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An Uncooked Tour

Chowing Down With Baltimore's Raw Vegans

Photos by Michelle Gienow
NOT FROM BRUSSELS: Adam Kandel makes a living from his diet by raising sprouts in his home.
SEEDLESS: Vegan chef Skai Davis (right), owner of the Yabba Pot restaurant, pours a watermelon smoothie for film maker Kirt Tyson. Tyson just completed a documentary film about the raw foods movement.
TEMPTING: For Michael Harris, a trip to the grocery store more or less begins and ends at the produce section.
NOT YOUR GRANNY'S GREENS: (from left) Raw vegan proponents Oluko Lennon, Skai Davis, and Risa Davis proudly display raw food "burritos" made with collard leaf wrappers at a recent raw-food potluck.
EATING IT RAW: Attendees at a recent raw vegan potluck belly up to the buffet.

By David Morley | Posted 6/21/2006

Walking into Whole Foods Market in Mount Washington, Michael Harris resembles a gung-ho outdoorsman setting foot at the base of Mount Everest, on the verge of an ascent. He sticks his chest out and holds his head high. His dreadlocks pulled back, the bespectacled 38-year-old moves quickly into the store. Harris’ form is muscular but not bulky. He pauses for a moment, strokes his goatee, and surveys the produce section from left to right and back. He waves his hand in the air dramatically.

“This is where you are,” he says. “This is where you are if you’re a raw vegan. The rest of the supermarket is just not important.” Except for the nuts, he adds.

Touring the produce section, he finds free samples of pineapple and cantaloupe and helps himself to several toothpicked cubes of fruit. “I haven’t had lunch yet today,” he says. “I’m hungry.”

After picking up some avocados, we find the nuts and grains toward the back of the store, mixed in with flour and other baking supplies. Harris picks up two bags of almonds and holds them both up for me to see. “What do you see here?” he asks. I shrug my shoulders. He emphasizes the almonds in his right hand. “These are raw, you can sprout them,” he says. “They can be living foods.” Examining the nuts in his left hand, he notes that “these nuts, they’re roasted. They’ll never be alive. They’re covered in tamari [soy sauce] and even have alcohol on the list of ingredients.” He replaces the dead nuts and puts the live ones into the shopping basket.

“You can make so much out of these almonds,” he says, patting the clear plastic package. “Milk, cheese, butter . . . ”

Harris is one of a group of two dozen or so local self-proclaimed hard-core raw-food vegans who are looking more to change their own sense of health and well-being than they are in changing the world. In fact, some, like Harris, believe that changing one’s own health and well-being can help change the world.

Raw vegans eat no cooked or heated foods. Blanching, boiling, baking, sautéing, and the like are things of the past. Harris says there are all types of so-called “raw foodists” and is careful to note that he and his clan keep vegan, which means no sushi-grade tuna, no beef carpaccio, and no raw milk cheeses. It’s a subjective thing, Harris notes. Even within the raw vegan arena, foodists will tell you how “raw” they are on a centigrade scale, like “100 percent raw,” or “80 percent raw.”

The raw-food movement is more than about crudités, though. Active raw foodists work long hours in the kitchen preparing smoothies, juices, and vegan flatbreads, crackers, salad dressings, and even raw vegan ice cream to add excitement to their diets. They’ll often juice a carrot and save the pulp in the juicer to create some mock-cooked dish.

And then there are the 100 percent raw vegans who eat only “live” food, which means seeds that have sprouted. Some raw foodists claim that sprouted food is the elixir of youth and gives them perfect health because it holds the “life force.”

Through monthly potlucks, as well as participating in four annual “raw-food challenges” initiated by a Baltimore vegetarian restaurateur, the 25 or so committed local raw foodists are pushing themselves to live in a manner they describe as healthy, compassionate, and rooted in antiquity.

I’m in training under Harris; he’s mentoring me in my efforts to begin a raw-food challenge of my own: I will attempt to go raw for a week and see if I discern any benefits claimed by those who eat such a diet, claims that run a gamut from clearer skin to weight loss to the reversal of diabetes and cancer. On our trip to Whole Foods, I try to be a frugal shopper, opting for some scallions, an $8 bag of raw almonds, and a glass jar of radish and cabbage kimchee, a fermented “living” food that gets Harris’ seal of approval. I probably should have bought a lot more on my training day, but my bill for these three items came to just over $13, and the ever-thrifty voice in my head said, Slow down.

