Fed up with a chronic sore throat, Maria DiMaggio traded hot, steaming liquids for cool fruit juice, smoothies and salads. More than a year later, DiMaggio's throat is no longer raw — but her diet is.

Fed up with a chronic sore throat, Maria DiMaggio traded hot, steaming liquids for cool fruit juice, smoothies and salads. More than a year later, DiMaggio's throat is no longer raw — but her diet is.

"To me, raw foods was the answer," says the Ashland resident.

It's a sentiment shared by other local "raw-fooders," a number of whom followed the lead of Ashland's Boutenko family, who embarked on a raw-foods diet for health reasons in 1994 and have been teaching, lecturing and writing about their experience over the past decade.

Spying one of the family's fliers, Ashland resident Vrnda Leier Heyden attended a class in 2000 to infuse her vegetarian cooking repertoire with a little excitement. But this cuisine, she discovered, wasn't cooking at all.

"I realized these people were not cooking their food," Leier says. "Right away it just resonated with me."

After gleaning knowledge from local raw-food experts, Leier and DiMaggio are taking a turn at the helm, teaching a Thursday class at Ashland Food Co-op. "Dispelling Raw Food Myths" will explain the key points of the oft-misunderstood regimen and demonstrate recipes.

"It's more than just the food; it's a lifestyle," says Mary Shaw, Co-op culinary educator.

Raw foods, Shaw says, was the most requested topic when the Co-op surveyed participants in last year's cooking classes. Leier and DiMaggio will teach a second installment, "Fast, Raw Feast," the evening of Oct. 14 in the Co-op's community classroom.

The classes coincide with this month's debut of a grocery-store section that organizes all the Co-op's raw-food stock in one space, a move that allows for more products than before, says grocery manager Lynne Scionti.

The former manager of a Florida health-food store, DiMaggio dabbled in raw foods years ago but lacked books and a support system. She found it in Leier, who hosts a raw-foods potluck every month. A vegetarian for ethical reasons since age 16, Leier gradually adopted vegan ways, a diet she thought could benefit from more raw foods.

Leier's early goal dispels the first myth that eating raw foods means eating them exclusively. Adding any amount of raw foods to one's diet is beneficial, she says.

"Most people already eat raw and living food; it's not a strange, new concept."

Yet Leier's first winter as a raw-fooder wore down her resolve and stoked her desire to ward off the chill with a hot meal. When her husband bought her the book "Warming up to Raw Food," she learned recipes for raw soup to be served, if not piping hot, at least warm. Believing that heating foods beyond a certain temperature destroys vital enzymes, raw-fooders don't exceed 115 degrees in their "cooking."

"That's one of the myths is we can only eat cold food," Leier says.

Also tackling the second of six myths they plan to address in class, DiMaggio mentions that one way to "warm" food is with spices that add heat, including cayenne pepper.

Spices are among the foods that can be included in a totally raw diet, which contrary to the third myth, does not consist only of fruits and vegetables. Nuts and seeds also are eaten once they have been soaked to make them more digestible. Legumes and grains that have been soaked and sprouted also compose a raw-foods diet, along with cold-pressed olive oil, raw honey, apple-cider vinegar, herbs and some types of salt. Most raw foods are prepared using a Vita-Mix or heavy-duty blender, a food processor, dehydrator and juicer.

The few required pieces of specialized equipment is one complaint attached to the fourth myth that raw foods are too expensive. In reality, plant-based foods are a bargain compared with meat. Also cutting out costly dairy products, coffee and alcohol, the diet actually is a savings over a conventional one, raw-food enthusiasts say. Raw-fooders also tend to eat less because they're getting essential nutrients from smaller amounts of food. It only follows that eating lower-calorie foods in smaller quantities leads to weight loss, they say.

Ideally, raw-fooders eat local, seasonal foods and grow some of it themselves, Leier says. They encourage organic as much as possible because studies have shown nutrient values are higher in organic food. Leier preserves things for leaner months by freezing and dehydrating.

Apart from the efforts of a gardener or food preserver, preparing raw foods isn't more time-consuming, says Leier, citing the flip of a food processor's or blender's switch. However, as with any type of food preparation, you can put as much time into it as you want. Many raw-foods enthusiasts place extra emphasis on presentation by layering colors, textures and liberally garnishing.

"A big part of eating is the presentation and the beauty of the food," Leier says.

And in response to the sixth myth that raw-fooders can never dine at restaurants? Leier offers two words: salad bar.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.