My first friend from California, Emma, grew up vegetarian. This seems perfectly normal now, but when I learned that she had never sunk her teeth into a hamburger or tasted a chicken wing, it was like meeting someone with three thumbs. How did she get dressed in the morning without pork chops? Keep in mind that at this point in my life, high school, I had never seen a sushi roll or eaten tofu; as a culinary ignoramus, my diet was equal doses of Mac and Cheese.
But Emma's lettuce-eating ways affirmed my sense that the Left Coast was a hotbed of strange
food. And Emma claimed that as fish-eating lover of omelets, she was a lax vegetarian. Some "vegans" didn't touch Jell-O because of the gelatin (horse hooves!) and her parents knew a pair of fruitarians, a couple with translucent skin who only consumed what fell from trees.
During college, after being pelted with PETA videos, I considered vegetarianism but it didn't seem desirable until I moved here. San Francisco has long been a locus of food trends, from raw foodies to urban foragers to the Slow Food movement. It's hard to live in the Bay Area and not have any
vegan friends or know someone who is currently fasting. As the laziest of eaters, someone who pretty much eats what ever is closest to me, I wanted to get into the super veggie experience.
Why not go the distance? I thought back to Emma's description of her parents' fruitarian friends. I may not have skin like a baby's bottom if I spent a week not cooking or killing anything for food, but it could make me feel better after so much holiday overindulgence. Plus, recent studies point to signs that plants exhibit feelings too. Fuck it, I'm going fruitarian.
The first thing to do, of course, was to define the fruitarian diet. On the fruitarian wikipedia page, basic semantic problems emerged; namely, what is a fruit? Some fruitarians only eat things that have literally fallen to the ground, other eat things that many consider vegetables but technically are fruits‚ tomatoes, cucumbers, nuts, etc. Many think that you can maintain a diet of 75% fruitarian things and still be considered a fruitie. I'm going to go with the broadest possible definition, nuts and all. After research into fruitarian alcoholic options yielded only further confusion, I decided that my 25% would be mostly liquid. It is the holidays, after all.
To kick of a week of raw fruit stuff, I headed down to a meeting room at the police station on Valencia Street around lunchtime on a recent Sunday for the monthly raw food potluck, put on by SF-LiFE, a group of living food enthusiasts' that has been around since 1987. For members who bring a dish, it's free, but I happily doled out my $9 to come to the table. I was greeted by Alvin, a bright-eyed older man who took my money and welcomed me, then inquired if I brought my own plate and utensils. Oops. Already failing as a fruitarian. He gave my friend and I a plastic tray to share.
Immediately, some of the difficulties of the fruitarian diet became clear. I knew everything in front of me was raw and vegetable but how could I tell what were all the ingredients to, say, the "pumpkin pie" made of butternut squash with an almond crust? Did the fake tuna fish have non-fruitarian seasonings? And, on a more basic level, could I even correctly identify which organic objects came from a tree or the ground? Confused, I just started piling things on under Alvin's watchful eye. Maybe I'd ease into fruitarian diet.
My pal Heidi and I took our seats at Alvin's table, and introduced ourselves. A group of older women sat at the end, chatting happily. A younger Russian women sat across from me, digging into a leafy salad. One of my goals of attending the potluck was to meet some fruitarians in person, but when I asked Alvin, he stared blankly. I got the distinct impression that fruitarianism was not regarded highly, even by the raw foodies. Alvin himself counseled "moderation" in an approach to eating and said that, on occasion, he cooks things.
This month's potluck took the theme of "holiday food," so there were nods to the Thanksgiving menu. Not perhaps the best way
to go, considering the deliciousness of gravy, stuffing, and so forth (like setting loose a miniature pony in a race against thoroughbreds), but the dishes in general were tasty. I particularly admired the raw hummus, the fresh persimmons and the fake tuna.
As the meeting went on, with people delivering earnest book reviews of recently read books, like "How to Make Air," about houseplants, for instance, my mind wandered. A woman announced that her persimmons came from a century-old tree that was nourished by spring water, not sprinkler water. "Some people say they can taste it," she offered and people nodded enthusiastically. I thanked Alvin, dropped a few business cards, and continued on.
To do this right, I'd need provisions. Rainbow Grocery in the Mission was an obvious stop for such a task. I started in the bulk food section, an under-explored area for me. Bags of nuts and dried fruit began to stack up. Again, questions of food provenance came into play. Are olives considered raw? I saw some at the potluck, so I dove in. Went wild in the produce aisles, getting fattier foods (avocados, bananas) along with apples, bell peppers, cucumbers. Gazed longingly at the cheese aisle, and then got some refrigerated proteins; the sprouted tofu seemed mostly okay. Surprisingly hungry only a few hours since the potluck, I took my goods into the long line.
