Weed Eaters: A raw-food movement is beginning to sprout in St. Louis

Angela Raines eats weeds. Lamb's quarters, purslane, dandelions — rugged plants that flourish in Missouri. The kind dogs pee on and landscapers whack.

The 27-year-old Richmond Heights resident has been "raw" for the past year. More precisely, she's been "100 percent raw vegan," which means she puts nothing in her mouth that comes from an animal and nothing that's been heated above 118 degrees. Nothing.

Consider the implications: Imagine grocery shopping but never straying from the produce section. Or dining out but ordering no meat, dairy or fish, nor any fruit or vegetable that's been fried, broiled, sautéed or grilled. Not even bread or crackers, which are baked. Or coffee or tea, which are boiled.

Among other raw foods, Angela Raines eats bee pollen, and she has not fired up her stove in a year.
Among other raw foods, Angela Raines eats bee pollen, and she has not fired up her stove in a year.
Steven Sloan and Jane Gramlich believe living seeds are more nutritious than their roasted counterparts.
Steven Sloan and Jane Gramlich believe living seeds are more nutritious than their roasted counterparts.

Location Info

Map

Franco

1535 S. Eighth St.
St. Louis, MO 63104

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: St. Louis - South Grand

Whole Foods Market-Galleria

1601 S. Brentwood Blvd.
Brentwood, MO 63144

Category: Retail

Region: Brentwood

Oceano Bistro

44 N. Brentwood Blvd.
Clayton, MO 63105

Category: Restaurant > Contemporary

Region: Clayton

VegaDeli

177 Hilltown Village Cnt.
Chesterfield, MO 63017

Category: Restaurant > Deli

Region: Chesterfield

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Raw meals range from simple smoothies and salads to more complex unheated "soups" or "cheeses," as they're called, made from nuts, oils, seeds, sprouts and herbs — all helped along by a food processor or moisture-sapping dehydrator.

Discussing her gastronomic lifestyle, Raines quietly confesses, "More than anything, I'm overwhelmingly grateful. I can't tell you how much better I feel now."

Raines, who has curly chestnut hair and big brown eyes, is in her apartment kitchen on a recent summer evening, cooing over the weeds she picked that afternoon at an Illinois farm. They smell thickly sweet and earthy, piled in clumps on a board she's placed atop the stove she no longer uses.

Snapping bad leaves off a stem, she acknowledges the irony of working full-time as a server at Franco, the bistro next to the Soulard Farmers' Market that serves rustic French cuisine. The irony, of course, is that she makes her living feeding strangers cassoulets and hearty lamb stews she would never eat herself. She admits getting razzed at work for bringing in enormous salads bulging with weeds. After learning about a daily special, her colleagues will tell her, "Guess you can't eat that."

"It's more like, I don't want to eat that," she says in a soft alto voice. She pauses, then adds, "I can eat whatever I want, motherfucker."

Raw foodists are a small but growing minority in St. Louis. The online forum to which many of them belong — a Yahoo! group called "Raw Living Nutrition" — began with three members in 2003. Now it has 271.

The potluck dinners they organize every few weeks in Maplewood have been drawing a couple dozen people lately, and a second potluck recently took root in St. Charles. At Whole Foods Market in Brentwood, classes on the raw diet have been selling out. Last winter the Clayton restaurant Oceano Bistro hosted an event that paired five raw courses with different wines, and the newly opened VegaDeli in Chesterfield now offers raw dishes on its menu.

In this way St. Louis is catching up to cities on the West and East coasts where entirely raw vegan restaurants began popping up in the 1990s. In July Kansas City hosted its own raw-food festival.

The diet has claimed celebrity devotees, such as Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore, and gained enthusiasts in haute cuisine such as Charlie Trotter.

Although raw foodism is more of a lifestyle than a weight-loss program, many practitioners do look quite gaunt. "I did lose weight," says Terry Stiers of St. Charles, a self-proclaimed "junk-food junkie" before she went raw. After switching, she says, "I had more energy, and it lasted all day long. People started telling me, 'You're looking younger.'"

Stiers and other raw converts in the area swear their health has never been better, though nutritionists can't say exactly why. Posits Suzanne Hobbs, a registered dietician at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied the raw diet, "They may feel improvement in how they feel, but there isn't any science to back it up. There are an infinite number of variables."

Still, leaders in the movement insist the diet has healed them of such maladies as asthma, arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. When the late Ann Wigmore opened her Hippocrates Health Institute based on the raw-food philosophy in 1956, she claimed to have cured herself of colon cancer. Her schools in Florida and Puerto Rico still operate today.

Then there's Dr. Gabriel Cousens, founder and director of the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center in Patagonia, Arizona. He boasts that his raw program will cure type 2 diabetes. Hobbs says some of these testimonials aren't that outlandish. For example, evidence strongly suggests that eating more raw food does lower one's risk of cancer and helps control blood-sugar levels.

"But I think some of the claims are greatly exaggerated. You'd really have to assess somebody's situation on an individual basis," says Hobbs. "There have been very few studies of the raw-food diet. I'm totally intrigued by it."


Some eat to live. Angela Raines, an omnivorous foodie for most of her twenties, used to live to eat.

"She was first and foremost the server that was really, really into sweetbreads and foie gras and cheese and wine," recalls Tom Schmidt, her current boss and owner of Franco. In 2006 St. Louis Magazine ran a full-page story profiling Raines as a chocolate connoisseur.

"I was enjoying food in the moment," Raines recounts. "But overall I wasn't happy, and the food was contributing." She dabbled in different diets during these years, including low carbohydrates and standard veganism.

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