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

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

Top Ten: 10 weird raw foods.

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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.

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.

"I lived on cigarettes and Red Bull when I was a vegan," she adds, recalling that period as the unhealthiest of her life. "A lot of people go vegan for ethical reasons, but they neglect their own health, and I was one of those."

Veganism is an extreme branch of vegetarianism that rejects any food made with animal products, from veal and yogurt to Jell-O and sometimes even honey. Echoing ancient Greek philosophers, literary romantics and animal-rights champions, vegans point to the suffering of animals as reason enough to maintain their diet.

Most raw foodists tend to be vegan but rarely justify what they eat solely in moral terms. Instead they tend to gush about miraculous health benefits they claim come from food that's been only minimally tainted by human hands.

Today's society shows "a prejudice in favor of what is natural and, therefore, supposedly pre-cultural," according Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, a history professor at Tufts University. This preference, he writes in his book Food: A History, "makes raw food attractive to modern urbanites repelled by our over-contrived lifeways, seeking readmission to Eden."

As far as back as the early 1800s, the Rev. Sylvester Graham (father of the graham cracker) railed against processed food, complaining of bakers who whitened bread with chlorine to make it look more refined — a practice he considered immoral. Had Graham lived to see the 1950s, he would have witnessed the American diet veering toward mass-produced, frozen, processed and chemically altered foods.

By the end of the 1960s, though, a backlash set in as consumer advocates such as Ralph Nader publicly warned of the health risks such foods posed. Newspapers followed suit with exposés of pesticides, salmonella and botulism fouling the food supply. All the while hippies were fleeing to communes, trying to get "back to the garden."

And so began the postwar natural-foods movement, which continues today. One of its latest expressions, along with organic produce aisles in supermarkets, is raw foodism. It is a diet, writes Fernandez-Armesto, in which "romantic primitivism allies ecological anxiety."

Raines was aware of the natural-food trend before her switch to a raw diet last fall. But what really convinced her to try it was an e-book she came across that promised more energy. Her first goal was to see if she could last a week. "I thought, 'There's no way it's going to be as good as they say.'"

The first few days were rough, she recalls, as she reaches for her black leather-bound journal. She flips to the pages in which she recorded her first three days of raw food and points to large letters in red ink that fill up half of one page: "I'M SO FRIGGIN' HUNGRY!!!"

"I didn't realize you have to eat more," she explains.

After a week of the diet, she says, "Oh my God, I was stunned at how much better I felt." A week turned into a month. By that time, she had shed ten pounds.

In February she visited her sister-in-law, Andrea Achilleus. "She walked in the door and I thought, 'Something's different,'" Achilleus remembers. "She just seemed much happier and glowed with health. It absolutely radiated from her."

"I'd had inklings before that what you eat affects your mood," Raines says. "But I had no idea it was this intense."

Not all raw dishes taste raw.

Tom Tessereau owns the Healing Arts Center in Maplewood, where national raw-food leaders often drop by to give presentations. At one recent community gathering there, Tessereau's wife, Sabrina, brought a rich purple cheesecake for all to share.

She made the crust from a dough of pecans, dates and shredded coconut all ground through a food processor. The cheese filling consisted of blended cashews, agave nectar and açaí berries — a fruit that grows in the Brazilian rainforest.

In their daily routines local raw eaters munch on some unusual items, such as hemp protein and flaxseed. One raw aficionado mixes bee-pollen pellets into her smoothies.

Jane Gramlich and Steven Sloan, who live in the Tower Grove neighborhood, soak grains to make them sprout. A sprouted grain, they say, is "living" and more nutritious than a "dead" roasted seed. The couple chomps through so many sunflower greens that they have them home-delivered each week.

John Schiermann of Mascoutah, Illinois, delights in brewing rejuvelac. He'll take some sprouting wheat or rye, dump it in a gallon jar of water and let it sit for a few days. "It tastes like beer," he says, "and it's full of B vitamins."

A fully stocked raw kitchen will include a sturdy blender. Local rawists revere the Vita-Mix, which can cost more than $500 and is considered the Cadillac of blenders. The food processor is another vital tool of the trade, along with the dehydrator — the "raw foodist oven."

Native St. Louisans Tim Ferrell and Tim Convy, both members of the nationally touring rock band Ludo, are "high raw" (or mostly raw) vegans. Despite shopping almost exclusively for perishables, Ferrell claims that just one weekly trip to the grocery store will suffice. He's become an expert at timing the shelf life of produce and at salvaging what's already going bad. "It's not supposed to last forever," Ferrell says. "It's food!"

Raw foodists like to brag that they never have greasy pots and pans to scour, and they don't generate as much trash. Their garbage is mostly compost fodder. Human waste, however, is an issue they must sit down and resolve three or four times a day.

"Pooping once every three days has almost become a norm, and people think because it's normal, it's OK," says Gramlich, who used to work as a public-health nurse. "But it's not OK because we're eating meat and bread, and nothing will clog you up faster."

"Humans have only had fire and the ability to cook food for a small percentage of time that we have existed on Earth," writes Wendy Rudell in The Raw Transformation, a book promoting a raw-foods diet. "The human digestive system is designed to eat the raw foods that nature provides."

Richard Wrangham, a Harvard professor of biological anthropology, begs to differ. In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, published earlier this year, he argues that "humans are adapted to eating cooked food in the same essential way as cows are adapted to eating grass."

Wrangham says some of our apelike ancestors made a pivotal move between 1.8 and 1.9 million years ago. They started cooking. The ones that didn't eventually died out, and the ones that did enjoyed a diet that was softer, more energy-dense and easier to digest. This enabled a tradeoff, the professor claims. With time and energy freed up, their brains grew more active and social ties more complex.

