It's a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon as a dozen people gather for a potluck meal at a Squirrel Hill home. Though they are strangers â€” the gathering was arranged almost entirely through the Internet â€” they are greeted by three bouncy, cheerful little girls in pink, the children of the hosts. As guests begin to mix, the kitchen becomes companionably cramped with food and people.
The scene seems a little off, though, and not just because the front room is so sparsely furnished. (The hosts have lived here only two weeks.) Despite the abundance of food, the stove's not turned on. None of the food is hot. None of it has even been cooked. None of it will be.
It's not some colossal failure of planning that would give Martha Stewart fits, though. At this potluck, all of the food is vegan, and all of it is raw.
"Going raw" made a splash a few years ago when celebrities including Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson embraced it, claiming that cooking kills the enzymes in food, and that leaving those enzymes in could be life-changing. Since, they say, enzymes are crucial for digestion â€” and the human body comes equipped with only a finite supply of the little buggers â€” eating food raw gives our bodies a break.
Dieticians might take issue with such assertions, but "You can't argue with how you feel," says Laura Gouge, one of the potluck participants. "It is a really health-giving diet."
The kitchen becomes a hub of chopping, chopping, chopping: One health benefit of going raw is that it's an athletic way to eat. Stephanie Giuffre, the potluck organizer who hopes to get back to a mostly raw diet she enjoyed in California, stands at the counter cutting up apples for the juicer, bananas for dessert and avocados for salads.
We may be hard-wired to connect good kitchen smells with a hot stove, but this kitchen is both cool and fragrant. The tang of bright green Washington apples wakes up your salivary glands, while the warmth of ginger, hacked from the knobby brown root, soothes. Squash, cut so fine it looks like pasta, has a clean, earthy smell.
These are more subtle smells, and you have to work a little more to appreciate them. But they seem more honest, somehow â€” these foods giving up their own flavors without the amplification of heat. And when the meal is prepared, the rewards are even greater. The richness of the ravioli is startling, and the flavors linger in the mouth â€” there's an unexpected silky fattiness. The apple-ginger juice is tart but mellow, an excellent complement to the bright, sturdy salads.
"It's even better than I thought it would be," says B.J. Searcy, a self-described "food freak" from Monessen.
Searcy has been a lacto-ovo vegetarian, someone who doesn't touch meat but will eat eggs and dairy, for 27 years. That's a much less restrictive diet than the one practiced by Gouge, who eats nothing cooked or heated. She's vegan as well â€” no meat, fish, eggs, dairy or foods in any way derived from animals.
Most of those at the potluck dinner are not quite at that level of commitment, and they have varying interests in getting there. Guests run the gamut from raw-foodists to a lone, somewhat sheepish but curious meat-eater. But they all share a sense that we have come to take for granted the food we eat ... and that we are worse off, physically and environmentally, as a result.
Searcy, for one, respects most anyone who thinks about what they eat â€” be it pedigreed lamb or raw mushrooms and sprouted grains.
"We have to kill other stuff to live," Searcy says, "but you need to do it mindfully and with respect."
In Laura Gouge's case, careful thinking about food began a generation before she was born.
Her grandfather "worked for Armour and Company, which is the meat-packer," recalls Laura's mother, Deborah. "Even though we didn't have a lot of money we ate well and we ate a lot of meat," she says. "I sometimes joke that I ate my lifetime supply of meat by the age of 26."
In her late 20s, a confrontational friend challenged her meat-eating. "Pointing her finger right in my face, she said 'You, of all people, should be vegetarian.' I said yes, mainly to get her out of my face," Deborah says.
She took her friend's challenge to stop eating meat for a month, and in the process, "I started to read about the meat industry." She was appalled, she says, at the treatment of animals. "We're wired to not see ourselves as bad or evil, and if you really confront the meat industry, I don't think there's a way you can keep eating meat."
What about her father, who supported the family working in just that industry? "Both my parents had to leave school in the ninth grade to go to work because they were Depression kids," she says. "[A] lot of people didn't have a choice."
About two years before Laura, the elder of her two daughters, was born, Deborah decided she needed a sane eating plan, and adopted a vegetarian macrobiotic diet. Now championed by celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow, a macrobiotic diet emphasizes grains, particularly brown rice, and vegetables. It excludes highly processed foods and sweets.
Going vegetarian, Deborah says, exposed her to many new ideas and alternative notions of health care. She acknowledges that some of these ideas â€” like her decision not to have her children immunized â€” are not widely accepted.
"An acquaintance of mine basically threw me out of her car â€” we were both pregnant â€” saying that I was risking my child's life for some stupid idea that I had."
Still, though her husband wasn't vegetarian, he supported her decision to raise their children that way. And when the kids were young, Deborah and some friends formed a playgroup of other macrobiotic vegetarians, so socializing was easy â€” until school started.
"My mom would send these tasty lunches, like peanut butter and jelly," Laura says, "but it was always like brown, grainy bread, so I was totally embarrassed about being different." Being exposed to other kids and what their families ate, meanwhile, allowed Laura to try foods she didn't get at home.
