As Pat Crowder settles down in the living room of the Burbank bungalow with her plate of food from the buffet, she isn't quite sure what she's eating. "There's some nut and banana with some kind of sauce," she says, poking around with a fork. "And some chicken with lemon, some salmon and cheesecake."
But when a young man named James Hopson wanders by clutching a Mason jar in which bits of solids swim around in a gray-brown liquid, he knows exactly what he is spooning back. "It's steak," he says. The "sauce," he adds, is his own blend of cherry tomatoes, cream, honey and chiles.
It's not every meal where cheesecake is served with the salmon, or steak is eaten with a spoon, but then not every meal is a "People's Primal Potluck." At these regular events, the food served is raw. On this recent Sunday, for example, eggs were set out on the buffet table in their carton so that those of the approximately 30 guests who wished could suck them back straight from the shells.
The taste for raw poultry extends beyond eggs. "I find out of the three raw meats, that raw chicken tastes most like a cooked meat," says Pat.
James agrees, adding that he marinates it with lemon or lime and eats at least a half a pound of raw chicken a day. He also consumes another pound of some sort of raw meat every day, he said, along with a quart of raw juice made from celery, parsley, carrot and zucchini.
Pat is only just beginning to experiment with a raw food diet. But for James, and most of the other guests present, it is already a way of life.
Out and about, they admit, their regimen can pose social hurdles. "I eat before I go to a party," says a fine-featured young brunet named Erica Schmidt. It's especially tricky, she concedes, getting restaurants to serve hamburgers cooked "10 seconds on each side."
Hearing this, an authoritative blond standing nearby chips in with her tactic for addressing waiters: "You just say, 'Cold on a cold plate.' "
How does restaurant staff react?
"They're more curious than anything else," says a young computer software instructor named Jennifer Black.
Curious indeed, and it only gets curiouser. Not one proponent of the diet can go long without crediting their advisor. He is Aajonus Vonderplanitz of Malibu and the creator of the "We Want to Live" raw food diet.
Fortunately, Aajonus is at the potluck, although he arrives a bit late (he had a radio interview). With the appearance of this latter-day shaman, a sporty middle-aged man with staring blue eyes and a weathered tan, the pitch of the testimonials begins to rise. It is instantly clear that he is not just an advisor to this group, but a savior. Ill health, not freakish dietary predilections, drove them to the diet. Pat explains that she had sensitive eyes, James cancer, Erica arthritis, Jennifer depression, and so on.
In the case of Aajonus, as he tells it, it is less a question of what afflicted him and more of what didn't. Before his raw food odyssey, he says he suffered from dyslexia, autism, angina, peritonitis, brittle bones, diabetes, a stomach ulcer, blood cancer, bone cancer, psoriasis, bursitis and vertigo.
Though Aajonus is a paid after-lunch speaker, and the diners are paying listeners, Aajonus is careful to stress that these potlucks are not his events. The next day in a telephone interview, he elaborates. "I stayed away from them for years," he says. The remove came after a splinter group on his diet "decided they were going to eat glandular tissue only." The glands weren't organic, he adds. When he tried them, he says, "They gave me hallucinations."
There is another good reason for Aajonus Vonderplanitz to be circumspect about his involvement with this group: He has no professional qualifications to treat the sick.
"I don't practice medicine," he objects. "I don't believe in medicine." Rather, as he tells it, after his super-sickly childhood, he first began to qualify as a raw food-ist by leaving civilization at the age of 27 to live in the wild. One learning experience involved allegedly destroying 90% of his liver by mistakenly eating a death-cap mushroom, but saving himself by eating several pounds of raw butter a day.
The teachings of this charismatic picaro may captivate his followers, but they infuriate county, state and federal health officials. For them, putting sick and sometimes dying people on regimens of uncooked foods is not just loony, but in the case of foods such as raw chicken, potentially lethal.
"It drives me nuts!" Shirley Fannin, director of disease control for Los Angeles County's Department of Health Services, declared last summer.
But for Aajonus, the irritation of doctors is a badge of honor. As for describing himself as a "scientist," Aajonus says he has earned this title after appearing "10 times" on panels alongside titled professionals. "I realized that their approach and their analysis was much less refined than mine, so then I accepted people's use of 'scientist' for describing my particular rationales," he says.
His name, too, was acquired in an unorthodox fashion. Aajonus was originally called John, he says, but he dropped this, along with a middle name of Richard, in 1975, after a reading exercise with children brought together the letters A-J-A and A-U-R-A. This somehow became Aajonus, which he thought had an agreeable Greco-Roman ring.
Vonderplanitz also sounds like the product of a crystal ball, but Aajonus insists that this is his family name, inherited from Russian ancestors who migrated to Brooklyn via Germany. It translates from German as "from the planets."
Whoever he is, whatever he is, his circle of followers appears to be expanding. He calculates that he has 3,500 people following his diet to one degree or another in Southern California.
To the minds of followers such as James, Erica and Jennifer, the word is spreading because the diet works. (It must be said, they are a healthy-looking bunch.) But exact records of success and failure rates are not available.
Keeping records, says Aajonus, might be construed as a medical act and land him in trouble with authorities. Instead, he reels off claims of 90%-plus success rates and sends e-mails with roll calls of personal testimonials. Diane in Van Nuys swears by him. So does Susan in Los Angeles and Daniel in Santa Monica.
Then there are the claims in person from the loyal core at the People's Primal Potluck. James, the man who eats a half pound of raw chicken a day, is so devout, he is now training with Aajonus. "It's amazing how easy digestion becomes," he says, before playfully pelting fellow travelers with empty egg shells.