"It tastes like unwashed feet the crevice parts."
" ... like a dry corn cob."
" ... like how new carpet smells."
" ... like rancid vinegar."
" ... like Jolly Rancher extract."
" ... like cheap, Brie-flavored Velveeta."
" ... like old mushrooms."
What single food item could and did help elicit each of these reactions?
Well, the aptly named miracle fruit. And no, I'm not talking about beans.
Never heard of it? Neither had I, until a friend told me: "You eat it, and your taste buds shift so that sour foods taste sweet. You can eat lemons straight."
And of course, since one of the strongest ambitions in my life had always been to eat lemons straight, I said I'd host a miracle fruit party. After all, I'd been weaned on the story of Hanukkah growing up. I've long been down with miracles.
Step the first: Procure the miracle fruit. Easy enough. An online search yielded a few companies that sell tablet versions of the fruit, Synsepalum dulcificum, which grows on a shrub native to West Africa. The story on the Web site I chose to buy from, miraclefruittab.com, explained that an early 18th-century explorer first documented use of miracle fruit by bushmen who chewed it prior to meals. Three hundred years later, I got a 10-pack for $12.95 plus shipping.
Miracle fruit apparently contains "an active glycoprotein molecule, with some trailing carbohydrate chains, called miraculin." (Um-hum.) These molecules binds to your taste buds, where, the hypothesis says, they distort the shape of your sweetness receptors, making them more responsive to acids. The effect tends to last between 30 minutes and two hours.
Though I believe most people order miracle fruit simply to play, the site makes an idealistic argument for the product's use as a sugar-replacement that improves health by allowing you to snack on tart, nutritious fruits you may otherwise avoid. It also claims to combat hangovers while "reduc[ing] the effect of consumed alcohol."
This claim, in addition to a slew of foods, we'd put to the test.
Lemons on the app tray
Step the second: Buy a smattering of site-recommended foods. We assembled quite an unusual party spread.
On one platter, pomegranate kernels were mounded next to slices of citrus fruits. On a second, three types of apples surrounded two pear varieties and kiwi slices. A third held three cheeses next to raw veggies. Bowls of tomatoes and olives, a bag of vinegar and sea salt chips, and cups of plain and mixed-berry yogurt surrounded the batch.
Not sure how full we'd be after sampling, two guests contributed a butternut squash soup and a vegetarian zucchini lasagna for heartier courses. A lone bar of 88 percent cacao chocolate awaited for dessert.
For drinks, we lined up a bottle of dessert ice wine (made from grapes allowed to freeze on the vine); a cheap bottle of Chilean cabernet/merlot blend; and 22-ounce bombers of a super-hoppy IPA, a wheat Hefe-Weisse, a malty double bock and a heavy oatmeal stout.
Step the third: Drop your tabs and work your way through the spread, shouting out taste associations and triggered memories.
Following the box's directions, eight of us (including one 3-year-old) placed a tab on our tongues, then rolled it around to deliver that precious miraculin to as many taste buds as possible. We felt like a crew of wayward teenagers partaking in ganja butter, pot brownies or mushroom tea; as one eater put it, we were shrubbin'.
After waiting two minutes for those sour receptors to plug, we began working our way through the fruits. The first two we tried ended up being the most surprising and best-tasting: lemons and limes. Eyebrows raised in unison as each tasted like candy, the lime almost orange-flavored and the lemon as sugary as a Lemonhead.
Tooth enamel be damned. We're having fun!
Truly, it took a moment to intellectually grasp a lemon tasting sweet, especially since magic fruit doesn't change your perception of smell. Oranges tasted like dollar-store orange soda, pears like really ripened pears, Granny Smith apples like red apples.
Next we hit the alcohol, which I'd recommend excluding from your tasting party if you want your favorite beer to remain sacred to you. I felt like I'd entered a very un-fun Bizarro World where my IPA suddenly tasted like fruit beer. ("This is IPA?" marveled one guest who normally doesn't like the style.) The wheat beer earned the corn-cob remark; the stout garnered an "aggressively bad," and the double bock tasted like a malt train-wreck.
Further disappointing, the red wine tasted vinegary and the ice wine lost all hints of alcohol while evoking an aftertaste of applesauce. The only way that I can understand miracle fruit preventing hangovers is in its making me not want to drink at all.
On to the cheese, several Brie fans nearly wept at how gross it became, while drunken goat cheese elicited the analogy to feet. Only Gorgonzola was pleasing, as somehow the earthy flavor became amplified even the 3-year-old liked it. As for the yogurts, the berry tasted completely normal, while the plain could've been mistaken for sour cream.
On miracle fruit, gourmet olives tasted like the cheap canned ones, the potato chips seemed "dipped in syrup" and the cucumbers and bell peppers changed little. Refreshingly, the tomatoes' acid turned to a pleasant sweetness, making each taste like a healthy candy.
Starting to come down a bit (most of us returned to normal closer to the 30-minute mark), our entres provided a little study: the apple and ginger ingredients in the soup came to the forefront, tasting to me like the filling of a Danish pastry.
"I taste basil-flavored jelly," said one eater about the lasagna, which apparently had a lot of garlic that I couldn't taste at all. Lastly, bites of the chocolate tasted as if 15 to 20 percent of the cacao were shaved off.
On the whole, the miracle fruit experiment proved a sure success in terms of eliciting lots of laughter on top of novel food exploration. Shrubbin' doesn't exactly beat the miracle of oil burning for eight days, but it's a great option to liven a dinner party. And if nothing else, you can at least brag about pounding down raw lemons afterward.
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