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September 3rd, 2003 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

RAW POWER

How Portland became home base for the world's most radical food movement.

     
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RAW REBELS: Victoria Jayne (top) and Linda Checkal-Fromm both grew up on farms. Now they're trying to change how everyone on Earth thinks about food.
IMAGE: stephen voss
Victoria Jayne has sparkling, clear-blue-sky eyes, and a mission in life just as intense.

She says she knows how people can live longer.

And cure acne. And depression.

Plus build almost impregnable immune systems.

Prevent cancer.

Conquer diabetes.

Find true spirituality.

Attain ideal body weight.

Achieve more.

Become more peaceful.

And, not incidentally, save the earth.

The North Portland real-estate agent says she's part of a revolution that could remake society and ecology, to say nothing of the restaurant business. And that Portland is about to become the global hub of this great lifestyle shift.

"The movement in Portland has exploded," she says.

In fact, at the end of August this movement lured hundreds of people to a remote campground south of Portland. Doctors came; gurus came. So did New Agers, born-again Christians and Rastafarians; unreconstructed hippies and prim professionals; Americans, Russians, Germans, French, English, Filipinos and Japanese.

What was it all about? How do they plan to make the leap to better lives and a better world?

The answer, Jayne says, is "profoundly simple."

Stop cooking.

Camp Tadmore, a sprawling 200-acre retreat carved out of mossy Linn County forest near Sweet Home, looked like a summer-camp fantasy on Aug. 23. Balmy breezes rustled the Douglas firs. Kids splashed in a perfectly oval man-made pond. People walked around eating heirloom tomatoes out of their hands, like apples.

Welcome to the center of Planet Raw. Spend a little time here, and run-of-the-mill vegetarianism starts to look pretty wussy.

An evangelical Christian ministry owns Tadmore, but for four late-summer days and nights, you couldn't tell. The International Festival of Raw and Living Foods, the world's largest gathering of self-proclaimed raw foodists with an estimated 800 attendees, transformed the place into a United Nations of alternative belief and unorthodox healing. In a small village of tents and awnings, you could find Brother Nazariah, white-bearded and white-robed founder of the Essene Church of Christ. The Essenes believe the Bible suppresses lost Gospel teachings on vegetarianism, reincarnation and the feminine aspect of God. It also holds that its current leaders are reincarnations of people who worked with Jesus 2,000 years ago.

Besides Nazariah, organizers say the festival attracted Seventh-Day Adventists, Muslims, Hindus and born-agains from Hallelujah Acres, a North Carolina center espousing the "Biblical natural health diet." Those seeking more earthly assistance also had plenty to choose from.

Vendors sold organic olive oil, deep intestinal cleanses, manuals describing new breathing techniques. For $3, you could buy a plastic card spelling out the dictates of a raw-foods diet--nothing heated over 118 degrees Fahrenheit, please--for the benefit of restaurant waiters. A Mr. Wizardish man named John Lysohir, WW's cover boy this week, hawked $99 machines for growing wheat grass indoors.

In a buzzing food court, hungry crowds swirled around tables bearing raw pizza and raw fruit pie, galaxies of juice, sushi-like wraps stuffed with nut pté served in bowls made of banyan leaves. A cart sold raw "cheesecake" made from ground cashews, along with hunks of durian, a spiny Southeast Asian delicacy and perhaps the world's nastiest-smelling fruit.

In one lecture hall, dozens of people crowded around Fred Bisci, a 70-something Staten Island nutritionist with wavy white hair and a New York accent you could use to cut glass. Bisci has said he expects raw-foods diets to rewrite the rules of human longevity; he himself is thin as a whip. Bisci explained some complicated body chemistry involving flatulence, alkalines and lumbar pain.

In another hall, Victoria Boutenko--once a Russian schoolteacher, now an Ashland raw-foods acolyte--told how switching to an all-raw diet 10 years ago cured her family's menagerie of ailments. Arthritis, depression, obesity, dental pain, asthma--gone.

She also explained her theory on carbohydrates. Boutenko believes heat turns carbos into sucrose, meaning a plate of strozzapreti with pancetta is as evil as a mouthful of Pop Rocks and a Big Gulp. (Mainstream diet researchers disagree.) Boutenko says this makes just about everyone in the world a sugar junkie.

