Friday, April 8, 2011


In The Beginning…

Last winter, when I first met Alisa, I had very little notion of what a raw food diet entailed. For all of my sixteen years operating a bed and breakfast here in Santa Fe, NM, I had only once run into guests that were living with what I then believed to be the limitations of a vegan diet - let alone a raw one. Usually the first thing I do after securing a room reservation is to inquire of my future guests whether they have any dietary restrictions or ifthere are things they simply can’t stand (to which I usually get the answer ‘liver’ , a dish that fortunately never had its place on my breakfast menu). On this occasion I remember hearing the word ‘Vegan’. I remember my honest inquiry, “so, what can’t you eat?” and the responding litany: “ no eggs, no milk, no cheese, no butter… no dairy of any kind, no animal products of any kind, no beans. As shell shocked as I am about the dairy aspect, I am floored by the bean thing. Why the hell not? What’s wrong with a bean? Later someone will inform me that it has something to do with their resemblance to a fetus. I ponder on this for a long time. What am I going to make these people for breakfast?

For the entire two weeks before the Vegans were to dine at my table, they haunted me. I would see that particular reservation taunting me with the ominous label ‘VEGAN’ scrawled alongside it in red, underlined, a box drawn around it. Somehow it struck a kind of terror in me. How was it possible to cook a breakfast without so much as a single egg? It appeared to require some sort of magic that I did not possess. The children’s story, ‘Stone Soup’, flashed through my mind more than once; that actually seemed like the kind of thing they might be able to eat. Maybe I could convince them to have lunch instead… then I’d have something to make them. As it was, even one breakfast seemed daunting and this couple (plus one vegan toddler) were staying for two! It may as well have been a hundred. I went through my many personal recipes and my extensive collection of cookbooks and, even with this veritable library , the pickings were slim. Eventually I came up with a stuffed apple using soy spread instead of butter and stuffing it with various nuts, raisins, dried fruit and cinnamon mixed into a vegan granola that I made from scratch. Day One taken care of! Next!

On day two I hit Whole Foods. I reminded myself of my 85 year old father for whom the grocery store is an all day affair involving extensive reading and computation. Not once does he just ‘put something in the cart’. Unlike me, however, he is not looking for purity of ingredients but for volume: what costs the least with the most in it. On this day I take three times as long as I have ever taken in any grocery store. I study every ingredient on every box in the frozen food aisle that even moderately hints at being vegan breakfast food. Finally I come across vegan waffles. Fabricating a berry compote in my head ,I come up with recipe Number Two. A bonus of this visit to ‘market’ is my discovery of Vegan Sugar. The bag gives no hint as to what makes it vegan so I buy it – not so much to serve it to the guests (although that, too, was in the game plan) – but as a reminder to ask these folks , “What’s the deal with the vegan sugar.?”

The next morning, over a delicious waffle breakfast that had both grownups and toddler asking for seconds, I asked about the sugar. It seems slightly moister, less granular than the non-vegan sugar I normally put on the table. Apparently the process by which regular sugar is made more crystalline uses bone. Yes, bone. I guess that would be an animal product. Who knew? We spend the rest of breakfast talking about all the most disgusting aspects of dairy. Growth hormones are mentioned. Disease is mentioned . The word ‘pus’ comes into the conversation. Milk was starting to sound like a really bad idea. Now these were nice people with an adorable child. But I am relieved when they leave. The pressure is just too great. I wasn’t sure I had another vegan meal in me.

And that brings me back to Alisa, who, out of nowhere, walks into my life… all energy, all enthusiasm, all Raw. Making ‘vegan’ look easy. And there’s that word: RAW - something about it doesn’t sound right. Something about it sounds uncomfortable. I mean, what would one be able to eat? I envision bowls of salad lined up into infinity, into the Rest Of One’s Natural Life. No croutons. No bacon bits. Not even a bean. Now I like salad. Honestly, I’m practically a vegetarian. But there is a concept known as ‘too much of a good thing’.

“What about snacks?”, I ask, “ Cookies? Chips? Chocolate?”

“Oh”, Alisa says, “ I love chocolate!”

I scratch my head at the newsflash that chocolate exists ‘in the raw’. As do tortilla chips. And cookies. And even a kind of bread.. I run the word through my mind again a few times for good measure. Raw. It marches through like an army of carrots and celery interrupted by the occasional chunk of chocolate that still fails to entice me, surrounded as it is by all the rabbit food.

There is an irony in that the week I met Alisa – I was in the process of reading a book subtitled, “How Cooking Made Us Human” - and then here I was talking to someone who didn’t cook at all. Who didn’t believe you needed to cook. What did that make her?

It seems odd – this lack of acceptance with ‘ raw’ - when our not-so-distant-ancestors were foragers and would have eaten an entirely raw diet consisting of fruits, plants, nuts and maybe the occasional scavenged squirrel, and now this entire concept had become too abstract to even conceive of, let alone embrace. Here we are living in a time when foraging has been left far behind in favor of having our food supplied to us. Unlike our ancestors, most of us barely have a relationship with our food beyond the chewing and swallowing – which we seem to do damn well. Half the women I know (never mind the men) never even cook their own food. They buy a finished product and microwave it; they order out. We are domesticated animals; someone else takes care of us right down to the processing and packaging of what goes into our mouths. Little is fresh by the time we eat it; much is laden with chemicals. Yet this has somehow become acceptable. Expected. We barely even think about it unless someone on the nightly news says that this week ‘artificial sweeteners have been shown to cause cancer’ and last week ‘gluten was found to be responsible for autism.’ Somehow we are able to justify all of these things and yet RAW sounds weird. Like some discipline practiced by an alien life form. Alisa looks human. Except… she kind of glows.

I do not know quite what to make of it but somehow I get this odd feeling.As I listen to Alisa wax rhapsodic on how raw food healed her body and changed her life, I have this strong premonition that she might just be here to change mine.

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