The Gastronomer: Why raw food rocks -- sometimes
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
One of the smartest things humans ever did was to learn how to master fire. With fire came cooking, which made otherwise unsafe food safer by killing bacteria and microbes. We no longer had to eat a woolly mammoth at one sitting for fear that it would spoil.
Fire also freed up time, because food no longer had to be chewed for hours each day. As a consequence, humans spread to distant corners of the Earth, growing in size and in numbers.
We often hear that raw food is better for us than cooked food, and some raw-food diets advertise the most astonishing results. The title of Leslie Kenton's 1984 book, "Raw Energy: Eat Your Way to Radiant Health," which is said to have started the current raw-food craze, sounds like it is promising a lot, but that is only by the measures of the cooked world. In the world of raw, such claims are commonplace.
The main claim by proponents of raw foodism makes sense: When food is not exposed to processing, more of its original nutrients are preserved. Every time we cook meat, fish or plants, their vitamins, minerals and antioxidants important to our health are destroyed or devalued. More controversially, it is said that the same applies to enzymes that might help aid our digestion. (Critics say that those enzymes are destroyed long before they reach our intestines.)
Celebrities tout the diet's advantages: Uma Thurman and Woody Harrelson are among the famous raw-food converts. Although the practice is associated with veganism and new ageism, it also includes proponents of raw animal products. And it is not new: For centuries, raw-food diets have been a part of ascetic movements that have promoted the spiritual benefits of uncooked food.
I recently came across a photo of Mahatma Gandhi meeting with leaders of the fruitarian movement in London. Fruitarians are among the more extreme raw-foodism groups. They eat only uncooked food that has fallen to the ground. (The more lax among them allow the picking of fruit that would otherwise fall.) The photo either strengthens or weakens the case for raw food, depending on how you read it: If the men surrounding Gandhi are 112 years old, they look pretty good, and their shriveled paleness is understandable. If they are significantly younger, as one might suspect, then perhaps there is something missing: Had you not known better, you could be forgiven for thinking they were undernourished or malnourished.
The claims of greater health benefits have long been disputed. One of Britain's leading experts on the field, Chris Hawkey, a professor and the president of the British Society of Gastroenterology, recently warned against raw-food and other fad diets, saying they are based "more on theory than evidence." Critics note the difficulty of finding nutritional balance in most raw-food diets and say that many plants have inhibitors that prevent the body's absorption of healthful vitamins and minerals unless they are cooked. In a June 1988 article in House & Garden titled "Salad the Silent Killer," Jeffrey Steingarten chronicled the nutritional dangers of raw vegetables.
There are food-safety concerns as well, particularly with diets that include raw fish or meat. Those ingredients must be reliably sourced, which is not so hard to do on occasion or for a special meal. When the stove is banned, that sourcing can be difficult and expensive to maintain.
But there are benefits to raw food that apply even to those of us who have no dramatic plans to change the way we eat. The most important has to do with flavor.
Cooking alters the way food tastes and feels by denaturing proteins, breaking down long carbohydrate chains, instigating browning processes, caramelizing sugars and a host of other things that leave the food, well, cooked, and quite different.
But it is not just about change in proteins and texture. Cooking eliminates small taste differences that could otherwise have been important and pleasurable; you probably will not be able to taste the difference between a San Marzano and a Roma tomato when they are cooked, but if they are raw, you can. The same goes for grilled steak, where the grilled flavor dominates and the result depends as much on the cook as the cow. With raw meat, it is easier to taste the impact of the feed and the texure of the meat.
Most modern eaters avoid a lot of raw foods (apart from the Silent Killer). Raw-foodism followers eschew all cooked foods. Different isn't necessarily better or worse, and progress doesn't require us to leave the past behind. Even though human evolution owes much to fire, there is no reason to ditch the raw realm. Eating something raw that we would otherwise cook -- occasionally, or often but not all the time -- can be a way to expand our horizons and ensure the steady refill of new sensory experiences. To put it in layman's terms: Raw food can be incredibly tasty.
The first asparagus spears of the year are fragile and crunchy, with a fresh sweetness you will not find if you cook them. It is not easy to prove whether they taste better cooked, but it is hard not to appreciate their pleasures just as nature gave them to us. The same applies to other vegetables: Normally, the main purpose of preparing eggplants and artichokes is to remove their inherent bitterness. But when they are served raw -- finely sliced and drizzled with olive oil -- the bitterness is a feature, not something one would wish to eliminate.
With just about all raw food, there are hygiene and food-safety issues. One must be vigilant about every part of the non-cooking process, from sourcing to serving. But if you trust your butcher and yourself, there are few things finer than Italian-inspired Carne Cruda, allowing you a sophisticated way to get closer to the meat and to our Paleolithic ancestors.
Viestad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.