Blessing, the owner of Blessings Alive and Radiant Foods, says "give thanks" a lot. She murmurs it before she digs into her salad and miso-nut pâté. She says it as she's thanking you -- or someone altogether greater than you. For a while, she even printed it on the packages of her raw-foods cookies and crackers.
She has much to be thankful for. She started Blessings Alive and Radiant Foods in 2000, just in time to catch the rapid spread of the raw- or living-foods movement. Now three hundred stores and Web sites carry her un-baked products, all dehydrated mixtures of ground almonds, cashews, coconut, carob, raw honey, and seasonings.
Raw-foods practitioners advocate a vegan diet in which nothing is heated above 118 degrees F. Though the science behind the movement's claims is controversial at best, the diet has captured the imaginations of many vegetarians. No one is yet tracking the growth of this segment of the natural-foods market, but these days many health-foods stores, including the Whole Foods chain, have created raw-foods sections. "Our section has grown tremendously," says Randall Owczarzak, grocery manager at Alameda Natural Grocery. "I'm now stocking twenty to thirty products."
Blessing, who wears flowing white clothes and speaks in a quick-paced East Coast accent, first experimented with a raw-foods diet in 1982, but didn't make it her livelihood until 1996. At the time, she owned a juice bar and vegetarian food stand in Marin County. "One day, the Spirit came to me and said make this [living-foods] pâté," she says. "Someone that day walked into the bar and said, 'Do you have anything raw?'" The customer asked Blessing to wrap the pâté with some vegetables in a sheet of nori. Six more customers walked in that day and asked to have what the other folks were eating. Within several years, she rid her stand of all cooked food and replaced it with wraps, nut milks, and nut pâtés. After a customer taught her the process, she also began transforming leftover pâtés into "crackers" in her dehydrator.
Her timing was impeccable. Blessing went raw just as the flamboyant Juliano was attracting national press for his San Francisco raw-foods restaurant. Roxanne Klein, future chef of the haute-cuisine and all-raw Roxanne's, was a frequent customer of the food stand; Blessing says she gave Klein a number of recipes when the latter was starting out.
Now Blessing is looking into a bigger production facility and commercial dehydrators in order to meet demand. Her current shop, a sunny shoebox of a production facility on San Pablo Avenue in West Berkeley, is packed with cardboard boxes and plant vines. Black dehydrators, constantly on, are stacked in every corner. A half-dozen workers pipe swirls of batter and seal packages.
Most of Alive and Radiant Foods' crackers and cookies come at high prices -- $6.99 for a nine-pack of Raweos, for example. That seems exorbitant, but so are production costs. The un-baking process takes anywhere from overnight for crackers to three days for the Luscious Lemon Swirls and Chai Raweos: First, the nuts must be soaked to make them easier to puree and digest. Then the workers grind and mix the batter and spread it onto trays. Dehydrating the cookies takes another day or two.
Most of the cookies, Blessing's biggest sellers, resemble chewy coconut macaroons. You can write off un-baked cookies as weird nut pastes, but if you have certain tastes -- like mine, which were formed during the natural-foods 1970s -- they're quite tasty. Blessing says she doesn't tolerate bland food. You taste the tangy citrus juice in her Luscious Lemon Swirls; Carob-Mint Kisses smell like fresh herbs; and all the spices in the Chai Raweos come through clearly.
In the coming weeks, Alive and Radiant Foods will be returning to the Berkeley farmers' markets on Tuesday and Thursday, where Blessing's stand will sell her products and takeaway food prepared by Kohta Mitamura, her chef-in-training. Business is booming, but Blessing swears she isn't in it for the money. She does it for the greater good. "I feel as if the raw-foods movement is a spiritual movement," she says, "that some greater part is being called together to create a healing energy."
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