"The Italians eat pasta, the Russians eat bread, the Mexicans eat tortillas, the Chinese eat rice," Boutenko said from the lecture-hall stage. "Everyone, addicted to these cooked carbohydrates. You think you are eating a nice organic potato? You are eating white sugar." Boutenko's book, modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous and titled 12 Steps to Raw Foods, aims to break the spell.

Elsewhere on the festival grounds, you might have run across Viktoras Kulvinskas, a gaunt, ponytailed and bushy-browed Lithuanian Pisces who helped kick-start the modern raw-foods movement with his book Survival into the 21st Century. Or, maybe, you'd find the Giftman.

At midafternoon, the Giftman--a.k.a. Vittorio--sat shirtless, sun-bronzed to the color of rawhide, on the tailgate of his battered pickup. He handed out figs and melons, so ultra-ripe they demanded to be eaten right now lest they liquefy in the sun, to a little group of hippie kids. They butchered a melon with a long, scythe-like blade.

"Our whole system is based around the selling of unripe fruit," Vittorio declared. "Even most of these raw-fooders don't know what ripe fruit tastes like."

All these people came to Tadmore for different reasons, all born from the same epiphany: Cooked food is bad for you. In some cases, this belief has inspired people to change their kitchen appliances; others have changed their friends.

If this sounds nuts to you, you're not alone.

But if it intrigues you, you should meet Victoria Jayne.

A slight, 5-foot-tall woman with an elfin face walked through Camp Tadmore last weekend dressed in pristine white, armed with a walkie-talkie and a bulletproof air of authority. Victoria Jayne is 57 years old and as sweet as could be, but she's nobody's pushover. She's the president of the International Raw & Living Foods Association. Along with a handful of mostly Portland-based volunteer organizers, she's responsible for the world's biggest raw-foods gathering.

"There are other festivals and retreats," Jayne says. "But no one has hit the numbers we have. Around the world, when people say 'Are you going to Portland?,' everyone knows what that means."

In addition to selling real estate and fomenting global dietary rebellion, Jayne has about six other callings. She's an Essene minister, reiki therapist, licensed social worker, counselor, et cetera. Somehow--fueled by blueberry breakfasts, lunches flavored with uncooked tahini sauce and cherries for the afternoon munchies--she finds time to try changing the world. Her goal, shared by other Portland organizers of the International Festival, is to make the Rose City the hub of the raw-foods movement, which is currently as trendy as an iPod in certain circles.

When the nascent festival found itself in debt a few years back, Jayne says she hit the phones to negotiate payment plans and lower balances. This year, when tables for vendors went inexplicably missing, or the health department needed a last-minute phone call, Jayne was on the hook. The job takes missionary zeal. Jayne's is that of a woman who once found herself an army of one.

"In Portland 15 years ago, I was alone," she says. "I'm sure people were eating raw, but no one had come out of the woodwork. You didn't see fliers or posters, not even in health-food stores."

What she lacked in validation, Jayne made up in determination.

"I discovered that if you eat less processed food--if you eat right from the tree, as it were--you do your body a superior service," she says. "You nourish yourself properly."

About five years ago, she met Linda Checkal-Fromm, who hosts weekly raw-foods potlucks in her communal home on the Beaverton-Tigard line. With a few like-minded Portlanders, they founded the International Association. As the name indicates, they were thinking big--way beyond the 200 or 300 people Checkal-Fromm estimates eat raw locally.

"Our whole planet is in the midst of dramatic changes of consciousness," Checkal-Fromm says. "I'm a systems-buster. When you're talking about educating people about raw foods, that's a huge system."

Depending on whom you ask, raw foodism dates back 200 years, to the earliest Euro health spas, or to the '60s Aquarian awakening. (Some would argue, to the dawn of Man.) It boasts as much fractious diversity as any subculture. Some raw foodists only eat half their food uncooked, while others haven't touched a heated scrap in decades. Some drink coffee and wine; others would just as soon guzzle hemlock tea. There are raw-vegans, vegetarians, fruitarians, wheat-grass lovers, garlic-hating "natural hygienists," sproutarians--some even eat raw meat.

