Eat It Raw

The counterculture is changing the dining culture

We used to refer to it as anti-establishment, or the counterculture, composed of those who espoused such things as vegetarianism, communal living, recycling, and organic, sustainable farming. But in the past twenty years or so we've seen the edges move toward the center, especially when it comes to culinary choices. Not only have vegetarian and related food fashions become more accepted, they've crossed over and are now affecting both fine-dining and home-cooking trends in major cities nationwide.

I'm not just talking about successful vegetarian restaurants like Zen in New York City. Yes, some metropolitan areas -- we're not one of them -- are lucky enough to enjoy gourmet menus based wholly on the plant world. Our local vegetarian patrons are reduced to relying on pastas at Italian trattorias; meat-free curries at Indian and Thai restaurants; and the one or two dishes at high-end eateries designed for the commonly regarded fussy few.

Nor am I necessarily speaking about the advent of specialty farmers who produce organic vegetables, which many of our top chefs prefer for their flavor and exclusive appeal. (Who wants to serve a regular old beet when you can carve up a candy-striped one to which no one else in town has access?) I'm not even going to dwell on botanical or scientific involvement with our food sources -- genetically enhanced corn, vitamin-enriched "miracle" rice, or items like pineapples that have been hybridized for less acid content or miniaturized to yield a single serving.

What fascinates me is the increasing influence of the culinary fringes -- the lacto-ovo, vegan, fruitarian, macrobiotic, or even Paleodiet (modeled after the eating habits of our earliest ancestors) advocates. Most fine diners are unaware these so-called granolas are actually changing our diets.

Take micro-greens, for instance. The gastronomically inclined are beginning to see these tangles of sprouts paired with all manner of succulent gourmet offerings, from prawn to quail to yak. We're willing to pay a premium price for them, but who do you think is responsible for their evolution in the first place?

I credit the crunchy crew -- that is, members of the raw food, or "living food," movement. The raw-food diet consists of fruit and vegetables that haven't been cooked to a temperature higher than 118 degrees. (Sun-warmed tomatoes, for example, are okay. Marinara sauce is taboo.) The philosophy supporting the movement, which itself is decades old but only recently has begun drawing media attention, is complex. But boiled down (sorry, make that unboiled down) to its foundation, it maintains that food enzymes were meant to be digested raw, and that cooked foods add toxins to our bodies and are the cause of diseases ranging from the common cold to cancer.

Those who ingest living foods -- ideally those grown organically and harvested very young for optimal nutritional value -- operate at a performance peak their flesh-eating counterparts will never attain. And they look better too. Just log on to the Website of Miami's best-known raw-food adherent, Annette Larkins (www.annettelarkins.com), author of Journey to Health, if you don't want to take my word for it. She's sixty years old and looks forty, with a waist size even a twenty-year-old can't claim. Thus the arrival of micro-greens, inch-long vegetable sprouts ranging from sweet pea to tatsoi. Who would've thought of gathering sprouts if not a raw-foodist? Hardly a carnivore.

Then there are the foods we already eat raw but never thought much about -- guacamole and gazpacho, to name two. I can testify that a good guacamole, made on the spot the way Ellie Ramirez does it at Mexico Magico, magically reduces my stress level. Must be all those enzymes I'm digesting. Of course you can't have deep-fried tortilla chips with it. Another bummer: Oysters and ceviche technically don't count since they're seafood products. But there's always sea-kelp "pancakes" or some equally appealing alternative.

Kidding aside, I do applaud raw-foodists and their brethren for inspiring and challenging more conventional chefs. One example is chef Roxanne Klein, who with her husband operates Roxanne's, a raw restaurant in the San Francisco Bay area. Among her inventions: a "rice" made from tiny shreds of parsnips. Who knows what other creative chefs might concoct?

An ironic caveat to the raw-food movement, as Rob Morse of the San Francisco Chroniclenotes, is that chefs who prepare recipes using only raw foods often fashion them to look like familiar dishes -- lasagna made from papery slices of zucchini instead of noodles, or pizza crust formed from crushed almonds. "If this is living food," he wants to know, "why is so much of it sculpted to look like dead food?" He does have a point.

Nor is it easy to stick to such a diet. If you think the Atkins plan is agonizing, get ready for some real pain. But why try it in the first place? Well, for one thing, South Florida is about to jump on the trendwagon. Sunshine & AJ Food Without Fire is already operating on Española Way in South Beach. Proprietors Sunshine Phelps and AJ Hill currently cater meal plans for subscribers and are hoping to open Miami's first raw-food deli in a few months. "People who eat raw foods want fun, interesting foods like everybody else," says Phelps. "We look at menus and think, How can we transcribe this? I mean, nobody wants to eat a salad all the time."

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