Raw foodists indeed flourish today, Wrangham suggests, but not because their bodies are built for it. Rather, they take advantage of kitchen appliances and enjoy less strenuous lifestyles and more nutritious produce than our foraging ancestors did. "I spent quite a long time really looking for any evidence of anyone that ever lived in the wild on raw food," Wrangham adds. "I was intrigued to find that none had."

Wrangham admits great admiration for raw foodists, who he says sustain a diet that's inappropriate for a body shaped by hundreds of thousands of years of cooking. "But the rest of us are fighting against evolution, too," he says, "because our evolutionary propensities are pushing us toward eating more cooked food than necessary."

Raw-diet proponents, for the most part, insist cooked food is "poison." One of the first was vegetarian Dr. Edward Howell, who postulated back in 1946 that plants possess "living" enzymes that aid our bodily processes. Cooking at temperatures exceeding 118 degrees, he wrote, kills the "life force" of the enzymes.

"Nutrition scientists don't recognize a 'life force' that is transmitted to humans," says Suzanne Hobbs, the University of North Carolina dietician. "And enzymes that may be present in foods would be deactivated once they went into your digestive system."

Cooking, explains the New York Times monthly food columnist Harold McGee, is "a mixed bag." His 900-page tome, On Food and Cooking, is considered a masterpiece in molecular gastronomy, or, as he once described it, "the scientific study of deliciousness."

When you cook, says McGee, "you lose some things and gain others." For example, if you eat a cooked tomato, you'll get less vitamin C but will absorb more of the fruit's lycopene, a powerful antioxidant.

Hobbs says the raw diet clearly has benefits. It will supply one with nutrients that are otherwise in short supply, such as fiber, vitamins A and C, and other antioxidants. Herself a vegetarian, Hobbs has flirted from time to time with going raw. "After three days," she recalls, "I felt fantastic."

However, she says, the claims of raw foodists that they don't sunburn as easily, need less sleep and have more energy are "not supported by any scientific data" that she's aware of.

Professor Wrangham believes scientists should take a closer look at the diet. "I'm constantly amazed that this sort of stuff hasn't been done," says Wrangham, who plans to conduct a study at Harvard on people shifting from a standard diet to a raw one. "This field is wide open for researchers."

A Google search of "raw food" reveals a burgeoning network of outspoken gurus, all of them jockeying to carve out a niche.

Dr. Douglas Graham promotes what he calls the "80/10/10" diet, a low-fat regimen that approaches "fruitarianism." Graham believes 80 percent of one's calories should come from simple carbohydrates such as sweet fruits.

David Wolfe, meanwhile, trumpets the virtues of "superfoods," nutritionally dense items such as goji berries or cacao beans, otherwise known as raw chocolate.

"People listen to whatever they say, but sometimes their bottom line is just selling people stuff," observes Tim Williamson, moderator of the St. Louis raw Yahoo! group. "So they'll say, 'Cacao is the greatest thing since air.' Then people say, 'I gotta have that.' But a lot of times it's a bunch of nonsense."

Raw foodism also includes its share of eccentric leaders. Juliano Brotman, a popular raw chef in Los Angeles, claims he needs only around three hours of sleep per night.

Wolfe, the superfoods advocate, has written that a person's "cosmic receiver" can become blocked by waste matter created by processed foods, but says his specific "Sunfood" diet will "unlock dormant genius" and allow one to tap into "infinite intelligence."

Frenchman Guy-Claude Burger founded "instinctotherapy," an obscure branch of raw foodism. Burger's acolytes, known as "instinctos," choose their food by sniffing it and letting instinct guide them, just as primates do. They eat raw meat and sometimes even the marrow out of bones. Burger is currently serving a fifteen-year prison sentence in France for raping two children.

"There are so many people in this thing who are totally batshit crazy," observes Raines. "But they were probably crazy before they started doing raw food."

Williamson draws a sharp distinction between raw-food leaders and the rank-and-file. "So many of the raw-food educators, all they do is give talks and go to raw retreats," he says. Williamson himself recently completed a 92-day fast at home, during which he ingested nothing but juice.

"Of course anybody could do a raw-food diet in that way," he continues. "But the real challenge is to work a 40-hour-a-week job, and repair your house, and take care of all the problems life throws at you and still thrive on it."

As a server at Franco, Raines inhales odors from rich French cuisine on a nightly basis. She savors the smell, but, she says, never considers putting the calorie-loaded delicacies in her mouth. "I don't salivate; it no longer registers as food. It's like a scratch-'n-sniff sticker.

"When people ask me, 'Should I get the lamb shank?' I can honestly tell them, 'It'll knock your socks off; it's tender and juicy,'" she goes on. "I haven't had it in over a year, but it's delicious, and to say otherwise is just factually untrue. If I were a militant vegan, I wouldn't be able to be a server. Raw food is something I do because it makes me feel good. I'm not judging people for their choices."

Some mornings before a lunch shift she'll bring in a smoothie with fruit, kale, sprouted grains and spirulina, a blue-green algae. Her boss, Tom Schmidt, will just shake his head in consternation. "We've been able to transform food through craft and art into some of the most amazing dishes," he says. "And every day I smell her green smoothie, and it smells like a dirty pond."

When he heard Raines had gone raw, Schmidt recalls feeling like the foodie camp had lost a major player. "Because I do respect her, I was able to get through the anger a little," he says. "But now she's living this lifestyle that goes against everything I stand for."

All the while, Raines swears she never feels deprived by her raw-food conversion. "I don't eat sawdust. I'm unapologetically hedonistic — that hasn't changed. What do you think I am? A carrot worshiper?"

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