Sipping elixirs in the city of deep-dish pizza

By Dan O’Sullivan
February 07, 2018
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illustration by lauren kolm

I’m not a healthy man. Or, to be more precise, a health-conscious man. Attracted as I am to the kind of food that make cardiologists clutch at rosary beads, I am fortunate to live in Chicago. Italian beef. Deep-dish pizza.Sweet steak sandwiches. Ribeyes as thick as a textbook. “ButterBurgers” served with a side of fried cheese curds and a frozen custard. The deep-fried “pizza puff.” Lots of Old Style lager. This kind of hearty Midwestern food serves well a city where at least two seasons are winter. Yet Chicago has gotten little respect from prominent visitors ever since The New Yorker’sA.J. Liebling got his porcine little hooves around the city’s throat. More recently, the Law & Order guy called Chicagoans fat, while Peter Thiel, vampire lord of Silicon Valley, went a step further, saying that any youngster with brains should leave the Second City for New York or San Francisco.

While such backbiting is loathsome, it raises an interesting point: What hope does a slob like me have of living to be 120 years old, as Thiel intends to do, eating with the mentality of a giant baby with money? For many Chicagoans, the antidote is already at hand: “wellness.” The wellness industry’s constellation of juice bars and raw food purveyors has now brought us the “elixir,” a putatively therapeutic tonic that is painstakingly crafted from exotic ingredients and capable of alleviating a wide array of physical distress.

Elixirs have become a big enough business to find a retail giant like Whole Foods extolling their virtues, reminding us that “before big pharma, there was big forest,” and within that forest, organic remedies perfected by herbalists of years past. The wisdom of these ancients who foraged for goji berries along the Yellow River has apparently been rediscovered, first in Los Angeles, and from there, migrating to New York, with “whole plant tonic bar” outposts. 

Could such places really become a going concern in Chicago? Owen + Alchemy, a “modern juice apothecary” that opened in the rapidly gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood, closed earlier this year. Still, other elixir shops have continued to pop up, somehow finding purchase between the cracks of Chicago’s unforgiving, meat-glazed sidewalks. 

In the same way that child actors in the bizarre ‘70s movie Bugsy Malone got to act like Prohibition-era gangsters, but only fired whipped cream at each other instead of bullets, such elixirs were to me an easy way to pretend I was a strapping adult without  exercising or dieting. Perhaps the tinctures could be a balm on my greasy, slovenly soul. It was time to put them to the test. 

photo by dan o'sullivan

As with all experiments, a control subject was necessary. And where better than in California, cosmic mothership of the elixir rebirth, where I made time recently to visit Project Juice. The chain, which calls itself a “personal guide to achieving elevated wellness,” has eight locations in the Bay Area. Stepping through the storefront of the spare Palo Alto location, across the street from the grim cafeteria for none other than Peter Thiel’s private intelligence firm Palantir, I was quickly greeted by Sophia, my helpful guide. I was interested in the “Wellness Shots,” two-ounce elixirs priced at $4.25 each. They were billed as “using nature's most powerful and efficacious ingredients” to “elevate your health and cover a full-spectrum of wellness needs.” According to Sophie, “People usually buy three of these at a time ... Just today we had someone order five of these on DoorDash,” the delivery service. Well, OK. At least I had walked there. 

I began with the hangover-reducing “Liver Flush,” a beet-red tincture I almost knocked back in one gulp. Surprised by this bitter grapefruit and spicy cayenne cocktail “with milk thistle for detoxification,” I was more pleased by the “Turmeric Tonic” shot, a pineappley mixture with a ginger bite and “turmeric root and chamomile to calm inflammation.” The “Immune Boost,” with its orange-lemon ginger and cayenne blend, was again very spicy, while the “Energy Elixir,” with its matcha tea base, again soothed my palate.

Were they working? Did I feel less inflamed than I had a few minutes before? Should I not have drank all four of them in a row? I wasn’t sure. But then, this couldn’t be the real test; I was a tourist, not someone living their regular, workaday life in dire need of B-12 vitamins. I could say I had been to California, where wellness shots are part of the landscape. But now, it was time to bring the mountain to Mohammed. 

photo by dan o'sullivan

JuiceRx, a Chicago-based cold-pressed juice company, vowed “high quality nutrition that encourages healing and youthful vigor to improve quality of life today, tomorrow, and well into the future.” When I visited their location in the trendy Bucktown neighborhood, the reclaimed wood trim and wheatgrass-lined walls reminded me that this is an upscale phenomenon, as did the $6.50 price tag for each four-ounce elixir.

Eric, my guide, walked me through the elixirs on offer: mixtures JuiceRx is clear to specify “aren’t about fad, or fashion,” but are “mighty with superfood nutrition.” Perhaps yes: The “Heart Health” elixir is packed with “exceedingly high levels of of phytonutrients and antioxidants,” and looked like a bloody, beety, almost wine-like concoction, turning bitter as it hit the throat. The yellowish, murky “Hangover Cure,” with its curious unknown pulp resting on the bottom of the bottle like liquid corkboard, looked more questionable. Tippling the very spicy, cayenne-accented apple-ginger elixir, I realized the sediment was probably Nopal cactus, floating along something called “stabilized oxygen.” 

Though a fellow customer in the store had assured me that the wheatgrass was superb—“It’s healthy, but it doesn’t feel healthy; most things that taste healthy don’t taste that good”—I didn’t have the same experience. It tasted like blended grass, and was the only one I had a hard time choking down. Hopefully, the pea-colored “Immunity” elixir, with its sour smell of blended sunflower sprouts, would fortify my system first, along with its intimidating-sounding cluster of additives, like turmeric, spirulina, echinacea, and Maitake mushroom. 

It was a curious thing. While I was skeptical of the battery of potent elixirs I had downed, I could not suppress the sneaking feeling that, despite any desire I had to be cynical, the large refrigerators stocked with glass bottle after glass bottle of brightly colored juice in the store had somehow been pleasant. The counter space behind the register, with its array of carefully organized powders and bottles, reminded me of a witch’s cauldron. While the other patrons of JuiceRx probably didn’t view this as an adult elaboration upon the times as a child I’d dump food coloring into mom’s garden hose, watching the dirt bubble up purple and gold, this was the plane I operated on.

photo by dan o'sullivan

It would take a journey to Bonne Sante Health Foods for me to really process how I felt. America is a great place for snake oil, and even this likable store, with its front door sticker offering the wares of goldbricking anti-vaccination quackDr. Joseph Mercola, isn’t immune. My worst fears, girding the entirety of this experiment, seemed confirmed: this whole movement was all a lie, taking advantage of real anxieties and fears to make money.

Yet stepping in, I saw a cheerful store doing brisk trade on a Sunday in Hyde Park, the South Side neighborhood home to the Obama family and the University of Chicago. Bonne Sante’s mostly black clientele seemed largely like regulars, with a flock of older ladies chatting at the register. “She basically works here,” exclaimed one teller to laughter, as they debated which elixir I should try.

As I sipped my four freshly made apple cider vinegar elixirs, some with smoky notes, others more subtle, a funny thing happened: I felt pretty good, in a way I didn’t feel at the other, more upmarket places. Whatever health benefits these elixir creations offered is beyond me, yet also somehow irrelevant to whether they work. If there is something to the storied herbalists of lore, I suspect it involves the reliance upon a community that takes care of its members at their weakest—a sentiment not easily translated to upscale commerce.

I felt the greatest comfort while sitting in a place that felt recognizably Chicago. Maybe it was the self delusion of the placebo effect. Or maybe my catalyzing ingredient had been found.