What the movement has never had, according to Jayne and Checkal-Fromm, is a unifying force. They set out to change that with the first International Festival in 2000. Four festivals later, they seem well on their way.

"Portland is at the hub of a lot of activity," says Karen Knowler, a butcher's daughter who runs the United Kingdom's biggest raw-foods network. "This festival is the main one as far as we're concerned, the one that really emphasizes the international diversity of the movement."

The 2000 festival drew a few hundred people. Now, most of raw foodism's big guns--people like Kulvinskas, Bisci, raw-lifestyle lecturer David Wolfe and master chef Cherie Soria--make the trek to Portland every summer.

"We've been out on a limb each year," Jayne says. "And each year we've come through. It's like a baby growing up."

For whatever reason--something in the Bull Run Reservoir?--Portland is prime habitat for left-of-center eating habits. The city is home to America's oldest and second-largest (after Berkeley) chapter of the Slow Food movement, an artisanal-cheese-worshipping creed that may be raw foodism's polar opposite. Journalist Eric Schlosser's 2001 Big Mac-attack Fast Food Nation continues to fly off Powell's shelves; the store has sold 5,000 copies of the paperback alone. There's a solid chance that you, Joe or Jane Portlander, are a vegetarian, a vegan, or...something.

Ironically, this receptive climate almost makes it easy to dismiss raw foodism as just another woo-woo Left Coast lifestyle--what will they think of next? And only time will tell. Look closer, though, and it becomes evident that this is more than just someone's idea of a wonder diet.

It could be the most radical critique of how most people eat, ever.

With Krispy Kreme outlets sparking traffic jams and obesity swelling to a $117-billion-a-year industry, few would dispute that something is grotesquely wrong with the American diet. And everyone knows that fruits and vegetables are good for you. Raw foodists go further. Much further.

Try looking at the world like this: Six billion people suffer in the grip of the most potent addiction mankind has ever faced.

The most organic-obsessed New Seasons shopper is scarcely better off than the fat kid who eats at Popeye's five times a week.

Julia Child, Ronald McDonald, Mario Batali, the nation of France, Aunt Jemima, your mom, rice-boiling Chinese peasants, Col. Sanders, Bluehour--all equally misguided.

They're cooking food. By cooking it, they kill the food's essential enzymes. Eating enzyme-deficient food ultimately ruins people's health. It also provokes overeating. And because modern agriculture wreaks vast ecological devastation, cooking is killing the planet, too.

Good news, though: Salvation is at hand. Stop breakfasting on fried eggs; fuel up on kale juice and a handful of nuts instead. Trade your gas range for a Vita-Mix Super 5000 power-blender and a nine-tray Excalibur dehydrator. Learn to love lukewarm soup. Go raw.

Enzymes are the key--raw foods' Rosetta Stone. You are alive because of enzymes. Complex and varied (most are proteins), they play crucial roles in just about every biological process.

Most raw foodists believe that if you heat a piece of food above 118 degrees Fahrenheit, its enzymes are destroyed, meaning the body must use its own enzymes to break it down. This saps the body's energy and leads to any number of long-term health problems. Cancer, say.

It's a through-the-looking-glass notion. Accept it, and suddenly the world stands on its head and yet, at the same time, starts making perfect sense. Which may help explain why raw food is (if you will) hot.

In the past few years, flashy all-raw restaurants have seized gourmet attention from San Francisco to New York City. The Sex and the City girls recently ate out raw. The New York Times, Time and Newsweek have all stopped by to see what's up. Celeb endorsements have come from Demi Moore and--who could have seen this coming?--Woody Harrelson. Slowly but surely, Middle America is hearing raw foods' call.

The only problem is that a lot of scientists think the whole thing is hogwash.

"This is a form of food puritanism," says Dr. Steven Bratman, a Colorado diet specialist. "The principles behind it have no rational basis whatsoever."

Bratman used to be a raw foodist himself, in his previous lifetime as an organic farmer. But now, thanks to his 1997 book Health Food Junkies, he's been anointed (slightly to his annoyance, one senses) one of the movement's biggest critics. In his book, he coined the term orthorexia nervosa as an obsession with healthy eating. He says raw foodists run a risk of fixation.