Waking up on Monday morning, I faced the hard truth that coffee beans were not fruitarian. Too bad, I thought, staring at the bag of beans, coffee is a non-negotiable. I brewed some up and took a gander at more interweb information about my new lifestyle. The major fruitarian web site promised many, many advantages to this diet. To wit: "Fruitarians experience a feeling of finely tuned body, light, with few or no headaches, need less sleep and develop a greater resistance to illness, pain and aging. Fruitarians become more sensitive persons both physically and emotionally, becoming more wise and expanding their conscience." Baldness, apparently, can also be cured through fruit eating.
To get a better sense of what only eating fruit would do to a person, I sought out Thomas Billings, who runs a local website called "Beyond Vegetarianism." Billings spent a good part of the 1970s and 80s as a fruitarian and then a raw foodie, before eventually settling into a version of regular vegetarianism. He got into fruitarism by degrees, being influenced by various food gurus of that age. Living in Florida, at the time, he ate lots of citrus and this worked out for a while, but then things began to get weird.
He lost tons of weight and became addicted to sugary dates, eating upwards of a pound every day. He went through two major physical crashes. When traveling to northern places for work, with limited fruits available, he would get sick. Once, when getting vaccinated for a trip, he passed out in the doctor's office and literally seemed to sweat out the vaccine.
When reached by phone, Billings repeated what he wrote about and added some more gripes with all-fruit diet. He came to a fruitarian diet in stages, being influenced by a food philosopher called Arnold Ehret (author of "Rational Fasting") and moved to the Bay Area in the mid-80s as an active member of the raw food community. For him, and for many who experiment with extreme dietary restriction, the compulsion to limit food verges on orthorexia nervosa (anorexia for health freaks.) "I believed that what I was eating making my mental processes clearer, thought I was smarter than the people around me," he said, chuckling, "The self-delusion was really extreme."
For Monday and Tuesday, I could definitely relate to that. As I dutifully made cold tomato and cucumber salads and picked apart pomegranates, I felt my energy and smugness surge. But with so many sugary dried fruits to eat, my sugar highs and lows were intense. Mid-afternoon, I was soaring. Late afternoon, I was miserable, main-lining cranberries until I felt right.
On Wednesday, after a glum morning staring at the fruit bowl, I decided it was time to treat myself with a raw meal out. Social isolation, Billings had told me, was a side effect of being on such a severe diet and I was feeling lonely. Cafe Gratitude, a raw food mini-chain, was nearby but ordering things like "I am Happy" and "I am Fulfilled" makes me stabby. Luckily, there's another spot in S.F. Alive!, on Lombard Street.
The place was empty, save for a pair near the back. The man jumped up and gave us menus, with items marked "hot" and "cold," code for raw foodies. Since we were in the midst of a cold spell that almost brought snow to S.F., I opted for soup and a salad, totally violating fruitarian principles. (That 25% saved me again!) It was delicious, and as I gazed at the wall-size picture of bean sprouts, I vowed to return.
As the week wound up, my supplies dwindled. I ate all the good nuts and favorite dried fruits, leaving me with a strange berry trail mix and copious amounts of prunes. I think you know where this story is going: to the bathroom. I spent quite a bit of time at home over the course of the week, doubled over in digestive distress. And adding insult to injury, my skin started breaking out. I wasn't feeling mentally and physically pure and clean, I was feeling tired and gross.
Billings had told me that fruitarianism, like many extreme diets, had a quasi-religious aspect to them, as maintaining a sense of culinary purity was a stand-in for less tangible desires. Without any belief system (or end goal) to pin my attempt at all-fruit business to, it all seemed pointless. Then, on Saturday, I woke up with a cold. Cold, raw food wasn't going to cut it. My soul needed some chicken soup.
DO IT YOURSELF
It's San Francisco, so finding local and organic fruit is a piece of cake. I went to Rainbow Grocery in the Mission, but heard rave reviews about Other Avenues Food Store at 3930 Judah Street. Raw food restaurants include Cafe Gratitude and Alive!. Alive! owner Leland Jung also teaches classes on raw food preparation, so call 415-923-1052 for more information. The SF-LiFE network has monthly potlucks open to the public; call the "sproutline" for hours and location at 415-701-2855.