High school chemistry class: My eyes would slip out of focus within 5 minutes of opening the textbook, and just contemplating a lecture pretty much ensured that my familiarity with the Periodic Table of Elements ended with its title.
But an hour in the lab? That brand of watch-and-do learning is the reason why, all these years later, I still understand the difference between an acid and a base.
yoga instructor Jessica Rosenberg sent an e-vite to her students, offering a strenuous evening of bendiness followed by an introduction to the benefits of raw foods by enthusiast and teacher Jessica Flannigan.
At first cynical glance, the Jes-Jess combination sounded earnestly crunchy, but I got over it, fast. After all, I've wanted to learn more about the raw-foods movement -- which restricts cooking to temperatures below 116 degrees Fahrenheit, preserving plants' temperature-sensitive nutrients and flavors -- and I remembered that I absorb information best via demonstration and participation. Sign me up!
A group of about 25 convened on a Saturday evening in the eye-popping downtown Minneapolis home of music producer Jeff Arundel. I skipped the 90 minutes of yoga -- I hit an earlier class of Rosenberg's that day, honest -- to plant myself in Arundel's roomy kitchen. While the others sweated through their vinyasas, I watched Flannigan and her flapless assistant Malcolm Kaplan go through their prep paces.
As learning experiences go, Raw Foods 101 ranked right up there. I haven't disconnected my oven -- yet -- but Flannigan gave me plenty to think about, and her colorful meal was delicious. Here's what I learned.
1. Adopting a raw diet is all about balance. "I'm not a zealot," said Flannigan, who now consumes meat and dairy products after more than a decade of vegetarian and vegan life. "I like balance. Any health craze in excess is an excess." Judging from her radiant skin and gleaming, Aveda model-worthy hair, this philosophy clearly works for her.
2. Ingredients are paramount. Coconuts, for example. "If there's one thing I wish would grow in Minnesota -- along with avocados -- it would be coconuts," she said. "The nutritional value is amazing, and they're so yummy.".
Nuts -- cashews, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts -- are a key raw foods building block. "Any nut will make a nice, creamy sauce," she said.
Seasonings? "Lemon and salt (specifically unrefined sea salt) are my accessories," she said. "I'm not a super food snob, except when it comes to coconut oil. I buy super extra-virgin, raw, cold-pressed coconut oil. It's great on popcorn." As for soy sauce, she prefers Nama Shoyu, a raw, unpasteurized soy sauce she picks up in the Asian foods section at a nearby co-op.
3. The right tools make a big difference. "I love my Vita-Mix," Flannigan said. "It's powerful, it's easy to clean, and you can't put carrots into a regular blender." She flipped the switch, and as the workhorse of an appliance made quick work of a few cups of cashews, she laughed. "It sounds like Orange Julius in here," she said. Her decidedly low-tech Ronco food dehydrator, another essential raw-foods tool, was purchased on a camping trip when she was a kid; she recently supplemented it with extra racks that she spied at Savers.
4. Keep it local. "All-local ingredients can be much more energy-intensive than simply all-organic ingredients," she said. While spotlighting imported acai berries, she also praised less-than-exotic raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. "We have our own nutrient-intense berries growing right here in Minnesota," Flannigan said.
Foraging is also good. Take dandelion greens, before they are sprayed: "Pick them in the spring, before they flower, and treat them as you would any other salad green," she said.
Flannigan is a major wild rice fanatic, harvesting it herself in northern Minnesota. "I like to get in my canoe and 'knock rice' with my friends," she said. "All you need is a license. It's hard work, and it's dirty work, but it's worth it." Don't want to venture into the 218 area code? Flannigan recommends steering clear of paddy-grown wild rice; then buy the real thing from the White Earth Land Recovery Project (www.nativeharvest.com).
5. Mix it up, especially in cooler climes. "When you live in a warm climate, raw foods make sense," she said. "But in a cold environment, you need cooked food." Her solution: Incorporate something raw at every meal, perhaps fermented vegetables, such as kimchee. Another tip for newbies: Ease into it. "The fiber content in raw food can be too much, so start slow, a little with every meal," she said.
6. Lighten up. "There's 'cheating' in raw foods,'" she said. "I never want to give the impression that I'm a purist." Sometimes the issue is technical; some raw foodists will pulse foods in blenders long after they've been pureed, using the friction to generate heat. Flannigan doesn't shy away from using a cooktop or an oven when she has to.
Oh, and store-bought is perfectly acceptable. "If you don't have a hydrator, you can buy," she said, noting that many off-the-shelf products do not always follow raw-foods rules, but often boast traits such as being gluten-free and organic. Flannigan likes Flackers (made by Minneapolis-based Dr. In the Kitchen, www.drinthekitchen.com), Mary's Gone Crackers and Skinny Crisps.
7. Juice fruits in moderation. "Our pancreases are in trouble. Diabetes is through the roof in this country. Even carrots can be glycemic. Think about green vegetable juices instead; they're awesome."
8. Nutritional supplements are OK. "I used to be antisupplement, but our soil doesn't have the nutrients of 50 to 100 years ago, so supplements can be beneficial," she said. "That's what turned me back onto meat; my body needed it."