When I moved to Minneapolis after completing college, I didn’t know what to expect. My only interaction with the state (prior to the on-site interviews for the job I secured) was watching the movie “Fargo” – which hardly counts as a fair assessment. (Though, some people in very rural parts of the state do talk like the characters in the movie; even I have picked up a few language mannerisms during my years here. But I digress…) Imagine my pleasant surprise when I learned that this state has citizens who are well-educated, physically active, socially conscious, and progressive in a variety of beliefs. It was like I lucked into a wonderful blind date.
Some chemistry must have occurred between the city and I, because our relationship has continued for the past 15 years. Oh sure, we have our moments (little spats about the weather, our respective choices in state representatives, our so-close-but-not-quite-able-to-pull-it-off sports teams…), but the city has offered me more unexpected benefits than I could ever imagine – many of which have literally changed the course of my life (for the better).
And while the city has given me tremendously significant gifts, it has offered me smaller treats as well. Strong community education programs have allowed me to dabble in a variety of interesting experiments (like belly dancing, ethnic cooking, henna tattoos…); solid public arts efforts have enabled me to try my hand at a variety of visual mediums (painting, sumi-e...) as well as enjoy compelling aesthetic displays in unexpected places; and niche community groups have exposed me to topics I likely wouldn’t take the initiative to investigate on my own. One such exploratory area is the realm of raw foods. Prior to moving to Minnesota, I knew that many foods were able to be eaten raw as well as cooked – we called those foods salads. What I didn’t know was all of the different ways raw foods could be prepared – that entire meals could be made using only raw foods, and that these meals could actually be satisfying. What??
Ten years ago I learned of a local restaurant that serves only vegan, gluten-free, raw food meals. To break this down:
- Vegan: Refrains from using animal products. (I.e., no eggs, milk, cheese, butter, etc.; and certainly no animal flesh.)
- Gluten-free: Refrains from using any products that contain protein gluten. (I.e., no wheat, rye, flour, oats, nor any food containing those items [which includes most breads, crackers, cereals, pastas, cookies, cakes, beer, and some seasonings…].)
- Raw: Uses only unprocessed, vegan foods, and refrains from heating any ingredient above 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius).
Yet despite these seemingly difficult constraints, the restaurant claims to offer a variety of tasty, satisfying meals – like mock pizzas, pastas, burritos, cookies, cakes… When I heard of this notion (that those categories of food could be made using basically only vegetables, nuts, and fruit, and without any conventional cooking techniques) I was incredibly intrigued. I thought, “I should check out that restaurant one of these days…” – but because I didn’t create any sort of plan, a full decade has passed and I still haven’t dined at the establishment. Ridiculous.
Enter my friend C. C is an adventurous gal, a mom to three boys who keeps up just fine with their endeavors (like surfing, snow boarding, biking) – and more impressively, who initiates wild new experiences for them all to explore together (such as wilderness camping, dog sledding, rock climbing…). C and I get together every few months, and I love being in her spunky-yet-grounded company. When she asked me if I had any ideas for what we should do on our most recent gathering, I asked her if she would be interested in trying a raw food meal. Without hesitation, she said, “Sure!” – so we found our way to Ecopolitan.
The restaurant possessed a very “homey” ambiance; it felt like C and I were sitting in a friend’s dining area (if that friend happened to live in a rustic/farm-style type of home). As we perused the menu, I had difficulty deciding what to choose. One part of me said, “Ooooh, mac & cheese…tasty! But I wonder how they make that without cheese? Man, I haven’t mac & cheese in forever – that sounds awesome,” while another part of me said, “Ravioli – yum! I wonder how ravioli made without pasta might taste – I’d love to try it…” while still another part of me said, “Savory casserole seems like a smart choice; lots of healthy veggies in that one. Maybe I should give that option a go?” (Can you see why I often have trouble at restaurants?) After a few minutes of mulling over the options, I was no closer to a decision. I looked at C, and asked her what she was thinking. She said, “You know, I can’t decide between the ravioli, casserole, or mac & cheese. What are you getting?” I smiled, and explained that I was thinking the exact same thing – then suggested that maybe she would want to split all of those dishes with me? That way we could both try a little bit of everything. C was totally on board, so we placed our order, then sat back and chatted.
Twenty-five minutes later, our food arrived. I’m not quite sure why it took so long to make our meal – I mean, nothing we ordered requires cooking, right? How long does it take to mix faux cheese sauce into mock pasta? And the restaurant itself wasn’t overly busy, so it’s not like the kitchen was swamped with orders… But on the upside, at least the food won’t go cold if it’s not immediately delivered to our table. 🙂
When our food finally did arrive, C and I were pleasantly surprised to learn that our server had taken the initiative to split all of the entrees into two separate servings for us. Aww, how kind! I forgave the delay a bit.
As C and I looked at the meal before us, the first thing I noticed was that the portions were fairly sizable. The second thing I noticed was that all of the dishes looked truly beautiful: rich with vibrant colors, fully brimming with life. And the third thing I noticed was that despite being room temperature, the meal still possessed a great aroma. With curious interest, C and I began to dig into the food before us.
The first dish I ate was the ravioli. The “pasta” worked for me – it had good texture and mouth feel. The “cheese” filling also worked for me – though I could have done with just a little bit less of it. The four bites went down fine; but what I liked most about this particular dish was the side that accompanied it. The salad was a simple mix of fresh greens, heirloom tomatoes, basil, chopped nuts, and vinaigrette – but the flavor explosion was out of control. I am confident that all of these ingredients were picked in the back yard of the restaurant; they tasted like sunshine and fresh air. Seriously. Absolutely incredible. (This salad may be reason enough for me to really consider starting my own vegetable garden next spring…)
The second dish I dipped into was the savory casserole. I put the first bite into my mouth – and almost spit it out. My tongue was SMACKED with an overpowering punch of dill; I almost started gagging. I managed to swallow the bite, then drank half of my glass of water. After a few breaths, I thought, “Maybe I just bit into a chunk of raw herb or something…? I’ll give the dish one more try.” I tentatively took a small second bite – and nope, no success with this one, either. The dish was significantly seasoned with some potent dill. I pushed the rest of my serving aside, very grateful that I hadn’t chosen this option as my sole meal selection.
