Karyn Calabrese seemed pretty buzzed for a lady who’s given up booze. Though the room was packed and awfully warm, the freakishly youthful 57-year-old raw-food epicure and owner of Karyn’s Fresh Corner barely paused for breath during an hour-long ode to the culinary and hygiene habits she claims have saved her life.

About 70 people–from baseball fan to Rasta man to granola dude to Lincoln Park Trixie–crowded into a classroom near the back of the Karyn’s complex for her informational seminar last month. As Calabrese talked about her mother’s early cancer-related death and her own tactics for dodging the disease, people murmured appreciatively and slurped rounds of free samples from little plastic souffle cups. After a few helpings of fructose-heavy mock ice cream and chocolate nut cake I was as geeked as the guru.

Calabrese went on to outline the theory behind raw-foodism. Raw-foodists believe that when heated above about 115 degrees Fahrenheit, food loses not just vitamins but also enzymes that help the human digestive system break it down, putting unnecessary strain on one’s innards; when that strain is gone, the theory goes, the body begins to eliminate toxins and heal itself. “The human body needs fats, salts, and sugars,” said Calabrese, “and that’s why most diets are bad–they cut them all out, when it’s just the overprocessed stuff that harms you.” But meat and dairy are so “toxic” and hard to digest they should be avoided, she said. She skipped most of the heavy science, preferring to cite testimonials–digestive ailments soothed, skin cleared up, cancers cured, allergy symptoms reduced–then dove from food talk into the more unusual services her business offers. Behind the classroom, where you can take yoga, ballet, or jazz classes, is a holistic clinic where you can get an enema, an oxygen “bath” (“A great hangover cure!” said Calabrese), a whack from the in-house chiropractor, or a back rub.

Six months ago, you wouldn’t have caught me dead in a vegan restaurant–everyone knows that stuff turns you into a hippie. But whenever I passed Calabrese’s nag champa-scented building, just down the street from the Steppenwolf, I peered into the soothing cream-and-wood dining room and wondered how its owner could promise to turn oats and groats into gourmet cuisine and stay in business for nearly a decade. (Karyn’s, originally just a restaurant located in Lakeview, has been serving food since 1995.) When they yanked my rotten tooth this spring, I lived on beer and Potato Buds for a week; when I forgot where my house was and became dizzy with nausea, it seemed like a decent excuse to duck inside. I scarfed down a slightly sweet, soft sea-lettuce-and-macadamia-filled crepe made from dehydrated young green coconut meat. It was strange and delicious; it took me a few minutes to realize that, despite the dish’s richness, I didn’t have a stomachache, and–what ho?–my hangover was gone!

When I could chew I came back, curious how Calabrese would engineer the firmer stuff on the menu, like dried-almond polenta, pizza, and burgers. They don’t always taste like their cooked namesakes, but often as not they’re more interesting. Nuts and legumes are soaked in water and pureed, sprouted, or fermented to make “cheeses,” pastes, sauces, even a delicate cashew “sour cream”; grains are soaked, sometimes sprouted, and dried to make dense, cakelike bread products.

I’m no doctor–regular enemas might prolong life, as Calabrese claims, or they might just be a fun way to make Freud spin in his grave. But since I started loading my daily diet with lots of raw foods, I have noticed that my once-horrific digestion has improved, I have more energy, I quit smoking without much difficulty, and all those vitamins seem to have gone to my skin; then again, there’s a lot to be said for the placebo effect.

But Lisa Sanders, who is a doctor (she’s an internist and a researcher at the Yale University School of Medicine as well as the author of The Perfect Fit Diet), says there may be something more than that behind the way I feel. “I wish my patients would go on a raw-food diet,” she says. “The foods that are safe to eat raw are high in fiber, so no doubt they’re going to be good for your digestion. Raw fruits and vegetables are extremely rich in antioxidants, which have been proven to help prevent cancer. And certain kinds of cooking create carcinogens–grilling, for example–so there’s a whole class of carcinogen you’re not being exposed to.”

But Sanders believes that no one diet is right for everyone. Raw-foodists, she says, probably feel good because raw food agrees with their particular biology and taste. As for the claims about eliminating toxins, Sanders says there have been no formal studies on that. Personal testimonials can be compelling, but “that’s the kind of evidence that 100 years ago was used to justify leeches and all kinds of other stuff we don’t believe in this week.” Enzyme theory, she says, sounds even dicier: “The acids in your stomach can strip chrome off a trailer hitch. That’s going to be a lot more rigorous than heating something over a certain temperature.” Whatever theories people attach to raw-foodism, “they’re really just trying to come up with an explanation for something they know is true–that they feel great,” she says. “And that’s the right way for them to eat.” Most people, she says, crave more variety than a raw-food diet allows.

I for one have found the range of stuff people use to make raw cuisine fascinating–and there’s nothing like seeing what an artiste will do under strict formal restraint. When Calabrese set out to design a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, what she came up with–a thick cashew crust topped with oregano, fresh marinated vegetables, salty olives, and a sun-dried tomato sauce–was the culinary equivalent of a sonnet. Calabrese’s pasta primavera with rich, savory nut sauce and mushrooms is a favorite among her waitstaff (the “pasta” is julienned vegetables). Her sea wrap–walnut paste, avocado, and vegetables wrapped in seaweed–looks small, but boy, is it filling.

If you’d rather not gamble on the $11-$15 entrees at the sit-down restaurant, there’s a take-out joint and juice bar on the side, offering organic salad for $8 a pound, sandwiches, and prepackaged meals that cost between $9 and $13.

There’s also a new (and already packed) Sunday brunch buffet from 11:30 AM to 3:30 PM for $20. The spread includes appetizers, entrees, and natural sweets, plus a fruit or grain drink with herbal extracts and a scoop of “ice cream” made with coconut meat, coconut milk, and maple syrup or honey. One week the embarrassment of choices included turnip ravioli, carob cake, two soups, three salads, sprouted-barley-crust pizza, garlic bread sticks, stuffed bell peppers, kale chips, avocado dim sum, mock meat loaf, sandwiches with “mayo” and walnut spread, zucchini “pasta” with red sauce, samosas, and oatmeal cookies. I tried just about everything, enjoyed most of it, and have yet to wake up tie-dyed.

Karyn’s Fresh Corner

1901 N. Halsted | 312-255-1590

Hours: 9 AM to 10 PM every day

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Futran.