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Living on the Raw Edge

March 26, 1992|LAURA HENNING

A dozen people are gathered in an office building in central Los Angeles for a weekly cooking class. Tonight they will learn to make carrot soup and crisp crackers, followed by burgers. For dessert there are rich little balls that look exactly like fudge.

But this is not an ordinary cooking class. The carrot soup is cold. The crackers are made of a dried-sprout slurry flavored with a pinch of curry powder. The burgers consist of ground sunflower seeds, carrot pulp and chopped onions. And those little balls of fudge are made of carob. There's no meat in any of this food--and no heat. This is a cooking class for people who don't believe in cooking.

Converts to what is known as the "living food movement" believe that heat destroys nutrients and the enzymes needed for easy digestion. They have replaced the traditional American diet with an entirely raw regime consisting of sprouts, nuts, seeds, and fruits and vegetables that are shredded or juiced. Followed strictly, this regimen excludes meat, fish, dairy products, rice, bread and pasta.

Teacher Sylvia Green, who could be described as the Julia Child of living food, has followed a raw food regimen for the past dozen years. She says her students come to her sessions for many reasons. Many of them already live on 100% raw vegetarian diets and are looking for exciting new recipes. Others are seriously investigating the regimen. Some are merely curious.

Green is the first to admit that while the recipes may be easy, the lifestyle isn't. "People may make fun of you, and you have to be strong in your convictions," she says. Her own mother did not approve. "She saw the diet as a criticism of her own lifestyle," says Green. Couples, she adds, have been known to divorce over the issue.

Marlene Shelton, a Los Angeles court reporter, knows all about that. Her husband thinks she is "stark, raving mad." Her grown children chide her. The judge she works for says, "Oh, Marlene just eats roots and grasses. She has a weird diet."

For breakfast, Shelton, 60, has several pieces of fruit. At lunch she eats sprouts and dressing. At dinner she cooks meat and potatoes for her husband ("He's not big on vegetables," she says) and then settles down to her usual half avocado, two tablespoons of sesame seeds and more sprouts.

When she is invited to a restaurant, she brings her own food. "My friends say, 'A real test of friendship with Marlene is if you can tolerate her diet.' "

Shelton, who comes from a large Italian family where pasta was the center of every gathering, occasionally feels deprived on this regimen, but she knows what happens when she strays from it: Little aches and pains creep into her body, she has swelling in her legs, she does not sleep well and she loses energy. "Ordinary food is like poison wrapped in a very attractive package," she says.

The social isolation sometimes bothers her. She says, "When we go out to a nice restaurant and people are drinking Champagne and eating crispy bread and butter--which I love end don't eat--I feel left out sometimes . . . It's just something I face up to--it's better that way--and I live with it."

This is where a support group comes in. "It's vital to be with a group of people with whom you're not looked upon as strange or unusual," says Rhio Coerli, a professional singer from New York who is visiting Los Angeles, "at least for that little bit of time. Out there you are sort of abnormal."

The regimen presents challenges to the pop singer, who spent years on the road performing in small lounges. "In Elko, Nev., they don't have a health food store. They don't have sprouts. They don't have wheatgrass. They don't have anything," she says. "In a situation like that, if you haven't brought your own seeds to sprout, you just do the best you can."

Coerli has had fewer troubles since she landed a contract with a major Latin recording label and started traveling less. Still, she admits that she slips from time to time: Last month she had popcorn twice.

"We have to think three days in advance, and we have to grow our greens," says Mike Perkins, a 41-year-old plumber and marathon runner from Garden Grove. The standard American diet, he notes, provides instant gratification: "All a hungry person has to do is open a jar of tomato sauce and splash it on a mound of spaghetti." He heads up a support group because "food is so social and it's hard to sit down to have dinner with people who are staring at the strange things you are eating."

"I thought I felt good on a 'normal' diet," says David Sales, an actor. "But now I know what great feels like. I have much more energy. I don't need much sleep and I don't get sick." He says he can't remember when he last had a cold.

But there's a down side. "This ruins my social life," says Sales. "I have to meet someone like me and there aren't many people like me. And if I eat out I eat at health food restaurants. I eat home a lot. You end up being alone."

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