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Standing rather rigidly next to our table at Poste Moderne Brasserie, chef Robert Weland wants to know if I’m out to trash his food. He claims he’s joking, but I have to admit, his question is legit given our mission: My friend Jim and I are here to purposely warp our palate with a “miracle berry tablet,” the amuse-bouche of choice these days among food chumps who host “flavor tripping” parties. The tablets apparently turn your tongue into your own personal Krispy Kreme outlet.
Well, at least that’s what I had read earlier this year in the New York Times, which wrote that the West African “miracle fruit” (Synsepalum dulcificum), from which these precious freeze-dried tablets are derived, “rewires the way the palate perceives sour flavors for an hour or so, rendering lemons as sweet as candy.” A New York colleague who had sampled the tablets went even further: “Do not take these if [you] don’t want everything to taste like corn syrup,” e-mailed Erin Zimmer, staff blogger for Serious Eats. (Aside to the corn syrup lobby: Those PR materials you’re about to mail me again? Stick ’em in your sticky-sweet piehole.)
The pill sounds like an 8-year-old’s fantasy come true: Every nauseating piece of liver or vile vinegary leaf of lettuce suddenly tastes as if it were run under a donut glazer. But the pill also sounds like a chef’s worst nightmare: Every carefully composed dish, prepared to balance acid with sweetness, salt to tartness, now tastes like it could send you into a diabetic coma. It’s no wonder that Weland worried how his food might be portrayed under the influence of the two tablets I had. But the chef is nothing if not a gamer; after initially rejecting the idea, he gobbled a whole tablet himself, which left Jim and I to split the other.
After we let the half-tablet dissolve on our tongue, Jim and I each took a sip of beer. He bought a Budweiser, under the impression that the pill might actually improve the taste of it, and I ordered a Fordham Copperhead Ale. “Unbelievably,” Jim said about his Bud, “it tastes even more terrible…sort of like cotton candy.” My ale had lost all of its hoppy backbone; it had been reduced to caramel in a bottle.
Weland spent most of his berry-addled time in Poste’s kitchen, where he was apparently gobbling every morsel in sight, because he kept sending out different things for Jim and I to try. Some items were composed, like a bite of yellowtail tuna with grapefruit and crispy ginger or a king salmon tartar with crème fraiche, Dijon mustard, shallots, and sturgeon caviar in a five-spice cone. Others were just plates of fried shallots, red-onion jam, pickled mushrooms, and smoked salts. None of them tasted right, especially to Weland who had sucked on a whole tablet, which purportedly contains the extract of three berries. “It’s all one-dimensional,” he said. “It just turns the acid to sugar.”
Except the pill did another thing to Weland: It temporarily blocked the flavor of salt, whether in the smoked salts or in the briny liquor of the Kumamoto oysters that he served us. Jim and I had no problem tasting sodium chloride, but we could barely detect a whiff of smoke in those salts or even the flavor of the oyster itself. “I can smell the smoke more than taste it,” Jim noted.
The magic berry pill really fucked with us in two critical areas—wine and spicy foods. Jim ordered a Hess cabernet sauvignon, which he pronounced almost undrinkable (though he drank it all). “I know Hess cab, and this is no Hess cab,” he intoned. “It’s a cross between Zinfandel and the mouthwash they give you at the dentist.” I got a glass of Jade Mountain mourvedre, which I had first drooled over at Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert many months ago. This one I practically gagged over: It tasted like I had sucked on a cherry and chased it with a shot of Karo syrup.
Spicy food fared even worse. The tiny five-spice cone that encased the salmon tartar tasted not like anise or ginger or Szechwan peppercorns or cloves or whatever ingredients were used in this particular blend. No, the cone tasted like a graham cracker. The heirloom tomato gazpacho, which Weland pumped up with extra cayenne, didn’t even register on my inner Scoville scale. I actually began to worry about this last effect: Could I eat an endless string of habaneros and not feel anything until my GI tract exploded? I decided to shelve that particular experiment.
In the end, we decided that the magic berry pill had less of a sweetening than a deforming effect on foods. For me, the only thing that registered from Weland’s smartly composed bite of yellowtail tuna, grapefruit, and crispy ginger was bitterness—the bitterness, in fact, of nuclear-strength coffee left on the burner for days. For Jim, the pill “really messed with the ginger,” he said. “It’s muted. It’s deformed. It’s hunchbacked.”
The truth is, the magic berry contaminated almost every dish in some way—at least the ones we sampled before the pill’s effects began to wane after an hour and we could resume eating with pleasure. It was a testament to Weland’s skills and staff that we still wolfed down as many plates as we did in our altered condition. As Jim noted, “If it tastes this good when it’s fucked up, imagine what it’s like when it’s not.”
Perhaps if we had sucked on the pulp from a fresh magic berry itself, the results would have been more positive. I don’t know. What I do know is that the magic berry has become something of a novelty item, whether among New York and San Francisco flavor trippers or cocktail mixologists and pastry chefs who incorporate the fruit into their creations. The sad thing is, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. The magic berry was supposed to serve a greater purpose: to help curb diabetes and obesity in America.
According to a Wall Street Journal story last year and a BBC article in April, Robert Harvey and Don Emery founded a company in the ’70s called Miralin (taken from the berry’s active glycoprotein, miraculin), which would produce freeze-dried magic fruit tablets that diabetics would swallow before digging into one of the company’s sugar-free recipes. But then, at the urging of investors, the company decided to develop products aimed at a broader market, including “miracle berry” Popsicles, which would satisfy a child’s craving for sweets without loading them up with fattening sugars. The BBC article notes that in the summer of 1974, four varieties of the Popsicle “were compared to similar, sugar-sweetened versions by schoolchildren in Boston. The berry won every time.”
The question, of course, is why didn’t these products ever make it to market? In the BBC story, Miralin executives blame “some industrial interest”—Big Sugar for those who can’t read between the lines—that convinced the USDA to put the screws to the budding berry company by requiring years of expensive product testing. Miralin couldn’t afford to—and died. Big Sugar, naturally, denied exerting any influence in the matter.
So now, as our country’s blubber and blood sugar rates continue to skyrocket, we’re left with a miracle berry performing acts of lesser wonder. True miracles will have to wait for a day when our government prefers the berries to actually improve our lives and not just perform parlor tricks for food nuts like Jim and me.
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