Which left me with a bowl of “mac & cheese”. I playfully spun the zucchini “noodles” around my fork – and absolutely loved what my teeth surrounded. The zucchini felt like an al-dente noodle; and the sauce, while not exactly ‘cheesy’, was very tasty nonetheless. I happily ate all of this dish – and was actually a little disappointed that I hadn’t ordered a full serving of it.
As C and I compared notes about what we thought of each dish, we discovered that what one of us didn’t care for, the other really enjoyed. So I happily gave Mr. Yucky Dill to C (who ate it with glee), and I received her “I’m-not-down-with-that-icky-bowl-of-yellow-sauce” mac & cheese derivative with a big ol’ smile on my face.
After consuming all our entrees, I felt appropriately full – but because the entire meal was 90% vegetables, I didn’t feel bloated or stuffed or gross. Just, satisfied.
Yet when our server asked us if we wanted dessert, I knew my answer would be “yes”. Not because I was really craving a sweet (though I do like to end all of my meals with a treat), but because I was curious to see what a cheesecake made without cheese might taste like. C and I decided to approach dessert with the same tactic we used for our entrees: divide and conquer. She ordered the cheesecake with raspberry sauce, and I ordered a carob-mint cookie.
Another 25 minutes later, our desserts arrived. I admit, I was starting to get antsy by this point – but did my best to chill out and enjoy the remaining part of the meal. At least I got to spend the time in good company. 🙂
When the desserts landed at our table, both C and I were surprised to see that the kitchen had added raspberry sauce to the carob-mint cookie as well as to the cheesecake.
I sampled the raspberry sauce – and wasn’t really a fan. C, however, loved it – so I scraped off the goo and gave it to her, which she thoroughly enjoyed with the cheesecake. I did sample the cheesecake, and thought it was “just okay” (it seemed kind of bland to me); C also took a bite of the carob-mint cookie, then dismissed it, saying she much preferred the cheesecake. I thought the cookie could have used more chocolate flavor and a bit less mint; but I did appreciate that the mint was fresh – it added a really good quality to the cookie, making it feel “bright” (if you’ll allow me to use such language to describe food).
After we had polished off the last morsels from our plates, we reviewed the bill for the evening’s experience – and I was surprised by the total. Three entrees, two desserts, and one glass of wine came in at… $56. That’s unheard of! I was delighted that C and I scored not only a tasty, healthy dinner, but a reasonably-priced one, too!
All in all, I was very satisfied with my first raw-food venture. Now, I don’t think anyone would mistake the food that C and I consumed for their conventional alternatives; but the raw versions of pasta, cheese, and cookies were very good in their own right.
As I left the restaurant at the end of the evening and reflected on the experience, I realized the only thing I didn’t get to try that I was still curious about was the restaurant’s pizza. How does one even make raw pizza? What does it taste like? I couldn’t begin to imagine what a slice of raw pizza might be like – so a few weeks later I went back to the restaurant for lunch, and ordered a serving of marinara pizza.
This time, the food came in three minutes. (Literally.) I was happy with the speedy service – and really pleased with the dish that was set in front of me. Once again, the food looked stunningly beautiful. As I took my first bite of pizza, I smiled. The crust was fantastic: earthy, rich, dense, with a soft cracker texture – very pleasing to me. The toppings were also wonderful: the tomato sauce was rich and hearty, the mushrooms were ‘meaty’, the fresh green peppers were crispy and provided good flavor balance to the other ‘heavier’ components of the dish, the avocado provided beautiful color and a terrific textural element to the pizza (it gave the whole thing good mouth feel)… The slice was so yummy, I almost didn’t miss the cheese. Honestly. But, this item also didn’t feel like “pizza” to me – it felt more like an open-faced sandwich. It was good, don’t get me wrong – but if what I desired was a yummy slice of pizza, this item would not have satisfied that craving.
However. I know how I would feel after eating a ‘real’ slice of pizza (a little bloated, a little sluggish, a little weighed down) – and I know how I felt after eating these raw dishes (satisfied, content, energized, vibrant). This food literally filled me with vitality, as well as a sense of health and well-being. I can see definite benefits to adhering to a raw food diet. But. I can also see quite a lot of downside, too. The time investment would be significant, as would be the start-up costs. (To do this food ‘right’, a person really does need special gear like a dehydrator, a top-notch high-power blender, special veggie cutting tools – not to mention the actual cost of buying the raw organic foods themselves.) Perhaps even more concerning to me, though, is the social impact I would feel if I were to follow a raw food diet. I already have enough difficulty enjoying family, friend, and professional gatherings by choosing to adhere to a vegetarian diet; if I were to remove even more food choices (and food preparation methods) from my menu of options, I honestly don’t know if I could successfully dine with the other people in my life. I suspect I would feel very isolated, and very sad. While my physical body may thrive on raw foods, my emotional life might not. So for now, I think I might dabble in raw food every once in a while – but if my sweetie wants to take me out for ice cream, I’m definitely having a scoop. 🙂
P.S. All that being said, if I ever win the lottery (or come into a pile of money some other way), I might hire a raw food personal chef to make all of my meals for me. Seriously.