Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2005)
Food not heated beyond 38C.. just about body temperature. For most, that means no meat or fish, but also, no pasta, no bread, no cake; we’re talking raw fruit and vegetables and nuts. In the hands of creative chefs, it can get slightly more interesting, with zesty vinaigrettes, even pseudo cooked things like pie crust using dehydration, curing, and a lot of effort.
When I first got wind of this, I was intrigued, read all I could, let it influence my cooking somewhat, and shortly after, moved on. It didn’t grab me. I wondered if it would others. This wasn’t a trend I wanted to take over, but I would wait and see. Years later, I can fairly say that it never took the gastronomic world by storm; nonetheless, it is still there. I still bump into the odd raw foodist, either a diehard, or someone new to the idea, enchanted with yet another “new” diet. The striking thing is how overzealous raw foodists are. They’ve seen the light, and want to convert you.
From what the advocates say, it is the ultimate lifestyle. If you listen to them, these born again eaters who feel great all the time, eating raw seems so natural and righteous. Then why does it feel so wrong to me? After a little scrutiny, no wonder. All the claims, the basic premise even, don’t stand up scientifically. All the nonsense about enzymes, the killing of nutrients, the toxins created in cooking, amounts to a few kernels of truth taken out of context and supplemented with a bunch of hogwash.... In fact, we derive more nutrition and energy from cooked food, which is likely why we evolved that way, because it was to our advantage back when surviving was a little tougher.
As an eater, what turns me off raw food the most, first of all, is all the rules. I feel like I have enough rules to abide by in my life. So, when it comes to one of my most basic pleasures, I just don’t want to limit myself that much for no good reason. It would take more substantial moral or rational backing than that. And I have no practice at that anyway, I’m not Muslim or Jewish or fat, I’ve never had to pass up a piece of bacon. If I could really believe that it was more virtuous, than maybe, but how? By saving energy? Because it’s no fun?
As a cook, raw food disturbs me, because well, there wouldn’t be much to my job without the cooking. I suppose I would sweat a lot less not spending my days in a 40C kitchen. Come to think of it, just pulling the food out of the fridge on a hot day in the kitchen might be breaking the temperature rule.
No, the main thing for me, is that not cooking your food takes all the sensuous fun out of the process. You’re depriving yourself of all the seductive aromas and satisfying textures that only come from heat. Instead, you need to come up with all these contrived methods to coax out a minimal amout of flavor and texture, all for something that tastes less good, and that makes you fart. I like a challenge, but I’m not a masochist, not when it comes to food anyway.
For me, the raw food movement, like all new trends and techniques, is appealing in that it provides an interesting mental exercise. In exploring new ideas, you open your mind to new approaches to what you do, which is only beneficial. Like with molecular gastronomy, I’m inclined to dabble, learn a few tricks. But, I’m seeking illumination, which this has very little of, not a new religion.
There are a few restaurants around, even high-end ones with matching wine programs, that specialize in raw food. Cru in Montreal has a very imaginative, appealing menu; cudos to them for their menu, and for being so courageous. I guess there is room for one raw food emporium in our city. Hey, I might even try it one day. What the hell, I love salad, vegetables, carpaccio and oysters. I might be even be able to get on that kind of diet for a couple of weeks.. in summer.
The truth is, I wouldn’t last long in a raw food world. You would have to shoot me. Don’t take away the heady aroma of freshly baked bread, the pull and crunch of a good crust, the primal pleasure of a seared chop, a caramelized onion.... or the soft, satisying luxury of mashed potatoes or roasted eggplant.
I love the bright, green taste of a fresh tomato, the crunch of raw fennel in a salad, and I love tartare. But I equally love the warm comfort and complexity of stewed tomatoes, slowly braised fennel, and osso bucco especially on a cold day. Why dehydrate a potato when you can simmer it in broth? Why hang garlic over the stove for 12 hours to try to soften it, when you can just throw it in the oven for 1?. Why soak almonds when you can toast them? Why eat raw carrots or mushrooms or zucchini when you can roast them? How about artichokes, no artichokes?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a strong believer in pure food. Overly processed food is in no one’s interest. But we cook our food carefully, we make it more palatable, more interesting, and we derive more nourishment and pleasure from it. And we’re better for it. The idea that things in their natural state are inherently better is false anyway. Many things are toxic in their pure form and only reveal their benefits (to us) once transformed. Plants have a built-in mechanism to harm their predator, and they will harm us we don’t use our intelligence to take advantage of that by cooking them when need be. It just allows us to have a more varied diet, which is commonly what stands out in studies as being most healthy.
All in all, raw food as a rule is just not for me. I say eat whatever you want, start a movement if you want, just don’t take the moral high road.