There it is on my plate -- a piece of pizza unlike any I've ever seen. The crust is buckwheat groats, soaked for days, then mashed and laid out to dry in the sun. The sauce is guacamole, pungent with raw garlic and raw chile peppers. On top are sprinkled sun-dried tomatoes, chewy bits of mushroom, bitter leafy greens, and . . . could that be mint and borage flowers?
I'm not here to review the restaurant, Organica. I just want to taste the food and see what goes into preparing raw-gourmet cuisine.
For starters, I can see that most American diners would not recognize this heap of salad bits as even a loose analog of their beloved pepperoni and cheese pie. But this is what they call pizza at Organica, a San Francisco restaurant that's on the cutting edge of the raw and living-foods movement.
Literally cutting edge.
The only tools in Organica's kitchen involve blades -- knives, scissors, food processors, blenders, juicers, slicers. There is no oven or stovetop -- principles of raw food prohibit heating food over about 112 degrees, lest the enzymes in the menu item die and become "toxic" -- so the kitchen is curiously spacious and airy. Even the door is left open to the cool San Francisco breeze, as if to minimize the vegetable's shock in the move from refrigerator to plate.
The ingredients are easy, but the labor isn't, not for the high-concept creations that chef Juliano turns out and teaches through classes and his book Raw: The Uncooked Book (HarperCollins, $32). Those may just be cabbage leaves in his Thai "pasta," but somebody had to shred them. Three chefs work at the back at Organica on a Sunday afternoon, and the food still takes 30 minutes to arrive.
Of course, most raw foodists don't eat like this every day. David Klein, a raw-food trainer in Sebastopol, Calif., shares an outline of the food in a typical raw-food day: a few oranges and grapefruit juice for breakfast, a bunch of bananas and a cluster of cukes through late morning and lunchtime, a whole honeydew melon in the afternoon, more bananas and cucumbers and a head of lettuce for dinner.
Not surprisingly, Klein finds most restaurant productions of raw food to be over the top. "It's interesting, it's a great way to get people into it, but we're supposed to be getting back to nature here," he says. "Our physiology just doesn't call for all kinds of complex, fancy prepared foods."
However you slice the raw-food way, it's far more than the five servings of fruits and vegetables recommended by the USDA food pyramid, which the raw foodists have stood on its head and flattened. Some eat mostly fruits (fruitarians), or mostly juice (juicearians), or mostly sprouts (sproutarians). Raw foodists believe that their diets provide ample nutrition and calories for life, and inasmuch as some members of this tiny subculture -- about 1,000 people subscribe to Klein's Living Nutrition magazine -- have been eating raw for decades, nutritional adequacy doesn't seem to be a problem.
Those who turn to raw food generally do it for their health; the online and print raw-food forums are awash in dramatic stories of recovery -- from cancer, ulcers, heart disease.
I don't know about the specifics of these claims -- it wouldn't be the first time that conventional dietary recommendations have been proven wrong. And I'm intrigued by the sweeping philosophy expressed in the final paragraph of a recent cover article of Living Nutrition: "The all-raw and living path, as it sweeps away the cobwebs of the past, facilitates our journey of discovery, of living in the immeasurable, dynamic, unknowable Life energy that is our true and blissful Be-ing."
Hey, no problem. I can dig the buzz from a really ripe peach or an exceptionally snappy snow pea. But I'm having a hard time finding the immeasurable, dynamic Life energy in the ersatz pizza sitting in front of me. Its crust is earthy and plain and the guacamole burns my mouth, while the tomatoes and mushrooms have been soaking too long in the seaweed water, so all I get is salt. I don't want to hurt the feelings of the earnestly enthusiastic waitstaff, so I ask for a carton to go.
Then I toss it out on my way to a Russian deli across town, where creamy napoleon pastries and a well-cured kol'basa await.
Toxic 'n' tasty -- oh, yeah!
Marina Wolf is a food and feature writer whose articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines around the country. Her work can be found at www.wide-eyed-gourmet.com.