 

The raw-food movement has been gaining momentum nationally over the last several decades. A quick scan of an internet directory of raw-food restaurants turns up more than 110 raw or raw-friendly establishments in the United States, and dozens more in other countries. More than a diet, raw foodism is a lifestyle that is both embraced and eschewed by spiritual thinkers, dieticians, and anthropologists who argue about whether consuming cooked food is harmful or healthy. It’s only within the past eight months or so that the lifestyle has made larger inroads here in the fittest city in America (so says Men’s Fitness magazine). And there is growing debate beyond Baltimore about whether the tenets purported by raw foodists are mere pseudoscience.

Harris and others at a recent monthly potluck at his third-story walk-up apartment in Hampden all assert that doing one’s own research—both academic and through experimenting with the diet—is necessary to determine whether or not going raw makes sense. “With raw foodism, there’s so much to explore in depth,” Harris says. “The whole body of [written] work, starting with Hippocrates, is where you first see stuff about food as medicine.”

When Harris isn’t using his dehydrator (a culinary device favored among raw foodists because the low heat used for drying—about 100 degrees—doesn’t kill living enzymes), he works as a full-time guitarist in three different ensembles ranging from classical jazz to funk to straight rock ’n’ roll. Though music fills his evenings, lately raw-food prep has been filling his days. “People are asking me to make food for them,” he says. And he spends a lot of time reading about food and speaking with other raw foodists about diet at venues like the potluck.

The monthly raw vegan potluck, frequently held at Harris’ apartment, draws a group upward of 25 people. They’re mostly female, and the attendees range in age between 24 and 45. Harris takes pride that the group’s demographic knows no boundaries. “It’s really a diverse group,” he says. “There’s an older black crowd and a younger white crowd. There’s religious people and hippie people. It’s because we’re all together for this health, it transcends the boundaries.” Harris adds that it’s not just a sense of healthy eating that draws them together but also the lack of what he dubs as toxins—flour, sugar, tobacco—a distinction he insists on making.

“We’re not involving sugar, no caffeine or alcohol, cigarettes, dairy, meat, flour—none of those sketchy things that have a past,” he says. “Potlucks are about health without the barriers of historical stuff.” Harris believes that foods are “charged” based on their history. Foods like sugar, meat, and flour are “charged with exploitation, slavery, and also the modern [food] industry,” he says. “It’s like the global-warming diet, food products based on industrialization.”

The crowd that congregates at Harris’ home in early April focuses more on food, health, and well-being than the exploitation of workers. A raw corn salad is sweet and starchy, with a little peppery heat to it. A kale salad is good, and gone almost as soon as it’s unveiled: the pulped kale leaves were mixed with seasonings and oil, making for a hearty dish. There’s a bowl of goji, dried berries from Tibet that are touted as having a high quantity of nutrients; they taste like cranberries infused with vanilla. I am divided about the dehydrated crackers: The ones made with bananas and raw cocoa had an almost cookie-like texture and flavor, but the two versions made out of sprouted lentils and chickpeas were astringent and incredibly earthy. They taste like multivitamins smell.

Everyone agrees how tasty all the dishes are, but Deborah Kinsey’s concoction really captures everyone’s attention during the evening.

Kinsey introduced the group to raw Brazil nut milk, which she made by blending water-soaked Brazil nuts in water with a few dates and some salt. It’s rich and creamy and tastes like cow milk, except the flavor is much more complex. The bark that had mostly been soaked off the nut still imparts a woodsy flavor, and the dates add a sweetness much more subtle than the cane sugar often added to soy milk. Kinsey says she looks forward to potlucks in part because of the fun of introducing new prep techniques to the group. She’s thankful for the opportunity to learn new recipes and, especially, socialize.

“The hardest part of the diet is going out, especially when I don’t have my resources with me,” she says, referring to readily available raw foods and a small battery operated hand blender called a “Magic Bullet” that many raw foodists use to whip up on-the-spot nutrient-dense smoothies.

