Food in the Raw at the U.S. Botanic Garden

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After almost three years of working right down the street, I finally made time to explore the U.S. Botanic Garden on a recent lunch break. I expected mostly flowers, but found a food nerd's Eden: So many of my favorite edibles, in their purest forms! So many tidbits of culinary history and science! So many spices to sniff!

Their current exhibit (through October 11), called "Thrive! From the Ground Up," is all about the plants that humans rely on for sustenance and health as well as flavor and beauty. Along the terrace outside the conservatory, there's an herb garden with everything from anise to zaatar, and an envy-inducing "kitchen garden" with eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, kohlrabi, chard and more, including many heirloom varieties. There's even a "beverage garden," featuring plants whose fruit can be squeezed, steeped, fermented or distilled into drinks.

Inside, a fun exhibit called Spuds Unearthed, created in collaboration with the Potato Museum, pays homage to the potato's role in cultures around the world. That exhibit also ends soon, but you can see it anytime in this video about potato history on our site.

And as if all that's not enough, the garden often hosts lectures and demonstrations, many of them food-related; check out the events calendar for information on upcoming programs about spices, potatoes and more. Yesterday, the featured demonstration was about cooking—or rather, not cooking—with cacao. A sign for the event promised "Raw Cacao Bliss: Free!" Well, how could you resist that?

I stepped inside the classroom in the garden's conservatory, where A. Thu Hoang, a Bethesda-based raw food chef and culinary instructor, was measuring chopped dates (1 cup), walnuts (3 cups), raw cacao powder (2/3 cup), vanilla (1 tsp) and sea salt (1/4 tsp) into a food processor to create a "10-minute chocolate cake."

Raw cacao powder has more antioxidants than typical cocoa powder, which has usually been heated and chemically altered, Hoang said, and at least one study I've read confirms this idea. Raw cacao powder is available at most health-food stores, though it costs about twice as much as the processed stuff.

Although the end result wasn't exactly what I would call cake—more like a dense, moist, sticky paste patted by hand into a cake shape—it was surprisingly tasty, and a thick coating of frosting topped with fresh raspberries made up for its aesthetic flaws.

My favorite part was the frosting, which she made by blending more raw cacao (1/3 cup) and dates (1/3 cup) with agave syrup (1/4 cup) and avocado (1/2 cup). Yes, avocado! I was skeptical, but its creamy texture turned out to be the perfect substitute for butter, and its taste was very subtle beneath the dominant chocolate flavor. It looked a lot like this—see? Would you guess there was avocado in there?

There were about 20 people in the audience, and many of them seemed to be new to the concept of raw food or even health food in general, which resulted in some funny moments. One woman asked about substituting "toasted pecans" for walnuts in the cake, then stopped to berate herself mid-sentence: "What am I saying? Then they wouldn't be raw! This is about raw foods! I'm so sorry!"

I could relate; although I've heard of raw-food diets, it remains a fairly foreign concept to me. After the demonstration, I asked Hoang how long she'd been following such a diet, and why. She got into it about three years ago and doesn't follow a 100-percent raw diet all the time, she said, but has noticed that even a 70-percent raw diet has given her much more energy ("you don't even want caffeine anymore, honestly!") and made her skin more supple ("after all, fruits and vegetables are full of water, and our bodies are mostly water").

I was impressed and intrigued, and the idea has special appeal when you're standing in the Botanic Garden, surrounded by couldn't-be-more-raw bananas, cacao, vanilla and other ingredients. For about 10 minutes, I thought maybe I could "go raw." But Mitsitam cafe was on my way back to the office, and they were serving hot pumpkin soup...

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