Salads are a staple of the raw-food diet.

Raw Respect

Lactose intolerance is just one health consideration among many in Eldon Lemons' family. With some of his relatives vegan and others allergic to soy, serving ice cream for dessert required a variety to rival Baskin-Robbins.

"You'd have your regular ice cream, your soy ice cream, your rice ice cream," he says. "It was just too confusing."

It took Lemons two years of kitchen experiments to create a single ice cream that everyone — regardless of dietary restrictions — could enjoy. Combining coconut or coconut milk, cashews blended to a silken consistency and bananas extruded through a Champion juicer, all sweetened with agave syrup, the concoction has a texture reminiscent of soft-serve.

"You could have it for a meal and not feel bad about it," says Lemons, 55.

Making a meal for dozens of guests at a monthly Medford potluck, the dessert even measures up to standards of an uncommonly restrictive regimen: the raw vegan diet.

"You can have ice cream," says 62-year-old Medford resident Josephine Lee, who organizes the raw-food potlucks. "You don't have to be raw and just eat carrot sticks and celery sticks."

In addition to fruits and vegetables, the raw vegan diet includes nuts and seeds, legumes and grains that have been soaked and sprouted, cold-pressed olive oil, raw honey, apple-cider vinegar, herbs, spices and some types of salt. Using these ingredients, raw-food enthusiasts set up a monthly smorgasbord to swap recipes and ideas. Elaborately garnished or simply served, all dishes are prepared without the benefit of heat in excess of 115 degrees, the temperature at which vital enzymes are destroyed, raw vegans say.

"It's just like the old saying that you are what you eat," says 17-year-old Tanner Elliott, of Jacksonville. "You eat dead food, you're gonna feel dead."

The enthusiasm among a crowd that can exceed 75 people for raw Thanksgiving dinner contrasts sharply with Medford's reception of raw food just a decade ago. Author, lecturer and local raw-food pioneer Victoria Boutenko recalls her failed efforts at selling ice cream not unlike Lemons' at Medford's weekly farmers market.

"I put away my books, and left and thought Medford is not ready," Boutenko says.

Seven years later, Medford residents' hunger for raw food had surpassed Ashlanders' appetites, Boutenko says. Medford's raw potlucks, Boutenko adds, are better organized and have the support of a Seventh-day Adventist congregation, although the church doesn't host the raw-food events every month.

"Now I see more and more people from Ashland attending Medford potlucks," says Boutenko, 54.

Angel's Organic Farm and Health Institute holds monthly raw-food potlucks near Gold Hill, and the movement soon will expand to Grants Pass, says Lee. Even if their diet isn't vegan or raw, many participants are drawn to the events because they suffer allergies to dairy or wheat, she says. Still others want to learn to prepare and eat more healthful foods.

"I figured if I get educated, maybe it'll really motivate me to change my diet," says 54-year-old Rex Zimmerman, adding that he eats too much salt and sugar.

"The thing about raw foods is giving up meat," the Medford resident says.

Protein deficiency is a common concern for many raw-food initiates, says Miven Donato, a Medford chiropractor who prescribes a diet of 85-percent raw food and 15-percent cooked — but no animal products — for almost all his patients.

"Nobody can just go raw," Donato says. "And it's not for everybody."

More than 300 people, however, have graduated from Donato's "Get Healthy Boot Camp" over the past three years. Limiting cooked-food consumption to just 15 percent of total calories jump-starts participants' weight loss and alleviates chronic health conditions, Donato says.

"People really feel better," he says. "The degree of improvement? It depends on the weight of the baggage."

In Donato's case, going 85-percent raw ended two years of intermittent vertigo. Going 100-percent raw remedied an inexplicable heart arrhythmia. His practice is awash in patients who have shed hundreds of pounds and are managing chronic diseases, such as arthritis and fibromyalgia, without medication, Donato says.

Yet there remains the rarer patients who believe food has nothing to do with health, Donato says, and who would never consider adopting a vegan lifestyle. In those instances, Donato recommends reducing meat consumption to once or twice a week and treating it like a condiment, as traditional Asian cookery does. It's not as difficult as people perceive to obtain all the protein the human body requires from plant material, Donato and other health practitioners say.

"All plant cells have a protein structure," Donato says.

And while maintaining a raw vegan diet is difficult — particularly without family support — it's not an all-or-nothing proposition, Lee and others say.

"We're not pushing anybody to go 100-percent raw; we never will," says Lee, adding that she occasionally eats cooked food.

"If somebody wants to go 100-percent raw, good luck."

Even Boutenko — who compares eating cooked food to feeding an "addiction" and whose "Twelve Steps to Raw Foods" is considered by many to be the diet's bible — has softened her stance in the 15 years since she went raw.

"I used to be (a fanatic), myself, for years," Boutenko says. "I am much more tolerant now."

In her third edition of "Twelve Steps," Boutenko says she starts to question the validity of veganism in light of evidence that all primitive humans consumed some form of animal protein, albeit insects.

Boutenko's latest book, "Green Smoothie Revolution" encourages readers, above all, to consume more greens. The easiest way to do that, she says, is in a daily smoothie to supplement a diet that's overall richer in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

She's been pleased to find over the past few years, Boutenko says, that her advice is no longer so disparate from that of mainstream medical practitioners who, a decade ago, dismissed veganism as a radical ideology, not a legitimate diet that could be healthful.

"I don't want to have politics in the food."

Participants in monthly raw-food potlucks say their diet is occasionally still held up for ridicule. But when one stops and ponders the reasons for eating salads composed of raw vegetables, enjoying other foods raw doesn't seem so strange, says Lemons, whose diet is not primarily raw or vegan. Raw-food potlucks open up a new world of delicious possibilities, he adds.

"You can't imagine what you're gonna find here."

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