Haylee Otto, Eve Hill-Agnus and Phebe Phillips
enjoy a raw picnic at the Dallas arboretum.
Photography by Melinda Ortley
Raw-foodies Haylee Otto and Phebe Phillips know the stereotypes about a raw vegan diet. “People think it’s iceberg lettuce and carrot sticks,” Haylee says. She remembers her own thoughts about juicing: “This is salad in a glass. Why do you guys drink this? But then you start craving it.”
We’re in a coffee shop off Midway so I can learn from these raw food experts. Haylee has brought a glass jar of juice with her. I peer at the mixture of mint, dill, cilantro, kale—topped off with coconut water. A tender, fey green, it smells fresh and delicious. The two will be my guides as I embark on a weeklong raw-food adventure. Haylee teaches raw-food workshops and flies regularly to London to work as prep assistant to a raw chef. Phebe writes a blog and will work at a live-food retreat center this summer in Arizona.
Hearing Haylee’s journey to raw food is reassuring. Trained as a chef, she broached it by accident when a position opened to manage and teach raw classes at a vegan restaurant. Her diet was far from what she would be instructing: “It was chicken nuggets and energy drinks.” The diet of an 80-hour-week chef. But teaching piqued her curiosity and inspired a resolution: “I set my mind to it.” Going 100% raw for 30 days. It would mean eating essentially fresh produce, nuts, seeds and raw whole grains.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it. I was drinking a pot of coffee a day. I was carrying gummy bears around in my pocket. I was addicted to sugar.” But, she discovered, “I didn’t need any of that. I just dropped it.” She found she had so much energy she longed to run after work.
If she could do it for 30 days, surely I could do it for seven. Haylee and Phebe would be my coaches and cheerleaders.
Raw-food camp took place on a Sunday afternoon in Phebe’s apartment. As we talked, we munched on “tortilla chips” she’d made from sunflower and fl ax seeds and yellow bell pepper, set to dry in her dehydrator and cut into beautiful diamonds. That was advanced stuff. What I needed to learn were day-to-day techniques.
With a simplicity that seemed miraculous, we made almond milk by whirling and straining almonds she’d set to soak that morning. With a few drops of lemon juice and vanilla, it was heaven. Then came juicing. My eyes went wide as we threw in whole, unpeeled lemons, red cabbage, knobs of ginger. Phebe showed me how to massage raw kale until it stopped fighting us and became a tender salad. She described how to sprout broccoli seeds and buckwheat. Thus armed, I went home, and the week began.
My fridge turned into a leafy jungle. My oven stood neglected. In the morning, I blended strawberry-mint smoothies. At night, I rolled up my sleeves and chopped. I toted heaps of vegetables to work. I did feel I was eating pounds of nuts to get enough protein. And I worried things would get monotonous. But all the while I was making discoveries. Who knew raw chia seeds expand when soaked overnight in almond milk, turning into a silky, luxurious porridge? Or that raw sweet potato would whip up into a velvety soup I made three times because I couldn’t get enough?
Raw soups, the workhorse of the weekday raw vegan, require a leap of faith; but once past the initial disbelief, you become fearless. Huge fistfuls of raw asparagus? Into the blender. Every night I rediscovered a vegetable with startling freshness. I’d never felt so close to a garden—or so convinced that things inherently tasting of themselves is a very good thing.
I graduated to harder recipes. The night I made lasagna from layers of thinly mandolined zucchini, fresh pesto, a marinara of fresh and sundried tomatoes and a ricotta of pureed almonds, I wanted to clap. This was definitely not carrot sticks. I applied neither flame nor steam; nothing was seared or smoked or plunged into boiling water. Yet with every recipe, the transformation of ingredients startled me. I felt a distinct pleasure: it was, ironically, the pleasure of the cook. And my taste buds were loving it.
Despite the cliché that raw-foodies spend fortunes on esoteric sounding things like goji berries, it was very affordable. Buying in season helps and it’s a chance to eat fresh and local, as local farmers often have the best produce, picked ripe. You’re also not paying for filler.
The week ended and I kept going. I wouldn’t quit. And not because I’m competitive. I was seeing food differently.
Neither Phebe nor Haylee endorse rigidity: 100% raw is tough. For them, 80% is optimal; but as long as you’re over 50%, great. For those in transition, fill up on raw food; if you still crave something— go for it. Chances are you won’t.
Nor do you have to be a loner, theoretically. Phebe’s motto: “You’ve gotta be social and you’ve gotta be portable.” I’d been raw for 10 days when a potluck tested the theory.
I brought a raw dessert—carrot-date “truffles”—and held my breath. People sampled; their eyes widened; they reached for more. But the final endorsement came as we packed up. “Can I have the recipe?” someone asked. The recipe. I had to smile.
EVE HILL-AGNUS teaches English and journalism and is a freelance writer based in Dallas. She earned degrees in English and Education from Stanford University. Her work has appeared in the Dallas Morning News, D Magazine, and the journal Food, Culture & Society. She remains a contributing Food & Wine columnist for the Los Altos Town Crier, the Bay-Area newspaper where she stumbled into journalism by writing food articles during grad school. Her French-American background and childhood spent in France fuel her enduring love for French food and its history. She is also obsessed with goats and cheese.