-May. I'd like nothing better than a steaming bowl of oatmeal, studded with plump raisins, sprinkled with brown sugar and pecans, and topped with a splash of half-and-half. Instead, I help myself to a Clark Kent smoothie, which had arrived the day before, packed among dry ice pouches in a large Styrofoam cooler. It is one of the 23 raw items now nestled in my refrigerator: a week's supply of food for $175, plus delivery.
The smoothie is gray and has a gritty texture, like somebody tossed a handful of vitamins into the mix and hit blend. If your idea of a smoothie is a Mango-a-go-go from Jamba Juice, be forewarned that the Clark Kent contains the likes of pulverized spinach, kale, cacao nibs, flaxseed, and Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (blue-green algae, to the uninitiated). Remembering what I read on Pure Market Express's website, "Live food makes you feel alive," helps me choke the drink down.
Next I try a few bites of Cocogurt, mock yogurt made from cashews and coconut meat, with a smooth, whipped texture. A few drops of lemon juice do a respectable job of mimicking milk-based yogurt's sour tang, but it would be more palatable if it were topped with fruit or blended into a smoothie.
I follow it up with a raw cinnamon roll, which is nothing like its namesake's buxom, doughy swirls. The pseudo pastry is made of flaxseed, Brazil nuts, medjool dates, coconut butter, raisins, and walnuts, and it tastes rather like Fig Newton filling with hints of salt and cayenne. (It comes with a tasty mock caramel sauce, the remainder of which I decide to save, not knowing what sort of sweet-craving straits I might face in the upcoming days.) The nut-cinnamon paste resembles an energy bar—the sort of thing you'd eat during mile 18 of a marathon, or a daylong downpour on a backpacking trip, or some other desperate circumstance. It reminds me of that mock apple pie recipe on the Ritz cracker box in which cinnamon and lemon juice are used to trick the brain into believing that mushy crackers are baked fruit.
By the time I dig into a package of sushi—slightly mushy, nori-wrapped bites made with shredded carrot "rice"—I'm already appreciative that someone else is cooking for me. Some who have tried "cooking" raw food have suggested that they expended nearly as many calories preparing it—chopping, juicing, sprouting, dehydrating, blending—as they took in eating it.
In fact, the time commitment required to prepare many raw foods is what prompted Rebecca Irey to create Pure Market Express. Irey, a former self-dubbed "junk food junkie," grew up on a cattle ranch eating a meat-and-potatoes diet. She learned to prepare raw foods by training with other raw foodists and doing a lot of home experimentation. "My kitchen was like a laboratory," she says. After her sixth child was born, Irey felt she wouldn't have enough time to make raw food for her family unless she turned it into a business. And she knew that to convince her kids and husband (a "beer and pizza" guy, Irey says) to go raw with her, she would have to offer plenty of flavor and variety. "You can only have so many salads," she says. "Salad is great—don't get me wrong—but you've got to have other stuff, too."
I open a container of raw Baked Macaroni & Cheese made of zucchini "noodles" with nut cheese. The portions offered in the weekly package are not skimpy: My 16-ounce tub contains at least two whole zucchini. I'm pretty sure I've already eaten more vegetables today than I usually do in half a week. Then why am I still so hungry?
I have no idea what it's like to starve, but I do know what it's like to be hungry as it applies to middle-class Americans of average means. And if your hunger is of the privileged I worked through lunch today or I just played tennis for an hour sort, some things just aren't going to cut it, among them the ribbon-like strands of raw zucchini topped with globs of nut paste that I've just heaped onto my plate. I'm craving stacks of tissue-thin pastrami, fried eggs with glossy yolks, or a thick wedge of deep-dish pizza. My stomach is full, but I don't feel satisfied. I'm longing for the mouthfeel, at least, of that hunk of mozzarella sitting in the fridge. Would it be against the rules, I wonder, to just gum it a bit, like a teething baby?
I'm finding my unsated appetite to be very distracting. I'm longing for things I only seem to want because I can't have them. I've been eating raw for a mere 10 hours and I already want this experiment to be over.
After finishing half of the mock mac and cheese, I'm still feeling peckish, so I open the fridge and start scrounging through my raw food stash for something more substantial, like...Pepperoni Bites! They look bona fide, all red and speckled, but when I check the label, the first ingredient is—no surprise to me at this point—zucchini! I pop a few anyway and find that the chewy texture and Italian seasoning do a respectable job of creating the illusion of meat.
There can be a fair amount of chicanery in eating raw, between the pureed nuts standing in for cheese, the shredded zucchini mimicking noodles, the grated root vegetables resembling rice, and the coconut masquerading as dairy. Does raw food have an identity crisis? Is it trying too hard to be something it's not?
The morning brings raw blueberry muffins, and along with them memories of the squat little mushrooms from the Mario Bros. video games: They're the sort of thing you'd just as soon squash as eat. The mock muffins aren't so different from yesterday's roll, except blueberry flavored, so I coat them with yesterday's leftover faux caramel. The raw Donut Holes are better, with ground Brazil nuts giving them a crumbly, flour-like texture that's not unlike the real thing.