"I would have snacks and meals with friends, and I liked what I tasted. A lot," Laura says. "I was like, 'Oh man, this is awesome! Where can I get more of this?'"
Eventually Laura's begging for foods such as Chicken McNuggets wore Deborah down. As a compromise, she introduced some organic, free-range chicken into the household. That didn't last, and they came back to vegetarian eating.
But in her mid-teens, Laura says, she started to feel like something wasn't right.
"I was sick all the time. I never had a big illness, but I continually had stomachaches and headaches. I was tired and I knew this wasn't how you were supposed to feel. I knew I didn't feel good," she says.
The same friend of her mother's who challenged her years ago to stop eating meat gave Laura some books on raw veganism. Initially, they totally turned her off. "I looked at them, and I was like, 'You're nuts, that's gross; all these recipes look gross,'" she says. A sprouted quinoa plate, for example, takes more than 24 hours, and involves sprouting the quinoa (a South American grain) and soaking almonds until they can be mushed into pí¢té.
More importantly, some question the effectiveness of a raw-food diet, and note that it can even be risky.
"Eating more fruits and vegetables is always good," says Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition for University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. But the idea "that you will absorb more nutrients from [raw] foods than when they're in a cooked form isn't always true." She says that the enzymes in our guts are quite sufficient to get the job done. And foods such as tomatoes have important nutrients that don't become fully accessible until the plant is cooked. In the case of tomatoes, for example, cooking helps release lycopene, which can decrease the risk of prostate cancer.
For Laura Gouge, though, the idea had been planted. She spent a year in college in Paris, eating bread and cheese â€” the most realistic options for a vegetarian in a city known for breaking the resolve of herbivores. Still, "I did a lot of research and I really saw that raw was the way to eat," she says. When she returned from Paris, "I was like, 'This is it, I'm going to be raw.' It took me about a month or two transitioning where it was kind of hard and I had cravings, and then it just kind of clicked."
For now, Laura sees going to a restaurant as more of a social outing than a chance to eat. But she loves to "cook" and is researching a program to become a certified raw chef.
"I don't think everyone should go 100 percent raw foods," Laura warns. "If you're not going to put in the research to make sure that you do it right, you can get sick."
Getting enough calories and protein, Bonci says, can be a concern on any restrictive diet. A raw diet is no exception. "I think if people are really considering doing it, don't go into it lightly. Do a little detective work."
Bill Fuller proudly pats his modest round belly and says it's "quality fat," made from the finest beef and fancy butter. He's the executive chef at the Big Burrito Group â€” the local chain that includes the Mad Mex restaurants, Soba, Umi, Casbah, Eleven and Kaya â€” and an unabashed foodie.
All the Big Burrito restaurants have vegetarian and vegan options, and have accommodated even the occasional raw foodist. But raw food often leaves Fuller, well, cold.
"Intellectually, I understand it, but viscerally, I can't get my head around it," he says of such restrictive eating. "I just can't imagine certain things being taken away from me. ... I see the health side, I see the animal-rights side and I understand it. Sometimes, though, people pick stuff as neurotic self-denial. I wonder if raw foods is like that."
Still, Fuller understands the appeal of food in its most elemental form. He speaks with something like awe about what he calls "the turnip moment" â€” a day when a local farmer brought half a bushel of turnips to Soba.
"A turnip's a turnip â€” who gives a damn, right?" Fuller says. These turnips, however, "had been picked that morning. They'd never been cold or coated. The whole basement of Soba smelled like turnips." He corralled the whole staff down there. "The turnip moment was huge. I said, 'Touch this, taste it, smell it, it's beautiful.'"
Moments like that have turned him into a champion of using fresh, local produce whenever he can, at home and in his restaurants. They've also made Fuller the darling of another group of local mindful eaters, Slow Foods Pittsburgh.
The group is a chapter of a worldwide food movement that began in Italy in 1986, when a McDonald's restaurant was proposed near the Spanish Steps in Rome. In a food-obsessed culture, this heresy prompted a backlash against the culinary irreverence of fast food.
The slow-food movement is "like the Sierra Club against fast food," says Virginia Phillips, group member and a food writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The group advocates a renewed respect for the entire process of eating, from how the crops and animals are raised and harvested, to how far they have to travel to become dinner, and to how they are prepared.
The Pittsburgh chapter has been holding events about once a month for the past five years. Mostly these are specialized tastings of a particular product, produced locally or artisanally. A while back they had a butter-tasting.
"People who are used to Land o' Lakes and Parkay, it blows your mind!" says group member Marlene Parrish, who is also a food writer for the Post-Gazette.
"It was such a revelation to taste food the way it's supposed to taste," says Phillips.
Group members talk, too, about lost traditions, about losing the idea of a family sitting down together for a meal, of recipes being passed down generation to generation â€” of a reverence for food that's been lost when families don't see food as part of the family framework.
