Recently, I stepped into the madness of the raw food world: that very strange universe where Vitamixers replace pots and pans, Mandolins supersede knives, and words like phytonutrients abound, as do quotation marks. Want some “meat?” Try this pulsed blend of walnuts and spices stuffed into a wilted collard green “taco.”
I was not a novice to the idea of raw food, as three years earlier, I’d somehow talked myself into the takeover of a health food store. I’d also willingly indulged in a few “raw experiences,” just to see what the hype was about.
There was that unforgettable dinner at Pure Food and Wine in Manhattan (before it went out of business, and the owner, arrested for tax fraud, was caught chowing down on a Domino’s pizza in a hotel room). Sharing a dining room with bony and gaunt looking diners, I paid $30 for an entree of two slices of raw zucchini smeared with pureed cashews and sun dried tomato paste, aka “lasagna,” made somehow believable after downing bio-dynamic wine.
Afterward, though jonesing for a Shake Shack malted, I settled for a slice of date and nut pureed “cake” at the restaurant’s sister store, Lucky Duck, and went home feeling as though I’d treated myself. Which I had: to three days of intestinal pain. But it didn’t stop me from dreaming of owning such a place.
On another occasion, after learning about the importance of cultured vegetables, I took a two-day course with Donna Gates from The Body Ecology Diet in Manhattan. There I learned to chop cabbage and onions, pack them into a jelly jar, add a touch of sweetener and some “starter” — a term Gates used to describe a packet of probiotics, and consider it something edible, if not ingenious — and set it on the counter to essentially break down for two weeks, when it was finally ready for consumption.
Luckily, I would again double over with gas pains, or I might otherwise have actually pursued that fermented foods empire, too.
Of my myriad of flaws, my most troubling might be my endless desire to turn what should be a hobby — if even that — into a business.
The problem with my thinking — for starters — is that I’ve usually found myself two years too late with my ideas. Even more problematic is that a lot of my ideas… how do I say this while still being kind to myself? I’m afraid there’s no easy way.
A lot of them have sucked.
There was my Piggyback Sling seat for kids — designed for the child too old for a stroller and yet too young to keep up with the adults on long treks. Already invented.
The Book-n-Bed — a stand for nighttime reading while lying on one’s side. Then came Kindle.
The Extendable Snorkel. Until a quick google search told me how very dangerous it would be to breathe back in dead air.
The bathroom spray made with essential oils — perhaps with the name “Rosy John;” I know, just use matches, right? And guess what? Already invented!
And, of course, there was the host of homemade creams and soaps, along the way, including a “zodiac sign shampoo” with auspicious scents for each sign. That one, I’m going to actually blame on my sister, a compulsive entrepreneur, hairdresser and amateur astrologist.
I was the one, however, who took the idea seriously, sought out a laboratory on the Eastern end of Long Island, donned a pair of scrubs, and toured the facility while negotiating with “Ted” the low, low price of $10,000 per zodiac sign to manufacture such shampoo. Not an impressive negotiation, considering that number didn’t include bottles, labels or formulaic costs.
On that last line item, at least Ted was honest, in that he admitted that the way most people manufactured health and beauty products was to basically find a product they liked and plagiarize ninety-nine percent of the ingredient list.
That took the wind out of my creative sails. I also lacked the capital. But I learned a lot from Ted, including that there is “essentially zero difference” between pet and people shampoo, other than the fact the people are willing to pay more for a bottle with a picture of a dog on it.
Where does this endless need to create nonsense stem from? I might trace the roots of this dysfunction to a poor childhood, or growing up in the age of motivational speakers. It could also stem from reading too many stories, in all their impossibility, and believing in an inventor’s version of the American Dream.
Modern shows like Shark Tank certainly don’t help. Watching people peddle yet more handmade peanut butter, or anti-bacterial kitchen sponges shaped as smiley faces, and then seeing their “Updates” as millionaires only feeds the compulsion. (Surely Book-N-Bed was better than that sponge?)