While Kinsey and I speak, Harris brings us a recent creation: raw nori “sushi” rolls stuffed with carrot, avocado, mung bean sprouts, and sprouted chickpeas. The softness of the avocado contrasts well with the crunchiness of the sprouts and the grittiness of the sprouted chickpeas. I found “sushi” a bit strange with the absence of rice (verboten in a raw-food diet), but found myself eyeing the platter in an effort to grab another piece and dip it in the Bragg Liquid Aminos, a bottled elixir with a taste akin to soy sauce.

Kinsey scores the last piece herself. Swallowing, she adds, “I often call a restaurant ahead of time” to make sure they’ll have something for her to eat. She’s surprised at how often chefs accommodate her dietary restrictions or honor her request for substitutions in the heat of a dinner rush. “What was amazing was that I started [going raw] around the holidays and I was going to all these holiday parties,” she says. “People really listened to my requests.”

Encountering such enthusiasm about raw foodism divides me about attempting the diet. Even though I’ve been a vegetarian for close to a decade, some people I talk to recommend I go raw for a month, or at least three weeks, to detox fully from my non-raw diet and feel the benefits of raw food. The thought of going raw even for a couple days inspires a certain anxiety, although I don’t really know why.

I decided that a week would be doable, and I’d go from there in opting to continue. So I had a last meal of Thai curry and took the plunge.

The first day was pretty exciting: breakfast was a mélange of fruit with some freshly ground pecans and a couple spoonfuls of raw honey. For lunch, I had a tomato, cucumber, and onion salad and a raw-food bar called a Larabar for dessert.

I was hungry after both meals but figured I’d have a feast for dinner. And I did. I invited a few people over to celebrate my raw-food week with me and prepared several dishes. The “spaghetti” I attempted—just grated zucchini with chopped tomatoes and basil— didn’t hold a candle to a version Harris would make for me later in the week, but it was good. Spinach salad was pretty straightforward, and a dish I eat anyway.

And then there was the okra. I had tried a stellar raw okra dish at the local vegan restaurant the Yabba Pot only a couple of days before my raw week. My version seemed fine when I tossed the chopped okra in olive oil and Bragg Liquid Aminos. It looked good and tasted good, until I served it to my guests a half-hour later. The sliminess of the okra had married perfectly with the liquid, making the dish look like it was coated in mucus. The mucus dripped off the spoon from the serving bowl to the plate like mozzarella cheese does on pizza. It was very hard to stomach okra with a clear sticky glaze dripping off the fork, but I was hungry. I stopped after three for four forkfuls. My 3-year-old daughter ate more than I did. She said it was her favorite dish of the dinner.

Not everyone in my social circle took a liking to the food or my experiment in going raw. At a small social gathering of vegetarians and omnivores, I mentioned the story I was working on. One fellow stood up and left the room, muttering, when I described how a dehydrated cracker is prepared. Another said, “Those raw foodists . . . all they ever talk about is food. I’m so sick of hearing about it.”

“Well, if they’re like me,” I replied, “it’s because they’re always hungry.”

 

Harris and Kinsey, like most people at the potluck, came to embrace the raw-food lifestyle thanks to the Yabba Pot’s Skai Davis. A 32-year-old native of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Davis opened her restaurant just over three years ago. Since that time, she’s been slowly transitioning herself to a largely raw-food diet, and last November Davis started the “21 Day Raw Food Challenge,” which she plans to host every equinox and solstice, owing to its success.

The 21 Day Raw Food Challenge urges participants to eat 100 percent raw for three weeks to detox their bodies. Interested participants meet at her Washington Boulevard restaurant in Pigtown to discuss the ground rules, to set up a buddy system, and for other group activities.

It was her challenge that started Harris, Kinsey, and many others down a road of “uncooking” or, rather, of unlearning the conditioning behind traditional food preparation. Though many participants dropped out of the initial challenge—35 out of 60 who started gave up—Davis is confident there are enough people who out there who care about their health, their bodies, to keep the program going. “People are tired of being sick and they’re tired of being on drugs and medication,” she says.

Where Harris’ food prep is tasty and successfully replicates its cooked cousins (e.g., his raw vegan pasta with marinara was absolutely stunning—he made the marinara out of tomatoes and strawberries), Davis’ raw salads carry a masterful simplicity won by years of recipe perfection.

