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Severe Grain Damage

Pretty rawful: This food is hard to face.
Erik Guzowski

Rawsome! is open for dinner just three days a week, and then for only four hours at a time. And for that, I say, thank goodness.

It's not just that I don't care for the food (okay, I hate it). It's not only that I have trouble getting into the cult aspect of the concept. (Subsisting on "live" foods — completely uncooked vegan dishes — is a crusade more than a cuisine. It's got groupies like Woody Harrelson. Enough said.) And it's not the annoying exclamation point at the end of its name — Rawsome! — which I'm leaving out of the rest of this review for the sanity of readers and my editor.

Mainly, I worry about the well-being of the followers of America's most recent dining fad. If the weary folks nibbling on the "rawjitas" at Rawsome are indicative of what results from such a harsh health menu, raw zealots don't look long for this world.

Sallow complexions. Pinched cheeks and sunken eyes. Frames so wispy I bet their bodies bend and sway like saplings when the wind picks up. Scraggly hair and rumpled jeans. Many of the people I see dining at Rawsome — an extension of Desert Greens Cafe inside Tempe's Gentle Strength Cooperative health-food store — look like they would do well to get away from this restaurant and sneak a fat, juicy hamburger now and then. And nutritionists — not just me — are concerned that a strict raw food diet isn't healthy. It can be difficult to get enough protein, and some nutrients actually are better absorbed by the body when food is cooked.

Raw food is exactly what it sounds like — raw vegetables, raw grains, and, for some people, even raw meats and fish. The "movement" was considered a radical form of vegetarianism when it sprung up in the mid-'90s. But suddenly it's showing up in the mainstream, at gourmet restaurants and upscale food festivals, even on airline menus like Lufthansa. Chicago celebrity chef Charlie Trotter, a recent convert to the craze, predicted in a seminar at last week's Food & Wine Magazine Classic food festival in Aspen that "within five to 10 years, every serious chef in the country will have raw preparations in their repertoire."

Oh, please, I hope not, at least not in the style found at Rawsome, opened earlier this year with a dedication to serve food containing "the greatest concentration of life force." I adore fresh vegetables, grains and nuts, but these recipes are creepy, with damp, sticky dishes like uncooked garden burgers, dehydrated seed "pizza" crust and mock sour cream fashioned from pine nuts, water, lemon juice and olive oil. Forget flavor; it's a menu with a mantra, purporting to offer a life "as the Creator intended." Yet if this is living well, I don't want to live.

So why would people want to eat this compost, when perfectly wonderful vegetarian, and even dutifully vegan, recipes are so plentiful? Because believers feel that cooking has detrimental effects on food; heat destroys key nutrients and enzymes. At Rawsome, we're eating "sunfoods," ingredients that get their nourishment, vitality and fulfillment from the sun. By consuming things in their raw state, the thought is, we lucky diners absorb the sun's energy.

Which makes me wonder why the guy at the table next to me is sitting slump-shouldered, almost passed out over his stuffed red cabbage with sunflower pâté and Green an' Clean Vitamineral Super Juice. The most energy I feel here, actually, comes from the periodic live performances of local musicians.

The raw movement isn't for everyone — estimates are that only one million Americans are raw foodies of any consistency. Absolutely it's not for me, though I feel kind of guilty for admitting this after discovering that Rawsome owner Charles Thomas Mort is a really nice guy. Perhaps this is why his cafe management offers a support group for people wanting to sample its lifestyle.

I, meanwhile, have no support system at all. I'm all alone on my Rawsome adventures, in fact, because no one would agree to come after I shared the menu. I'd convinced Darren, a diehard vegetarian friend, to experiment, but he suffered some sudden personal crisis, quit his job overnight and fled the city. So much for spiritual peace through sunflower seeds.

Monday is sunfood day at Rawsome, when, if we don't know any better, we can indulge in "rawjitas," a perverse take on "meat" paste utilizing pecans, flax seeds, tomatoes, celery, onion, lemon juice and cayenne blended to baby-food mash and slathered on dehydrated flax seed crackers under mock sour cream.

One skeletal customer insists I try the desert garden burger, a specialty offered on Firstfood Thursday ("firstfood" is another inside term, referring to what our ancestors ate before fire was invented). But if this dish is benefiting my health, it's doing nothing for my happiness. The texture of the gray-brown heap is Alpo-ish (my dog, Santiago, in fact, is nuts about the leftovers), a disturbingly clammy pulp of sunflower seeds, zucchini, tomato, celery, flax seed, garlic, onion, red pepper and poultry seasoning. After blending, the muck is dehydrated for up to eight hours, then slapped on a plate. There's no bun, just a bed of lettuce, slabs of avocado, sprouts and such.

I don't doubt that with really, really careful treatment, some raw food might be pleasing. At the Aspen seminar, chef Trotter made a successful coconut pad Thai, using julienned coconut meat instead of cooked noodles. And California hot-chef-of-the-moment Roxanne Klein is making headlines with her new Roxanne's, the nation's first fine-dining raw food restaurant (what a scam, $50 a meal by a chef who refuses to cook). Her "lasagna" sounds promising: paper-thin slices of zucchini layered with mushrooms, garlic, herbs, marinated spinach, fresh corn kernels and cashew-based herbed cheese under a sauce of fresh and sun-dried tomatoes, herbs and more than 30 spices. It's still raw, but at least the plate is warmed to encourage some flavor to emerge.

Rawsome's less-complicated, casual cafe recipes, however, result in bland. "Spaghetti" is merely wet julienne radish, "fettuccine" is zucchini curls, and "angel hair" is wisps of yam. And it's hard to get excited about red "Alfredo" and pesto sauces that have the consistency of thick, soggy hummus. Under the dim light, against the dingy decor and the whispery shimmers of New Age music, it's impossible to pretend I'm eating anything but uncooked hippie chow.

Still, I'm back on Live Food Friday, because how could I be a proper raw worshiper without trying "live" pizza? "Live" is another one of those lingo terms, meaning ingredients still attached to the mother plant. Rawsome concedes it's not serving produce that's technically alive, since it's been trimmed, but insists it's fresh enough (and organic enough) to be considered close enough.

I'd rather snack on a Chia Pet. The pizza is a brutal assignment, starting with an envelope-thin cracker crust of bitter sunflower and pumpkin seeds, carrots, red pepper, onion, celery and garlic. I've ordered the "rawgotta" topping, a lumpy, slippery spread of soaked Brazil nuts, pine nuts, garlic, miso and spices. A drizzle of passable puréed tomato and Kalamata olive rounds out the creation, capped with chopped broccoli, zucchini and red pepper. I cart the leftovers home, but neither Santiago, my horse Harry, nor two goats will touch the stuff.

Charlie Trotter is smitten by the cleansing properties of raw foods. He considers it a "very exciting way to eat," resulting in "more elastic skin... and feeling lighter."

Exciting? It's almost as much of a thrill as sitting around watching wheat sprout. Elastic skin — maybe. I haven't grimaced this much in a long time.

Lighter? No question there. After just one week of existing on this cruel diet, I feel just as frail as my fellow raw foodies at Rawsome look.


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