"People have been saying this stuff about enzymes since the 1860s," he says. "As science, it's completely outdated. All enzymes are destroyed the second they hit the acid in your stomach, so whether they're good or bad for you--who cares? Maybe the color of food is good for you when you look at it. It's just made-up."

Even some naturally sympathetic to alternative medical theory or healthy eating say the raw-foodist conception of enzymes has little scientific backing.

"I don't buy it," says Dr. Dick Thom of Portland's National College of Naturopathic Medicine. "The body produces enough enzymes to digest food."

"There's just no science on it," says Dr. Sonja Connor, the Oregon Health & Science University researcher who, with her husband, William, wrote The New American Diet System. "People don't base everything they do on science, of course." She adds that she knows of no science indicating that raw foodism is bad for you, as long as you get enough nutrients and don't eat anything contaminated.

Some raw foodists acknowledge that science has yet to offer its stamp of approval. Not that it's stopping them--and not that they give Western medicine a ton of credit, anyway. Besides, some say their research shows that raw enzymes really do affect the body.

"People tell you that you don't need enzymes," says Bisci. "I mean, it's a big debate. But I have no doubt whatsoever, because I've seen 'em work. So I don't pay too much attention to what people say back and forth."

"Scientists hit me with this 'I want proof' stuff," says Ruza Bogdanovitch, Yugoslavia-born author of The Cure Is in the Cause and a festival speaker. "Let me tell you, honey: How can you prove what nature has created? They used to think the earth was flat. Then science says the earth is round. Does that mean that before science said so, the earth was really flat?

"This is not a cult. This is the truth. This is the only way we're going to survive on the earth."

If you're looking for common ground between raw-foods partisans and naysayers, you might as well do some volunteer freelance work on the Palestinian problem. In the end, it probably doesn't matter. The health claims of raw-foods proponents range from impressive to fantastic, but they are not the whole story. Something far more potent than a health quest unites the movement's wildly different people. Call it conviction--a near-mystical sense they are close to the Answer, and can come a little closer by hanging out in Oregon, eating the Giftman's figs.

Science may not agree. Unless you're an atheist, though, you, too, may hold some views labs cannot corroborate. Whatever you may think of the movement, it seems certain you'll hear more from Planet Raw soon. At least, you will if Victoria Jayne has anything to do with it.

"The people at this event are 10 years in front of mainstream America," Jayne says. "Some people come into the movement because of health problems. I didn't. I've always been interested in taking care of my body. I found that as I explored this way of eating, it lit up my spiritual path. It evolves into a whole way of living."


A full schedule, description and contact information for the 2003 International Festival of Raw and Living Foods can be found at www.rawfoods.com/festival .

Among the 2001 festival's presenters was former congressional candidate and current fugitive Tre Arrow.

Raw foodists eat a wide variety of different diets. A purist would give up coffee because the beans are roasted (and because of caffeine's scourge), but might drink tea prepared at a low temperature.

Wine is considered a raw food. Beer is not.

The cashew "cheesecake" was terrible: chalky, flavorless, a little like chewing drywall. The nut pté wrap, on the other hand, was pretty good.

For more on Nazariah and the Essenes, see www.essene.org .

For more on nutritionist Fred Bisci, see www.rawlife.com/drfred.html .

Victoria Boutenko's website is www.rawfamily.com .

According to Linda Checkal-Fromm, the International Raw and Living Foods Association has a paid-up membership of more than 300. Dues are $20 a year.

Checkal-Fromm estimates that her weekly potlucks generally attract between a dozen and 30 diners.

Arguably the most famous raw-foods restaurant in the country is Roxanne's, in San Francisco's Marin County suburbs.

Roxanne's offers a 10-course tasting menu for $100. A meal at Roxanne's might begin with "Pad Thai of coconut noodles, cilantro, Thai basil, almond chile and sweet tamarind sauces." See www.roxraw.com for more menu information.

Quintessence, a three-location New York City raw chain, serves yellow squash shredded to look like spaghetti with pesto sauce for $12.

A 2002 New York Times Magazine piece on the raw-foods movement by Peggy Orenstein can be found at www.living-foods.com/news/totallyuncooked.html .

 
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