I had plans to hit a rib joint for lunch with one of my friends, but I convince her to forgo pulled pork and baby backs for a slice of raw lasagna. Zucchini strips stand in for the noodles, which are layered with tomato, pistachio pesto, nut cheese, and plenty of Italian seasoning. It's like a summer version of the classic: fresh, plucky, and not too heavy. For dinner, there's tabouli made with hemp seeds, an amino acid-packed foodstuff I've never tried that reminds me a little of flax seed.
By day three, my cravings have vanished, and, along with them, my interest in food. I have another smoothie for breakfast and a beet-almond wrap for lunch, but by the time evening hits, I find myself standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open, staring. Pad Thai made from...zucchini? I flip through my stack of plastic boxes but nothing seems appealing. Feeling resigned to my fate, I go to bed without dinner.
It's tough to be raw restricted at social gatherings. True, I could have brought my own meal to a brats-chips-Rice Krispy bar picnic lunch, but it just seemed easier to say I wasn't hungry. Same with a friend's baby shower, where I steer clear of the sheet cake and stock up on the fresh fruit and nuts.
But several delicious raw meals make up for what I'm missing. Surprise favorites include Mexi Wraps of raw collard greens and a spicy macadamia nut "cheese" made with nutritional yeast, a complete protein favored by vegetarians that adds a sharp-cheddar-like umami. Topped with an olive-studded salsa, they're as addictive as junk food.
Also, who knew uncooked parsnips tasted good? Not me, until I tried them as a rice substitute in a tasty basil fried rice. The parsnips show up again in a "Stir-Fry Less" with carrots, cabbage, broccoli, and red pepper that I drench in a miso-like dressing that contains Bragg's liquid aminos, a soybean-derived protein concentrate that's a vegetarian go-to for boosting food's savoriness.
My raw diet isn't going so well today, beginning with raw blueberry pancakes that have the texture of a brownie and a faint blueberry flavor. For lunch, plain, un-fussed-with watermelon would have been preferable to a pureed soup with so much cardamom that it tastes medicinal. Raw salmon and hollandaise is the most offensive. All the dill in the world couldn't convince me that dehydrated carrot is fish. The dry, chewy lumps more closely resemble rubber dog toys than a real fillet's buttery flesh. Perhaps I should be grading my raw meals on a curve, considering the constraints they're up against?
Also, in case you're wondering, I haven't seen anything close to an "ideal" 4 on the Bristol Stool Scale since I started this experiment, which I'm starting to find a little concerning. Pure Market Express's website describes the bountiful fiber in a raw diet as a "big broom that swishes through your digestive system," and I'm certainly experiencing its effects. (They recommend bananas, dehydrated fruit, or a few cooked foods like oatmeal and rice to help ease the adjustment period.) When I tell my editor that I'm spending the week eating raw, he asks, "Did you check that out with your doctor?"
I hold off on breakfast for a good two hours, knowing I have nothing to look forward to. This is becoming a serious problem: a food critic without an appetite.
For dinner, sausage pizza is a disc-shaped raw cracker to be topped with packets of tomato sauce, macadamia nut cheese, and little nuggets (walnuts, dehydrated mushrooms, oregano, and fennel) that are designed to imitate sausage but taste like rancid tree bark. I can't get past the crust, which resembles dried, raw dough and tastes like a mouthful of flour. It is an affront to anything Neapolitan.
Perhaps dessert will make up for it? Banana cream pie is no substitute for the real thing, as it tastes too much like coconut mush. Bliss Balls are the size and shape of chocolate truffles, but they're more like chalky blobs of unsweetened cacao. If purchased individually, they're also expensive, at $14 for nine. While the price of many Pure Market Express items is comparable to typical deli takeout—$8 for the Mexi Wraps, $9 for the Thai salad, for example—a few items that require more labor or high-cost ingredients are significantly pricier than their cooked counterparts.
The best bet is a thick wedge of mock chocolate cheesecake for $8. It's very creamy, a bit like a dense mousse or flourless chocolate cake, with a more buttery texture. For those worried about getting enough calories—nutritionists estimate that to get enough, raw foodists must eat 11 to 12 pounds of food a day—a slice of this cheesecake has 11 grams of saturated fat, or 57 percent of the average daily allowance.
Faced with the prospect of leftover mock salmon and a few other meals I previously scrapped, I decide to call off my diet and assess the results. I certainly cut out a lot of crap by avoiding many of the things we tend to overdo, such as meat, carbohydrates, and refined sugar. I increased my intake of fruits, vegetables, and fiber while avoiding the harmful fats and preservatives common in commercially processed foods.
While my internal alarm clock didn't reset itself, as Irey's did, to 5 a.m. ("It's ridiculous to stay in bed when you have that much energy," she quips.), I did feel energetic and slept peacefully during my raw stint. But, as with many experiments, it's difficult to account for other factors, such as the finally warm weather or fun weekend plans.
I won't be going all-raw anytime soon, but Pure Market Express did help me think more creatively about my food choices and consider incorporating more raw meals in my (not) cooking repertoire. That's fine with Irey, whose approach is more encouraging than dogmatic. She suggests that a little raw is better than none at all and mentions that one of her customers told her that she loves serving the raw bacon jalapeño poppers at summer cookouts—alongside burgers and hot dogs and beer.