Culinary Hysteria: Anatomy of a food fad
The inspiration for Culinary Promiscuity came through a book tour presentation by Richard Wrangham, primatologist and author of “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human“. Wrangham theorizes that fire was the pivotal event for human evolution, catapulting our species from tree dwelling, leaf chewing primates to doctors, lawyers and casino magnates.
With more calories available through cooking, says Wrangham, our treed ancestors no longer needed to spend the entire day chewing to fuel their oversized bellies, could climb down from their branches, develop a brain in place of their enormous chewing apparatus, walk upright and begin hunter gathering. All that in turn permitted the development of a voice box followed language, society, tools, the wheel, the written word, the printing press, hors d’oeuvres and eventually Julia Child and Jacques Pepin teaching us how to make puff pastry and employ a Cuisinart the right way. Cooking made us human.
Once published Wrangham’s initially contested theory gained instant popularity among the food crowd. Endorsed by sustainable food guru Michael Pollan, the idea took hold in at least some of the food fixated community. Others, however, didn’t get the memo.
During Wrangham’s book tour presentation a member of the audience mentioned the burgeoning Raw movement, whose adherents eat nothing cooked, maintaining that food in its “natural state”, i.e. raw, was healthier to the point of possessing nearly magical powers. Wrangham gave it short shrift, stating that he had “heard of them” and that they were “always very thin, and very hungry,” suggesting the question : If you’ve come a long way baby, why ever would you want to go back?
The raw food movement, with little regard for Wrangham’s insights or for that matter, any empirical scientific data was gaining momentum and soon topped the foodie topic chart, it’s disciples eschewing their Wolf ranges and promoting the value of all things not only raw but vegan with a truly missionary ignorance.
The first time I heard about the Raw Movement was perhaps ten years earlier, when a restaurant asked me to find him a “special chef. As it happened, Nick Petti , a pretty special guy, dropped by that afternoon. “Have I got a job for you,” I probably said to Nick who undoubtedly raised one eyebrow under his signature jester cap, mumbled the likes of “We’ll see about that,” and took off to have a look. In a couple of hours he was back. I’m pretty sure he slammed his fist on my desk. “Don’t you ever…” he sputtered, then gave me a review of his interview. “He puts pizzas out to dry on the roof in the sun. Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? There are flies!”
I backed off the deal and dismissed the idea as one more visionary loony’s fantasy, but the idea was out of the barn and about to explode. It’s odd how easy it is for outrageous ideas to find followers. Sometime later the raw restaurateur’s book appeared, spawning an initial rush of highly vocal disciples, then suddenly “raw food” was the trend, gathering foodies as it rolled on like a cartoon snowball. Charlie Trotter adopted the philosophy, offering all raw prix fixe menues at this Chicago restaurant, and published a blockbuster book with beautiful pictures in collaboration with Roxanne Klein, who opened a raw cuisine, or “living food” as she put it, restaurant in Marin, claiming credentials from Stars, Square One and Chez Panisse – enough heavy ammunition to awaken the herding instincts of the food mad restaurant followers of the Bay Area. She apparently actually did work at Chez Panisse.
Chefs, on the other hand, scoffed: “The whole thing about being a chef, said one,” is cooking. “That’s what I have been working to learn for ten years, that’s what I went to culinary school for. You gotta have fire.” Wrangham’s point, entirely. The cooking community concurred: the reason you cook things was that a) it made food safer and b) food tastes better. Klein had asked me to find a “chef” for the restaurant, although she, herself, was generally accredited with the food. My searches led nowhere. “You don’t need a chef. That’s a pantry cook,” said potential candidate. The others noted things like, “Hey, man. I gotta do meat.”
The trio of arguments against raw food – safety, flavor and nutritional value – are convincing. The whole raw food philosophy rejects temperatures above 118F, keeping the procuts in the sweet spot for microbe growth for extended periods of time. (The Microbial danger zone is between 40F and 140F). The PH of the vegetable proteins used, for instance to make “dough” of sprouts, is perfect for dangerous critters. As for flavor, the combination of vegan dictates rejecting eggs, milk products and honey plus the processing limitations exclude hot baked biscuits. Eggs Benedict, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, oven baked asparagus, chevre and Waygu sliders. Why would otherwise seemingly intelligent people turn their back on Toast in favor of a Neolithic diet of nuts, soy and berries, skillfully combined in an expensive, high visibility restaurant? Why the lemming rush to the past?
