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January 25, 1998

"Live Food Advocates Chucking Stoves for Life in the Raw"

By Ellen Knickmeyer, Associated Press Writer, New York (AP)

After giving up meat for vegetarian cooking, fast food for organic cooking and sugar for macrobiotic cooking, 70 New Yorkers have gathered to get serious about the way they eat: They've given up cooking.

On the menu at this recent "live" food potluck in a Tribeca loft: a "lasagna" of sprouted buckwheat, almonds, mushrooms, tomatoes and figs; a "cheese" of pulverized almonds; a "champagne" of something sprouted and fermented.

The quotations marks are an essential ingredient in the brave new world of noncooking. Nothing on the tables has been inside a stove or boiling water. That's "live" food, to the devotees of this way of eating, whereas what the rest of us eat is -- well, you know -- dead.

"Foods start losing some enzymes and life energy at 105 degrees. By 118 degrees, that's it. You've killed all the enzymes, the life energy," said the hostess, Rhio, who goes by only one name.

"This is the way we're really supposed to eat. This is the way the animals eat, and they don't suffer from the 20,000 diseases that we suffer from," Rhio said.

The theory largely defies conventional science. But New York has lately become a seedbed of this offshoot of mainstream vegetarianism. There are live-food support groups, a newly opened live-food restaurant called Ozone, and a raw-food-friendly cable TV show.

The rest of civilization has barely looked back since humankind mastered fire, the barbecue grill and the drive-through McDonald's.

Devotees of raw food, however, shun cooking as an unnatural process that destroys vital nutrients -- particularly enzymes, which the body supposedly has difficulty producing on its own.

One mother of the modern movement was Dr. Ann Wigmore, founder of live-food centers in Boston and Puerto Rico, who died in 1994 at 84 -- "in a fire, of all things," Rhio said. "But she wasn't burned," her disciple hastened to add. "It was smoke inhalation."

Rhio is the author of a live-foods recipe book -- you weren't thinking cookbook, surely -- and works hard to create appetizing meals that will win converts.

While there are live-food omnivores who advocate consumption of raw, fresh meat, the crowd assembled in her warmly lit home is vegetarian, so there are no bloody gobbets of flesh on offer.

Everything sampled is tasty -- although since raw cuisine depends on soaking and chopping rather than heat to break down food, you could take a drinking straw to much of the plate, like a vegetable Slurpee.

While Rhio herself is curvy, jawlines and collarbones are everywhere in evidence among her guests. Faces are gaunt and spandex leggings drape loosely over hips, although several people point out a man in the corner who reputedly can sprout quite a bicep.

The talk is of switched-off gas stoves, discarded health insurance cards, diseases in remission -- all because of raw foods.

Many here have sworn off not only meat and dairy products but the vegetarian staples of cooked beans and rice. They acknowledge they don't get as much protein as conventional science says they should. They say conventional science is simply wrong.

"You look at a bull that's eating many hundreds of pounds of grass, and you go, 'Wait a moment -- where's it getting its protein?' From the grass!" said potluck guest Tom Coviello.

Conventional nutritionists beg to differ.

"Speaking from the cattle side of it, and sheep and goats, they have different stomach systems -- a four-compartmental stomach that lets them digest large amounts of grass, fibrous materials, and convert things into proteins that humans can't eat," said Tony Harvey, a dairy and beef field specialist at Iowa State University.

In general, "I don't think there's a lot of scientific basis for what they're saying," said Rebecca Reeves of the Baylor University nutritional research clinic in Houston.

"You take some of these principles: OK, the American diet is lacking in fruits and vegetables, agreed; OK, probably we do overcook vegetables so we lose some vitamins, agreed. But you're probably looking at two exact extremes. Neither of them is healthy. We somehow need to moderate it to get it into the middle," Reeves said.

Back at the potluck, third-generation vegetarian Karen Ranzi dismissively twirls her plastic fork in the air at the very idea of moderation.

"My husband is always telling me that old saying about doing things in moderation. I believe when you know something is true, you go for it," Ranzi said. Ranzi, who has eaten nothing but raw food since 1995, credits it with saving the health of her once-sickly son.

And where does it end:

There are the "sproutarians," who eat just sprouts; the "fruitarians," who eat only things with seeds; and a subset of the fruitarians who eat only fruits off the ground, not those that have been picked. Finally, Rhio said, there are the "breatharians."

"Breatharians" emulate ascetic saints who "got all the nutrition they needed from the air," Rhio explained. "I've met some people that are trying to be doing it. They're doing it occasionally, but they're not at 100 percent. Yet."

 

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