The Raw City

By some accounts, humans evolved through the cooking of food, and we’ve been manipulating our ingredients with fire ever since. That said, since the advent of modern nutrition theory in the 1800s, a nascent interest in the health benefits of uncooked foods has grown to become a global raw food movement.

Raw foodism encompasses a wide range of current practices, from the Paleolithic Diet (a culinary primitivism which emphasizes raw meats and animal products) to Fruitarians (who generally define “fruits” broadly enough to include vegetables, seeds, and nuts).

However, the root of modern raw vegetarianism lies in the work of Swiss doctor Maximilian Bircher-Benner (the creator of muesli). In a professional career that curiously paralleled the work of American John Harvey Kellogg (the creator of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes who arguably established the foundation for the modern American vegetarian experience), Bircher-Benner originated the claim that uncooked foods promote health and longevity, conducting applied research for support of these theories at his nutritional sanatorium in Zurich.

Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, countless other proponents of raw foodism joined Bircher-Brenner in advocating for raw food lifestyles. Norman Walker, a health-conscious Scottish inventor working in California, perfected the first modern juicer in the 1934, bringing vegetable juices to the raw food menu and starting the cottage industry of juice bars that now commands a national market of $3.5 billion annually. Lithuanian immigrant Ann Wigmore also contributed to the expansion of raw food’s repertoire by working to popularize the consumption of wheatgrass and other sprouted foods in the 1960s. By the 1980s, the raw food movement had exploded with a plethora of gurus, nutrition experts, doctors, and celebrities promoting raw vegetarian diets.

So what are the benefits of the raw foodism? The diet has been shown to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels,   mitigate obesity and hypertension issues, and alleviate the effects arthritis and fibromyalgia. The movement’s advocates assert a much wider range of positive effects, particularly improved nutrition (assuming that cooking degrades the nutritional value of foods and eliminates beneficial natural enzymes), but medical research shows ambiguous results for these claims.

Despite that ambiguity, raw food can unquestionably make for fun, interesting, and delicious vegetarian meals. The preparation of raw food requires that no ingredient be heated above 104°F (some cooks use a 120°F ceiling), which requires some specific tools when producing a raw dish. Dehydrators, juicers, and blenders are must-have tools in the raw kitchen, and can be found in any restaurant supply store, most general big-box retailers, or online.

Raw food preparation also entails some unique techniques. Soaking or sprouting nuts, seeds, and some fruits should be researched a bit (some sprouts are inedible or even toxic). Some debate exists as to whether fermentation and pickling qualify as raw food practices, but both techniques also deserve some research before attempting for the first time to assure tasty success.

For those seeking to shift to a raw-focused diet (or for anyone even looking to occasionally dabble in the raw world), dozens of excellent cookbooks are available to guide your kitchen endeavors. Though the recipes are sometimes a bit quirky, we particularly enjoy Juliano Brotman’s Raw: The Uncook Book. We also recommend the recipes of Sarma Melngailis and Matthew Kenney (the founders of the NYC restaurant Pure Food and Wine), found in their books Raw Food, Real World and Living Raw Food.

For those seeking to experience raw vegetarian cuisine without getting dirty in the kitchen, New York City has a handful of superb restaurants for uncooked eating out. Pure Food and Wine holds court as the haute cuisine venue of the raw world, and also offers takeout through their One Lucky Duck storefronts. Quintessence has a more low-key feel in a smaller venue, but it’s our personal favorite for raw vegetarian dining. Though the labor-intensive techniques of raw food preparation often make for a pricier meal, Brooklyn’s Raw Star Café offers Caribbean-inspired raw food at amazingly low prices for those seeking a bargain.

Two other raw venues that we love, but which are currently changing locations or under renovation: lunch-spot Bonobo’s (whose nutmeats and raw “ice creams” always hit the spot) and Rockin’ Raw, (with one of the most unique vegetarian brunches in the city).

While the Vegiboys have not yet officially tackled the handful of vegetarian juice bars in the city, they still act as a great resource for those inclined towards raw foodism. Both the Juice Press  and Organic Avenue have locations Manhattan-wide to meet customers’ juicy needs. The East Village’s Liquiteria, Harlem’s Uptown Juice Bar, Prospect Heights’ Natural Blend, and Bushwick’s Verde Juice Bar are just a few of the other many options for anyone seeking vegetarian juices.

Finally, though standard ingredients for raw cooking can be found at any supermarket, greengrocer, or farmers’ market, the Union Square Grassman (at the Union Square Greenmarket) should be particularly noted as a source for live wheatgrass (which you can then continue to grow on the windowsill at home).

The Vegiboys will be bringing you even more details on city’s raw resources in the weeks to come, so watch for reviews of the city’s juice bars, raw recipes, and more in the weeks and months to come!

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