Even when I promise myself, that is it! No more creations, concoctions and half-assed businesses! An idea creeps in, and like a true addict, I succumb and start sketching on graph paper.
The impetus for my raw immersion began when, while in a pricey NYC juice bar, which could have passed for a cosmetic shop if I hadn’t been paying attention, I came across a packet of “Funyuns,” though not the kind I grew up eating.
These delectables were a small batch of dehydrated onions dipped in buckwheat flour. Inside a take-out deli container, which offered the sense of “handmade,” they came about five per package and were served with some kind of spicy-red dipping sauce. And boy were they tasty.
So delicious, in fact, that I had no choice but to hunt down the obscure company that made them, which turned out to be a Mom-and-Pop NYC food truck operation that also offered organic juices and healthy snacks.
The owner answered and I asked if she could ship a carton of these wonders to our health food store. All innocent enough, I told myself, even knowing halfway through the conversation with her that I wanted much, much more.
Which is why I listened eagerly for a half hour to her very detailed account of what went into not only making Funyuns — she and her small team of four or five people hand crafted each batch — but competing in the tough space of “Raw.”
As for her motivation of unloading on me, I can’t say. Maybe no one had ever shown such interest in her raw onions before? Maybe she was burning out?
She complained how small the raw food world can be, and how fiercely competitive. She knew well the handful of raw eateries in the city, but she did not endorse most of them.
For one, she suspected, a few heated their food above 120 degrees, which was beyond offensive. Worse were others haste to dehydrate. Imagine!
And so I did. Feeling myself longing to be a part of it.
The whole integrity of gourmet raw, she continued, rested in dehydration. The longer one dehydrated, the more respectable the products were. Her Funyuns, for example were never dehydrated for less than 100 hours, but she couldn’t make that claim about many supposed “raw snacks.”
“…But about delivering to your store,” she said, finally, “I don’t see an economical way to do it for either of us.”
And so my fate was sealed.
What choice did I really have but to roll up my sleeves and try my own hand at creating Funyuns — which I would name Unyuns? — as well as other tasty raw concoctions I’d begun formulating in my mind. After all, why should suburbanites like myself be deprived of this fabulous world of cuisine?
Heather’s Raw? Healthy with Heather? I was already beginning to envision the label as I purchased my dehydrator on Amazon.
A week later, I started slicing onions in my kitchen. With tears streaming down my face, I then set to work on the buckwheat “batter” — a much more intense project than I’d anticipated.
How does one get batter to stick with no egg and no milk? I searched the internet — and the best advice I could find was to try olive oil. It helped, but my onions looked more sad and bald than “fun.”
No matter. I was going to see this project — and entrepreneurial genius moment — through to completion.
Carefully, I laid the fragile rings onto the dehydrator tray, and then turned on the device to… fan.
Six hours later, my husband entered the kitchen, holding his nose, and I explained my newest venture — replete with the larger plan, of course, of world dominion in the raw food category.
He sighed, lacking his usual sense of humor about my projects — perhaps because the onion reek was intense; and also because the madness had finally crossed the sanctity of our home.
Ah, but the proof would be in the taste, I assured him — despite that I had 94 hours to go before I could prove anything.
In bed that night, as we listened to the whir below us, the engineer within him couldn’t help but offer me some basic math.
Electricity for a 900 watt dehydrator running at 100 hours would cost $10. Add $15 for cost of goods — onions, flax meal, buckwheat, olive oil, etc. plus labor — which I insisted on adding in, to prepare for the day when my little onion company would grow so big I would have to open a factory and employ hundreds of workers — this batch of onion rings drying through the night, and which would end up yielding a batch big enough to fill only the smallest sandwich Ziploc bag, would cost $40.
I leaned back onto my pillow and thought about it.
Well, I supposed baking had its merits, too…
And come to think of it, I really hadn’t been able to find a truly decadent gluten-free cupcake since I’d sworn off wheat…