“Guess what’s in it,” I told my dad as he licked the spoon and pondered my new batch of lime pudding. “There are only three ingredients.”
“What could the third be?” he wondered. “Milk?”
In fact, the thick-as-mortar, rich-as-sin pudding was not only devoid of dairy, but none of its delicious ingredients had been heated above 118 degrees. And all it took to prepare was a blender.
The lime pudding was my first experiment with raw food, and, judging by the empty bowl before my meat-and-potatoes-bred father, I consider it a success.
Raw food is exactly what it sounds like — food that has been left uncooked. Because of celebrity hype and the growing number of gourmet raw restaurants, the concept of raw food has edged closer to the mainstream but only in vague references.
Based on one theory that heating food to a temperature above 118 degrees destroys beneficial enzymes and vitamin content, raw food diets are often seen as extreme and confining when, in fact, the opposite is true.
Firstly, raw food does not have to be vegan; it doesn’t even have to be vegetarian — think sashimi. And while the options are certainly weighted towards fresh vegetables and lots of greens, eating raw does not necessarily mean salads. And of course, “going raw” is not a lifetime commitment. Spurred on by anything from health issues to simple curiosity, many people who eat raw food incorporate it as one facet of their lives, not as an altogether “alternative lifestyle.”
For Gena Hamshaw, the creator of popular raw-help blog Choosing Raw, switching to a raw diet fixed many of her lifelong digestive problems.
“I just wanted to experiment with it for a couple of days and see how I felt,” Hamshaw said. “I did it for a week … and what I was finding was that my digestion was getting better, and I felt terrific and really energetic.”
Hamshaw, however, is a high-raw foodist, meaning she does not eat entirely raw and doesn’t see the need to. To her and others, eating raw is about feeling good, not sticking to a rulebook.
“Because I never intended to give up all cooked foods, I’ve managed to keep them in my life in a healthy way,” Hamshaw said.
Her desire to showcase raw foodism as a healthy addition to one’s lifestyle, and not as a rigid dogma, also led her to become a nutrition counselor. Hamshaw’s clientele includes many who just want to make a few vegan or raw upgrades to their diet.
The one thing most people who switch will attest to, however, is how good it makes their bodies feel.
“More than anything, it was the energy,” Sarma Melngailis said, owner of Forbes-lauded New York raw restaurant Pure Food and Wine. “I felt really clear in a way that’s hard to explain. My skin felt better, I slept better and I had really bad PMS that went away all of a sudden.”
While high energy is a great selling point for any diet, Melngailis’ restaurant is known not only because of the benefits of raw food but also for its gourmet dining. Pure Food and Wine’s reputation for beautiful and tasty dishes draws both raw foodists and curious passers-by and is turning what could be perceived as an alienating lifestyle choice into a respected style of cuisine.
“I’d rather put [raw food] out there from the perspective of a restaurant,” Melngailis said. “Most of our chefs come from traditional culinary backgrounds … and with that perspective can use those ingredients and techniques to cook with raw food.”
And while it might take some getting used to, raw recipes give traditional cooked food some interesting, uncooked twists.
Vegetables such as zucchini spiral through an extruder to create “pasta.” Nuts and seed purees become thickening agents for rich “pâtés” and decadent “cheesecakes.” Avocados and bananas stand in as the creamy bases of puddings and soups, and dates and figs serve as binders and sweeteners. A raw dish doesn’t have to be bland. Pure Food and Wine dishes up entrees such as Sweet Pickled Beet and Rosemary Cashew Chevre Ravioli and desserts such as Chocolate Passion Fruit Tart.
Aside from elaborate dinners and decadent desserts from professional chefs, however, Hamshaw agrees that raw food is all about the veggies.
“All you need to do is eat vegetables and drink juice,” Hamshaw said. “Eat some nuts, eat some grains, and it’s very simple. The main thing is vegetables, vegetables, vegetables.”
For that reason, staples of the raw diet are green juices and smoothies, which allow one to slurp down a whole vitamin-rich garden for breakfast. The most useful tools of the trade are a simple blender and food processor, which can churn out everything from smoothies to nut “cheeses.”
But at the same time, even Hamshaw disagrees with a 100 percent raw diet for most people. Patrice Barber, the USC University Park Health Center’s registered dietician, also believes that a student going raw could easily hit a nutritional wall.
“Veggies, nuts, fruit, sprouted grains and edamame all have a lot to offer, and most people would benefit from having more of them,” Barber said. “However, that’s a short list of foods with limited variety. In general, the more foods a person includes in their diet, the easier it is to meet their nutrient needs. A diet with just these foods would present a considerable challenge in meeting your nutritional needs.”
While trying raw food does not equal going raw, those contemplating it as a lifestyle should be mindful of their bodies. Raw diets are easily adaptable to specific likes and needs but, because everyone’s digestion and nutritional needs are different, they are not for everyone. Whether or not you choose to incorporate raw into your diet, adding a smoothie to your breakfast or having a salad with your dinner can only be a good thing.
“The fact that I wasn’t trying really hard to go 100 percent raw allowed the journey to be sort of a happy accident,” Hamshaw says. “It’s all about trying small things and seeing where they take you.”
Mimi Honeycutt is a sophmore majoring in print journalism. Her column “Gingersnaps” runs Wednesdays.