Her raw okra salad is devoid of any sliminess, and her avocado salad with cucumber, onion, and squash tastes vibrant against a curry-laced mango chutney. Yabba Pot is a haven for people experimenting with raw veganism, featuring about nine raw dishes on its menu.

Davis started eating raw two years ago. She’d been a vegetarian for more than a dozen years, and the transition to veganism and, eventually, a mostly raw vegan diet seemed only natural. There are many facets to the diet, she says, while frying plantains for a Yabba Pot lunch side dish. “When you get into it, there’s so much food available,” she says. “You’re not even looking for the burgers and fries and hot dogs.”

Still, Davis doesn’t eat raw 100 percent of the time; for her, it’s part of the business. “I have to eat cooked food because I cook for a living,” she says. “I have to taste everything. But if I eat a bowl of rice, I feel off
balance.”

Even Michael Harris, who is frequently 100 percent raw vegan, acknowledges that he has started introducing sprouted breads and other foods into his diet after going through periods that he refers to as detoxifications. Though many who embrace the raw lifestyle may reintroduce some cooked foods to their diets,most don’t go back to what they colloquially call the “Standard American Diet,” or SAD. Very few people stay raw 100 percent of the time.

By the end of my third day raw, I was so hungry, and yet so full. I had stuffed myself at each meal with raw greens, nuts, nut milk, sprouts, juices, and mushrooms, and I could not reach a state of fullness. I figured it was the carbohydrates—I must be craving carbs. I tried sprouting some quinoa to make a tabbouleh salad using the quinoa in place of the traditional bulgur wheat, and that only resulted in a dirty-tasting salad made out of little crunchy balls with strings on the end of them.

One night, I got in my car and drove toward Fells Point. I had treated myself to dinner at the Yabba Pot and stuffed myself on marinated mushrooms, sesame spinach, and kale salad, all delicious. But as I drove, I started thinking of spinach pie. It was late, but I knew of a restaurant that sells spinach pie late. I tried calling Harris to ask him about this craving, but he didn’t answer. I didn’t leave a message.

I pulled up to the restaurant, and there was a parking spot directly across the street.

While I waited for the pastry to arrive, I sat impatiently hoping Harris would see my number on his cell phone’s “missed calls” and ring back to talk me out of eating it, but he didn’t. The spinach pie arrived and I ate it and felt remarkably better. I wasn’t shaking anymore, and I was in a much better mood (three days of raw food and hunger had made me somewhat unpleasant to be around). My headache of two days was gone. And I was sated; I didn’t want any more cooked food. The rest of the week continued, but I decided to eat one cooked morsel at night, just to take off the edge of being perpetually hungry. Nothing too bad, nothing deep-fried. Just a small portion of rice or potatoes or tofu.

It seems 100 percent raw is a hard commitment to make. At least it was for me.

 

Katrina Bland says she transitioned very easily into a 100 percent raw vegan. A 36-year-old foreclosure specialist at a downtown law firm, Bland went raw last November during the first Raw Food Challenge and hasn’t looked back since. Meeting in a courtyard a block from her office, Bland is energetic and wide-eyed, with a bright smile. “It’s a lifestyle for me now,” she says. “It’s wonderful. I don’t know how I was ever not raw, now that I know and have become informed about it.”

For Bland, it’s not just the vague notion of feeling healthy, or of achieving health. “I thought at first it was going to be a cleansing for me,” she explains. “But my energy level has gone through the roof.” As a runner who’s completed three marathons, Bland is anxious to see how keeping a raw diet will affect her time in the Baltimore Marathon this October. This year, she says, she’s found a naturally occurring electrolyte-rich drink, and won’t have to rely on Gatorade. “Raw young coconut is very rich in electrolytes,” Bland says. “The water inside the coconut is a natural sports drink.”

In retrospect, Bland’s move toward the raw diet began in reaction to her mother’s death eight years ago. “If I had known then what I know now about raw foods, I would have tried to encourage this lifestyle for her,” she says. “This diet can cure diabetes. I think that this diet could cure cancer.”

