It looks like a cooking class, and it smells like one. But this is not a cooking class. And Tanya Ferguson, who is wearing an apron and slicing carrots, is not a cook.
"There are three things that come with most kitchens that I think are not necessary," Ferguson says, as she hands the carrots to a student, Les, who puts them through a juicer. "A garbage disposal, because you should compost all of your scraps, a microwave and a dishwasher."
Ferguson might add an oven to that list. A "100-percent raw foodist," she has not used one in a year. Based on the philosophy that raw foods contain active enzymes that facilitate well-being, the raw lifestyle, according to proponents, can effect remarkable changes in health and longevity.
"Eater's Digest" needs sustenance. Send ideas or submissions (up to 1,000 words) about the Valley's food and dining scene to firstname.lastname@example.org
"It helps you mentally, it helps you physically, it helps you spiritually," Ferguson says of "going raw."
"Enzymes are the life force. When we eat raw foods, we're eating life."
So, technically, Ferguson is not a cook. As for the informal gathering in her kitchen, she calls it, whimsically, an "un-cooking class." Although it resembles a cooking class in its recipe lists, its preassembled ingredients and its circle of interested onlookers, once you notice that the conventional oven is missing, you notice the absence of convention itself.
"How do you all feel about measuring?" she asks, scooping sprouted buckwheat groats into a drinking mug. Apparently, Ferguson can take it or leave it.
Bringing her "living foods" expertise from Santa Fe, Ferguson has been in Phoenix for less than two months. But she has already started a business, Raw For Life, through which she offers nutritional counseling, meal preparation and un-cooking instruction.
And, despite her radical -- and controversial -- convictions, it would be difficult to describe Ferguson as a crackpot. A very petite, very modest woman, she is earnest in her beliefs but refrains from proselytizing. There are several vegetarians in her class -- like Bob, a musician who gave up meat when he divorced his wife -- but it's okay if your last meal was a Big Mac. You won't be made to feel unwelcome.
"I just want to inspire people, even to go just 10 percent more raw," Ferguson says.
A vegetarian for 25 years, she was introduced to the raw lifestyle by Ann Wigmore, one of its most vocal proponents, whom she met in the 1970s. In Santa Fe, Ferguson taught un-cooking classes at the Ann Wigmore Foundation, where she also worked with the terminally ill. The foundation has since closed, but Ferguson retains her interest in "food as medicine."
"I really want to help people to heal themselves," she says.
Tonight, though, the emphasis is on taste. Rather than the cold "energy soups" that she prepares for invalids, the evening's menu includes raw "pizza," salad, and lemon "pudding." Preparation relies on three appliances that every kitchen should have: a juicer, a dehydrator and a Vita-mix blender. Ferguson calls them "indispensable," and uses all of them in preparing the pizza crusts. Buckwheat groats and flaxseed are combined with the pulp from juiced carrots, formed into rounds, and dehydrated for 10 hours. The leftover carrot juice goes into the blender with an apple and fresh ginger; seconds later, it's cocktail time. (Ferguson does not drink alcohol, but notes that some raw foodists drink wine. Others eat raw meat, fish and poultry, but the only dead animals in this house are pictured on PETA propaganda.)
Because this is a two-hour class, not a 10-hour one, Ferguson has made crusts in advance. No doubt about it, they look every bit as disgusting as they sound, and they bear absolutely no resemblance to fresh, warm focaccia. Still, as crackers go, they're not bad. Visually, they will be aided by homemade almond "cheese," also made ahead of time. (Ferguson does demonstrate the preparation of the cheese, from soaked raw almonds and a kind of wheat grass juice. While the bag of curds dangles from a kitchen cabinet, ready for its overnight cure, the leftover almond milk forms the basis for a second round of cocktails, a pseudo-eggnog served in shot glasses.)
Besides the cheese, the cracker crusts benefit from a fresh and sun-dried tomato red sauce, and from dehydrated marinated vegetables -- onions, mushrooms, zucchini -- that are every bit as good as oven-roasted. The end result is something that looks, and tastes, ready to microwave. But polishing it off is no problem, and dessert is an absolute delight. An impromptu pudding of lemon, dates, coconut and avocado, it is a suspicious-looking green, but nearly as satisfying as a lemon mousse.
Ferguson admits that her regular diet is enclosed in fewer quotation marks: The raw "pizza," "cheese" and "pudding" she describes as "gourmet items." Although no more labor-intensive than cooking, they do take substantial time to prepare -- and one of the advantages of going raw, according to Ferguson, is the ease and speed with which meals can be assembled. So she eats a lot of salad. Fruit smoothies are another favorite.
To the uninitiated, a raw vegan diet may sound as interesting as, say, being a rabbit in a laboratory cage (carrots again?). But Ferguson, who is a photographer as well as an un-cook, doesn't see her meals as tedious.
"I think of it as an art," she says of food preparation. "It's very creative."
Apparently, others feel the same way.
"I think it's a big movement, actually," she continues, describing the raw-foods phenomenon. "I think there's a lot of interest in it, and that people are becoming more conscious of the health of their bodies and the health of the planet. . . . Of course, there are still going to be people who think it's weird. But then, there always are."
Elan Head is a freelance writer who eats a lot of salad but can still make a mean barbecue brisket.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.