Titillation certainly counts for some of the fad’s and the restaurant’s popularity. The food was reportedly tasty. The usual promotional tricks surely worked; Roxanne’s claimed connections to prestigious kitchens in her press releases, and that kind of provenance – fact based or not – brings in the public. The Klein’s social connections – they included some of the most glamorous figures in San Francisco and Marin, surely did no damage to the project.
One restaurant, however, does not a movement make, and a movement raw became. The press went wild. The SF Chronicle Food section all but pronounced Roxanne’s the second coming and writers around the country followed suit in the usual food press elephant walk, passing the new and outrageously edgy story about in the usual self-fulfilling prophecy mode. Other restaurants, gurus and books were created. Bloggers went bloggy. Raw web sites and “living food” communities were established.
The language was an extra plus. For the same reason “prunes” were re names “dried plums”, using the term “living food” suggests mythical powers, at least if your food is vegan. It would not work as well for omnivorous menus.
Once the herd was in motion, logic was doomed. At the height of the “living food” revolution, any protest against it became advertisement for it. In the food world, printers ink and pixels turn isolated incidents into widespread phenomena. Wealthy women began looking for private chefs who could juice.
Some of us scratched our heads.
The raw public’s unquestioning acceptance of the trend is further puzzling in light of the amount of raw food from orange juice and salad to sushi and carpaccio we were already consuming in our more or less balanced conventional diets. Nobody, at least in California, was deprived of raw food. Reason (and science) would suggest that they were getting enough fiber or vitamins already, but the diehard believers rejected all cooked foods. Why?
Like other food fads, the raw philosophy promotes the “natural” character of the foods, uncompromised by fire. We were intended, they reason, to eat raw and did so exclusively until about 10,000 years ago. (they’re off by only a little more than three million, but precision was never a prerequisite of nutritional fashion.) Raw Foods, proclaim the advocates, are healthy, insinuating that cooked foods are not. It addressed our obsession with unadulterated and real foods as opposed to the poisons we somehow feel we are subjected to. By some twist of logic, “raw” came to equal “pure”, while cooked foods took on the suggestion of toxicity. We Americans are all fools for healthy; our health grounded gullibility enjoys a fine history in this country beginning with travelling snake oil salesmen. It’s good for what ails ya’.
A claim was that cooked foods fostered allergies and food sensitivities, which various raw advocates stated were due to the destruction of natural elements in food. One chef I asked recently noted he had heard that eating foods raw kept the enzymes intact. It’s quite surprising, in fact, how many food professionals don’t discount the vital enzyme theory and it’s dual fallacy: they are not human enzymes but effective for chlorophyll producing organisms – not us – and second your own digestive enzymes destroy them.
As for the fuzzy concept that raw food is more nutritional, Wrangham and a number of nutritional scientists in the fact based side of the debate avow that cooking foods actually makes many vitamins and enzymes available.
The trend has settled as the foodists rush on to the next thing, be it cupcakes or food trucks. There are plenty to choose from. As trends will, raw food occasionally still stubbornly bubbles up in some food section article now and then, but they are fortunately no longer ubiquitous. It turned out that at least in San Francisco and Marin there were not enough raw devotees to support a large, expensive “live food” raw and vegan restaurant. Their money ran out. The principal investor, Michael Klein, withdrew his support. Perhaps those who tried the regime were disappointed when the wellness they expected from natural and uncompromised product did not materialize. My guess is that, as Wrangham said, they all just got “really, really hungry”, chucked it all in and went out for a pork chop with mashed potatoes.
The Kleins divorced it was rumored that Michael Klein was planning to invest in an Argentine steakhouse with George Morrone. For every action……..
So, how did something as silly as “live food” get so much press and how does misinformation linger on so long? A professor of mine once said that “People attach great importance to what ever comes into and exits their body.” He didn’t add that reason did not apply. When it comes to nutrition, health and food, we are frequently irrational. Give us enough semi scientific evidence and tell us that something is natural and healthy and not contaminated, regardless of the facts, and we’ll all our logical garments and follow the nearest buck naked emperor down any road he decides to lead us.