There is no shortage of sources, many of them creditable, willing to make claims for raw food’s healthful powers. Some medical doctors agree with Bland’s notion that a raw-food diet can help reverse some cancers, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and more. Others view raw food—through their experimentation and private research—as a fountain of youth that encourages spiritual as well as physical well-being.

Most well-known among raw-food proponents is 63-year-old Gabriel Cousens, a medical doctor and author of five books, including the 800-plus-page tome Conscious Eating. Cousens, who is also a psychiatrist and a diplomat on the American Board of Holistic Medicine, operates a raw-food retreat in Patagonia, Ariz. Reached by phone, he cites example after example of type-1 diabetics who are able to shirk their insulin treatments after visiting his Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center for a couple of weeks. He argues that cooking food depletes its inherent protein and nutrients.

“If you don’t cook the food, you can eat half as much and get more nutrition,” Cousens says, adding that a raw diet changes “how the body reacts to the foods that are introduced.” Cousens cites an example: “At 20, I was captain of my Amherst College football team and I could do 70 push-ups. I’ve been raw since 1983, and a couple years ago, at the age of 60, I did 601 push-ups.”

Just as important as eating raw, Cousens contends, is consuming less. “Research shows that the less you eat the longer you live,” he says.

Victoria Boutenko isn’t an M.D., but her work is viewed as equally important in the pantheon of raw-food literature. Boutenko came upon raw foods, she says, because her “whole family was very ill. We had a bouquet of illnesses that the doctor said were not curable.” Boutenko’s arrhythmia and her husband’s hyperthyroid condition and arthritis virtually disappeared within a few months of going raw, she says. As a result, started spreading the word about raw foods and has written several books and produced videos and DVDs promoting the raw lifestyle.

Boutenko posits that people are hooked on cooked food, but that they can overcome their addiction through a program that she lays out in her book 12 Steps to Raw Foods. In it, she describes 14-day fasts that she and her family took as part of a detoxification program. Her most recent book, Green for Life, promotes the use of raw dark leafy greens—which she calls “liquefied sunshine”—to overcome virtually any physical or mental problem one may have.

Some of Boutenko’s assertions are a bit peculiar. In her book Raw Family she writes that maintaining a 100 percent raw diet can create the conditions for “the real miracles [to] begin to happen, when previously removed tonsils, teeth, appendixes, and even gall bladders begin to regenerate.”

Not everyone in the scientific and academic realms agrees with Cousens’ and Boutenko’s claims. Even in the ranks of vegetarianism, the raw lifestyle is not exempt from scrutiny. Tom Billings, a statistician living in Berkeley, Calif., started his web site—BeyondVeg.com—to address problems and dangers that come up as a result of vegetarian, vegan, and raw lifestyles. Citing dozens of scholarly journals, Billings’s articles argue against what he calls “party line” raw veganism is “the prominent claim that if you’re a raw fooder, then you don’t need to eat as many calories as other people. People do that and then start losing weight,” he says by phone from his West Coast home. “But everyone feels great when you lose weight. People with anorexia feel great when they lose weight.”

Billings eats about 50 percent raw himself, but he believes it’s important to present the opposing viewpoint and to urge people not to fall into groupthink. He draws arguments from professors and doctors, building a case that eating cooked foods is an inherent biological disposition, and that obsessively eating healthful foods has led to a new eating disorder: orthorexia nervosa, or “fixation on righteous eating,” a term coined by Fort Collins, Colo.-based Dr. Steven Bratman, proprietor of Orthorexia.com and author of the book Health Food Junkies.

Contemporary arguments over raw food extend back into prehistory. Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard University, adamantly maintains that cooking and humanity have grown side by side for hundreds of millennia. “The way to think about the place of cooking in human biology is that it is what makes us human,” he says. Homo sapiens, which began to appear between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, did not invent cooked food. Rather, Wrangham contends, hard evidence exists that cooking began about 2 million years ago.

The evidence, Wrangham says, occurs when members of the genus Homo began to grow shorter arms and bigger bodies and brains. Most significantly, he says, fossils from about 2 million year ago display a telltale sign that the genus had changed its diet: The jaws and teeth were smaller.

“Teeth getting smaller is the opposite of what happens to most every other meat eater,” Wrangham says. “Cooking makes the food softer, which favors smaller teeth, and more teeth. And whenever you see a fossil change in an ancient species, you always think: Hmmn, there’s something going on with their diet here.

