Amazing Tongue Tricks
I never thought I would find myself drinking white vinegar on a Saturday night, but this past weekend, I was doing exactly that.
In my constant quest to expand my palate, last Saturday some friends and I ate miracle fruit - and saw just how much taste perception can change in a single evening. Miracle fruit - a name that is endearing and whimsical, but touch of hyperbole - is a small, red berry that is native to West Africa. While in and of itself it is rather tasteless, it contains a glycoprotein that binds with taste-buds - making sour things taste sweet, and shifting a person’s entire range of flavor a bit. I originally read about miracle fruit in the New York Times a year ago, but finally made the plunge last weekend. I bought my berries online on Monday and they were delivered by FedEx to the Slow Food USA national office freeze dried on Friday.
Saturday evening, a friend and I assembled a wide selection of foods that we thought might taste interesting - from olives and apples to beer and limes. We invited a small crew over to my apartment, and tossed the berries in our mouths. To get the full effect, the berry must lull about in your mouth for five minutes before you can start eating other foods with your new sense of taste.
As the berries did their magic, participants wondered aloud about the experiment I had pulled them into. “Are you sure this is safe?” one friend asked. “Are you sure this is legal?” chimed in another.
Once the berry’s power set in, we began munching. Suddenly lemons tasted like they were candied. The red onions that typically make my eyes tear-up with their spicy glory, suddenly tasted watery and dull. Chipotle-Tabasco sauce was like chocolate syrup. Raw beets seemed extra earthy, and so well rounded. White vinegar tasted like sugared syrup and with an overwhelming memory of Easter egg dying.
Some foods didn’t change at all - carrots still tasted like carrots - but for the most part it was a pretty wild experience. By the time we sat down for dim sum an hour later, the effects of this miraculous berry had worn off - but the idea still sticks with me. Taste is only one of many ways I interact with the food I eat and it is so easily tricked - even by nature.
In the 1970s, food companies distilled the essential chemical from miracle fruit and proposed it as a natural - if trippy - sweetener. The US government ruled it out, but so many similar additives have slipped through the cracks since. Chemicals naturally found in corn have been extracted and bent to become calorie-free sweeteners. Naturally occurring MSG gives mushrooms their savory, musky flavor - but the synthetic version of this universal flavor enhancer is strongly reviled. The line between honest eating and confounding consumption becomes ever twisted. Because miraculin was denied as an additive and the fruit itself is highly perishable, miracle fruit will likely never make it big. It will remain as a strange and rare way to change your perception of taste, and nothing more.
The experience will go down with other ‘madeleine memories’ - the first time I ate a fresh tomato from my grandfather’s garden; those fantastic spring rolls that made my stomach flutter in Thailand; a sip of warm milk from a cow I had just hand-milked; - but this taste will have a little asterisk by it. Sunday morning I tried another spoonful of white vinegar - sans miracle fruit - and it was incredibly, but reassuringly, bitter again.
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