Before she opened the Red Pepper Deli last September, Carolyn Simon had no idea there were so many raw food enthusiasts around. There are. They make up three-quarters of her clientele, and they instruct her on everything from recipes to the science of raw-foodism.
I'm making no claims for the "science." It has something to do with not killing the enzymes, tilting your pH balance away from acidic toward alkaline, avoiding opioid peptides and excitotoxicity. I didn't do a lot of research on the health benefits claimed for eating all-raw, because I know I won't be converting as long as I have this job. (That's my working excuse for a number of eating sins: "It wouldn't be fair to my readers.")
But I can testify that the way Simon does it, raw dishes are scrumptious. Your own cooking — excuse me, dish preparation — might be improved too if you distributed cashews as generously as she does, in everything from salads to pie crust.
Hearing about the Red Pepper made me think of a friend from long ago who pledged himself to eating nonviolently. Among other food taboos, Bob believed that you shouldn't eat carrots because they had to be yanked from the ground, and he had the sickliest complexion I've ever seen on a person still ambulatory.
But raw-foodies are nothing like that. They crack nuts and coconuts with abandon, throw living almonds into a food processor despite their screams. (One tenet of the raw philosophy is that raw foods are "living" and cooked foods are "dead." It seems to me that once a head of lettuce is pulled up by the roots, it's no longer breathing and growing, wouldn't you say?)
Not all uncooked foods pass muster at the Red Pepper. Simon's patrons don't eat carpaccio or sushi. They get vegetables, nuts, fruits, sprouts and seeds — plain, grated, mashed, pulverized and liquefied.
So Simon offers a sandwich, for instance, called the Greenwich, made of seed cheese (no dairy, just food-processed seeds), spinach, cucumber, avocado and sprouts, with a "house mayo" of blended cashews, lemon juice, tomatoes, garlic, celery and red pepper. It can be served between pieces of seed bread — thin slices that are crunchy and chewy but not crisp. (I don't know if it's pronounced Green-wich or like the Village.) The Redwich is made of greens, zucchini, red pepper, sprouts and cashew cheese.
Salads are more familiar, with a ton of ingredients, such as spinach with tomato, onion, carrots, currants, apples and pecans. A sweet beet slaw tosses in apples, raisins, lemon juice and agave nectar — agave being a frequent sweetener. It has a clear taste like cane sugar (which is cooked), for dishes that don't want the mellower taste of honey (which is shunned by vegans in any case).
To drink are juice blends with such appealing names as "liver tonic" and "kidney tonic." "Sinus tonic" includes radishes, which makes sense. I tried some peppy, zingy ginger juice, with pineapple, carrot and ginger, and I liked being able to taste each of the ingredients separately. Likewise for a Cococabana smoothie, with coconut milk, banana, cocoa and agave — not very sweet at all, and the better for it. Simon says that her shakes ($5 or $8) have "more purpose" than her smoothies ($4 or $7), what with their wheat grass, greens and goji berries, long used in Chinese traditional medicine.
Raw food doesn't have to be served cold or room temperature. To warm it up — but not past 105 degrees — Red Pepper uses a dehydrator, originally designed to process dead game, adding a little oil and salt to, say, broccoli, sesame seeds, celery and kale to make a "stir fry."
And Simon's not a purist; there are concessions to the world of cookery. She serves a delicious hot vegan soup with greens and corn — I've never tasted such fresh corn in a soup. There's brown rice for rice rolls. You can get coffee with a splash of milk in it, or your sandwich on a slice of honey wheat bread from the bakery down the street, on which it looks oh-so-boring.
All this takes place within walls painted bright red, yellow and lime green, adorned with gorgeous portraits of flowers and vegetables. Although drinks are served in biodegradable plastic cups, the plates and flatware are real. It's a welcoming place, made more so by Simon's outgoing but non-proselytizing personality. The wonderful tastes and lovely visuals of her dishes are reason enough to visit; you don't have to be a believer.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.