“Once you cook [food],” he continues, “it enormously reduces the amount of time you spend chewing. An animal our size, if it ate raw food exclusively as most animals do, would probably spend about six hours a day chewing. Once we became hunter-gatherers [who cooked food], we probably spent an hour a day chewing.”

And Wrangham says this fundamental shift is responsible for civilization to an extent, because we weren’t fighting over food but gathering around the fire to cook it. “Early on, we developed these social rules so we don’t fight over food,” he says.

 

Whether eating cooked foods is a biological disposition or not, eating raw in the 21st century is not simply about returning to a grazing state. There are other issues at hand. Cousens says that diet is linked to spirituality, and that by changing our diets we change our receptivity to spirituality. “The paradigm in the early 1900s was, ‘If you have a problem, take a drug,’” he says. “The new paradigm now is, ‘If you have a problem, get healthy.’ It’s just a different paradigm.”

A different paradigm, but one that sets up different eating patterns. And according to Cousens, “the purpose of eating is to become a superconductor of the divine. When you take in live food you can become more of a body of life.”

But Cousens is also a businessman, running a holistic health center replete with educational programs such as Essene Priesthood and Sprouting, and for businesses to survive there’s a material need. It’s a need that exists for larger organizations such as Cousens’ Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center as much as it does for Adam Kandel’s sprout stand at the downtown Baltimore Farmers Market.

Kandel, a 25-year-old philosophy graduate from Towson University, was an employee at Yabba Pot, and has participated in all three of the 21 Day Raw Food Challenges. In addition, he’s taught classes during the challenges on sprouting and sustainable agriculture, and this May he opened up his small foldout table on opening day at the Sunday farmers’ market under the JFX overpass. His minivan with its “BELIEVE in a Greener Baltimore” bumper sticker parked behind him, Kandel sits on a metal folding chair with a hand-crank wheat-grass machine and several Ziploc baggies of different kinds of sprouts available for sale. “It’s not even 11 o’clock and I’m sold out of wheat grass,” he says, surprised.

Kandel started his business after raw friends asked him to grow sprouts for them. His operation, which started as one shelf in his kitchen, has grown to three full wooden bookshelves, each replete with wide-mouth jars closed off with a nylon mesh and black plastic trays filled with sprouts of wheat grass, red clover, sunflower, and mung.

The sprouts, which are harvestable after about a week to 10 days, require constant attention. “I have to spray them with water twice a day,” Kandel says. “But they’re my babies. I give them all my attention.” During a recent Passover trip to Philadelphia, he brought his entire operation with him to his parents’ house.

But besides sprouts being his babies, they’re his livelihood. He grows sprouts for people at the monthly raw potluck and at the Yabba Pot. He sells his sprouts at the Health Concern in Towson and to two local restaurants. His decision to buy a table at the farmers’ market was a step toward less running around during the week to his dozen or so clients. That lifestyle is too much for him: “It feels like being a drug dealer sometimes,” he says.

Kandel says he grows sprouts for reasons beyond just his modest salary and his own relationship with the sprouts. “This is about a sustainable food source, at it’s heart,” he says. “In a transition to raw veganism, people want to make things more gourmet—coming from the way we eat, like going to restaurants. For me, I want to show people that we can create our own food, without having to use the petroleum to ship food all over the world. And when you live with the food and watch it grow, then when you eat it, you’re not disconnected from it.”

His words are inspiring. Also inspiring is that while he eats a good deal of raw food, Kandel says he sometimes cuts loose, even recently taking a break from raw food. “I’ve been deep-frying a lot lately,” he confesses.

And moderation is the conclusion I also reached. During my raw-food week, I saw a change in how much energy I had and how little I had to eat for breakfast and lunch. While I was frequently famished by dinner time, I didn’t need to eat that much to feel full.

Having attempted going raw on my own, I see how a group of people eating the diet at the same time, helping each other, could yield better results. And perhaps, as Harris suggested after my week was over, I didn’t have the right attitude. “Sometimes it’s best to think of raw-food dieting as a fast of sorts,” he says. “That can help deal with the hunger.”

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