What’s Not Cooking: Inside New York’s Raw Food Subculture

on Wednesday, Jan. 19th

Gil Jacobs sat perched on a stool before a crowd of rapt observers, his back bowed and his hands on his knees. He looked small in both height and girth, which makes a certain sense considering that he subsists primarily on fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and colon hydrotherapy, an intestinal cleansing technique.

Jacobs, who many in the raw food community consider to be among the world’s finest colon hydrotherapists, was in the kitchen of his clinic in Manhattan’s East Village. The crowd of 30-odd people that surrounded him was a cross section of New York’s raw scene:  there were employees of several raw restaurants, yoga teachers, holistic healers, and a range of Jacob’s clients. The crowd was mostly women. When Jacobs spoke, his voice was nasally with a slight rasp, and his accent was thick Staten Island.

The human body, at the beginning of time, was basically equipped to just live on the light,” he said. “The light, the air, the water, and our own electrical energy connecting to the light.” Jacobs paused and reached behind him to a bottle of vegetable juice on the counter. He took a deep swig. “Ahhhh, fantastic!” he said. The crowd laughed, and he continued. “At some point in time, for some reason, people started putting things into the body. Once certain matter started being put into the body, the system started to get clogged. Now you have big hockey pucks in the middle of the passageways.”

The imagery was pure Gil Jacobs, an odd hybrid of alternative healer and Staten Island sports fan whose formal health training consists of a master’s degree in literature. Although he is not a religious man, Jacobs’ story related nothing less than his own vision of the fall from grace. For Jacobs, it seems, the fact that Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit was problematic not because the fruit was forbidden, but because it was food, and thus had the potential to clog them up.

My first exposure to the world of raw came in the summer of 2008, when I worked in the juice bar at a chic raw food restaurant near Manhattan’s Union Square. Juicing, which in terms of pure mechanics bears a remarkable resemblance to operating a wood chipper, involved shoving all manner of fruits and vegetables into a centrifugal machine that would extract their fiber and deliver a cocktail of pure liquid nutrients. My real education, though, came from interacting with the customers. Many seemed eager to tell me how long they had been raw, and to describe in detail the cooking-related pitfalls that had hindered their journeys. Yet for every setback, there was also a story of triumph: customers claimed to have lost weight, gotten rid of acne, improved their moods, and achieved a suite of other diet-related breakthroughs. After three months of hearing these stories I had to wonder: should we all be eating raw? And if we did, what would life be like?

In New York, the term “raw foodist” is a messy umbrella that defies generalization. There is broad agreement on a few basic concepts: enzymes in food are important for digestion, and cooking food above about 118 degrees kills many of those enzymes. The acidity of the human body is also important, and modern diets often make us overly acidic. Beyond that, the uniformity ends. The community features wealthy twenty-somethings who drop $14 a day on a shake made from gogi berries and coconut water, but there are also those who eschew such exotic foods in favor of simple salads. Some raw foodists swear by an epic cocktail of supplements, from hemp protein to spirulina, while others claim that the key to health is clearing out internal gunk with a weekly colonic. There is even disagreement over whether to eat bananas. What unites the group, though, is a desire to transcend. The most basic manifestation of this is physical: raw foodists believe they are dodging everything from food comas to colon cancer though their diet. But many also claim that raw food has helped to stabilize their fickle and fluctuating emotions, and there are hints of something even deeper in the juice bar conversations, the raw-themed Internet chat-rooms, and the countless pages of raw food literature. Many in the community seem drawn by the impossible possibility of transcending that ultimate human limitation: mortality itself.

If you had to pick a single word to describe how they plan to do this, it would be ‘ENZYMES,’ quite possibly the most hallowed term in the raw food community outside of “raw” itself. Enzymes, which enable human digestion, are secreted by the pancreas and transported to a tube called the duodenum that connects the stomach and small intestine, where most digestion takes place. But enzymes are also present in foods, with raw fruits and vegetables boasting particularly high concentrations. Cooking food, raw foodists believe, destroys many of its enzymes, thus snuffing their ability to do some of our digestive work for us. “The enzymes in live food help with digestion, and therefore minimize the use of our own enzymes and preserve the enzyme pool,” writes Dr. Gabriel Cousens, in his recipe book Rainbow Green Live Food Cuisine. “Aging happens when enzymes decrease in concentration in the body.” For raw foodists, the implications of this are huge: if we can simply ingest more uncooked enzymes, we can slow–and potentially reverse–the cause of aging.

To say that mainstream nutritionists regard such claims as controversial would be inaccurate: many simply regard them as false. Dr. Rosalind Coleman, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, noted that the acidic environment of the stomach makes it impossible for enzymes to survive further into the gut, where most digestion occurs. “Enzymes are proteins, which are totally broken down into their constituent amino acids before they reach the gut,” she said. “The stomach is extremely acidic, and proteins lose their structure in that environment.” The idea that cooking food destroys enzymes is less controversial among nutritionists, but it is also less frightening.  Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor and author of the recent book “What to Eat” noted that while cooking does kill some nutrients present in food, “it makes others more available. I don’t think there’s much evidence that cooking foods makes them less healthy. I think this is a basic misunderstanding of human physiology,” she said.

Cooked food, though, is hardly off the hook: many studies have shown that cooked dishes contain carcinogenic compounds that are absent in their raw counterparts. And even if some science behind the diet is suspect, it doesn’t change the fact that many people are eating raw and thriving. The basis for this could be entirely scientific: even nutritionists like Coleman and Nestle have testified for generations about the merits of a diet high in fruits and vegetables. It could also be part placebo: recent research on patients with Parkinson’s disease, published in the journal Neuroscience, found that those given placebo pain relievers often exhibited the same changes in brain chemistry as those who got actual drugs. Could the mere expectation of relief be enough to trigger relief itself? And could this apply to eating? If so, then many raw foodists are relieved indeed. “It’s freedom from so much fear, of sickness, diseases, viruses, cancer,” said Julie Brown, a Brooklyn-based colon hydrotherapist, of eating raw. “I’m not afraid of the degenerative diseases that people get as they get older any more. I’m going to me as healthy at 50 as most people are at 30!”

Jenna Reeder, a psychology student at New York University who works for both Jacobs and Pure Food and Wine, told me that a raw diet had improved her emotional state in ways that pharmaceuticals could not. “I went raw for mood reasons, basically,” she said. “I had been on all sorts of medications, and going raw made a drastic change in my life.” Not that the diet made her happy all the time, she told me, but did make her happy some of the time, and put her in a frame of mind to address the problems it didn’t solve. “When you’re really depressed, a good diet allows you to get into a space where you can deal with your issues,” she said. “If you’re depressed because of life events but you’re also putting shit into your body, then you’re fighting two battles.”

So should we all be eating raw? The bliss that some derive from the diet suggests that we ought to at least consider it. On the other hand, if you take as much pleasure in pork tacos, beer, and chocolate chip cookies as I do, then the answer is probably not. Whatever one’s views on raw food, though, the diet certainly points to a line that we all must walk: that between trying to live forever and forgetting to live at all.

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