Is it a coincidence, they wonder, that as we have begun eating food faster â€” and producing it on more industrial scales â€” we've gotten less healthy? According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 1990, 12.5 percent of Pennsylvanians were obese. By 2002, obesity rates had nearly doubled, to 24 percent of state residents.
"Another part of slow food is keeping our ethnic traditions," says Parrish. "What did our forefathers and foremothers eat? Fresh and local."
Easier said than done, of course, when many families now include two working parents with no time to track down local produce and lovingly make it into a quality meal. Even Fuller acknowledges, "You don't have to be totally dogmatic. Sometimes I'll get a chicken sandwich from Wendy's." Processed food is inevitable, Fuller says, especially in families with two working parents, like his own.
And slow-food eating can get expensive. The butter-tasting, for example, had a price tag of $22 per person. And that's the least expensive tasting members can recall.
Theoretically, "There's no reason a welfare mom can't be slow foods," says Fuller. "It's so much more affordable if you cook for yourself. You can use WIC at all the local farmers' markets." But he concedes, "It's mostly an upper-class, upper-middle-class thing."
For the rest of us, sacrifices are often necessary. For example, B.J. Searcy, the longtime vegetarian from the Squirrel Hill raw potluck, grows fruits and vegetables at home. And she cuts back expenditures in other areas.
"People ask me, 'How can you spend that much money on food?'" she says. The answer: "I don't have cable, I don't have a cell phone." She says it's hard to understand "the things people put their time and energy into, but they don't care about what they eat! They just care if it's fast and convenient, they don't care where it came from."
For Fuller and slow-food devotees, however, where food comes from has become an increasingly important consideration.
"A lot of what I do is sniffing out farms," he says. In 2004, about 12 percent of all Big Burrito's food-purchase budget â€” between $4 million and $5 million â€” went to local farms.
"We buy lamb from Keith Martin at Elysian Fields," raised organically in nearby Greene County, "which is arguably the best in the country." Local cheese comes from the goats at FireFly Farms, of Maryland's Allegheny Plateau region.
There are limits to what can be purchased locally, of course. Local beef is nearly impossible to find; the regional geography doesn't support grazing cattle. Chicken, too, has been hard to come by. In all, Fuller doubts if local farmers could ever provide more than 20 percent of Big Burrito's menu.
In part, the slow-food movement's interest in local farming reflects growing distrust of industrial-scale agriculture. As Wendy Orent recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "The industrial farming methods that make ever-cheaper chicken possible may also have created the lethal strain of bird flu virus ... that threatens to set off a global flu pandemic." The close quarters of factory-farming methods, she says, mean that a bird "struck with a fatal illness can easily pass the disease on to others, through direct contact or through fecal matter."
In part because of such fears, grocers at Giant Eagle and even Wal-Mart are sensing a market shift, and moving to include more organics on their shelves. But Fuller says that increased interest in organic foods may not fully solve the problem.
"Once Wal-Mart gets involved, there's going to be organic farms in El Salvador," Fuller says.
In fact, the process has already begun. Organic bananas recently on sale at Pittsburgh's Whole Foods, for example, came from Ecuador. Organic tomatoes can come from California, Chile or Mexico. Getting those virtuous fruits all the way to your grocery story carries its own environmental costs â€” in gasoline consumption, highway sprawl and pollution. Consumers who merely focus on finding the organic label might be doing less to help the environment than they think.
That's why "[o]ur big job is to make the link shorter between producers and consumers," says Virginia Phillips.
Harvest Valley Farms in Valencia, for example, isn't certified organic. (The process for receiving certification â€” and getting the organic label â€” can be involved.) But owner Art King practices sustainable agriculture, using time-tested techniques such as crop rotation and mulching, which cuts down on the need for irrigation and protects plants from pests and cold.
"I market all of my vegetables within 25 miles of my farm," he says.
Both King and Don Kretschmann of Kretschmann Farm, an 80-acre organic spread just outside Zelienople, participate in community-supported agriculture, or CSA. People in Pittsburgh and the surrounding suburbs buy a "farm share" at the beginning of the season, which entitles them to receive weekly dropoffs of fresh, local produce in nearby city neighborhoods.
"I would say that at least half of all the vegetables that the people get, when they pick it up that day, it was picked that day," says King, who has been doing CSA drops for five years.
CSAs can come with some sticker-shock: A Harvest Valley regular membership, said to feed two to three people, costs $410 and lasts 24 weeks. Still, supporters point out, that's just over $16 a week, or the cost of a few Extra Value Meals. And it also encourages consumers to eat the produce, since people don't like to throw out what they've already paid for.
"Everywhere you look, every time you turn on the radio and the news, you read about how you should eat more fruits and vegetables," says King. "Just take a look at the CSA program â€” bam, there's your solution."
Kretchmann says that having the produce delivered helps in another respect. It cuts out on the overwhelming stimulation that consumers encounter in grocery stores, restaurants â€” almost anytime they step outside.
"You've got the candy-bar aisle, the cracker aisle," Kretchmann says. "Every time you go into a grocery store you're tempted."