The clues said it all:
February will feature our sweetest event ever.
Two Asian spices: One is from tree bark, the other is the most expensive by weight.
R. Dowling’s house.
We believe in miracles.
When I met Mystery Meet founder Seth Resler at the Boston Food Blogger’s launch party last month, he’d told me that the February Mystery Meet dinner would be an event I wouldn’t want to miss. “I’ve been working on it for three months,” he said.
It took me about five seconds of Googling to know that he was right. I’d read that New York Times story back in 2008, and since then had been curious about the “miracle berry,” an obscure tropical fruit that rewires the taste buds, turning sour flavors into sweet, so that vinegar tastes like syrup.
Still, I arrived at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts on Tuesday unsure of what to expect. The idea of “taste tripping” brought to mind black lights and body shots. Instead, I found banquet tables, linen napkins and printed menus.
Seth welcomed us and introduced Eliana Hussain, the chef at Arlington’s Saffron and Cinnamon. Eliana told us a bit about the miracle berry, explaining that it was discovered in Africa back in the 1700s amongst a civilization of people known for their lip-puckering cuisine. Tonight, she had developed a menu that would compliment the berry’s talents, laden with vinegars and sour notes.
At Seth’s cue, I popped the berry in my mouth. It wasn’t particularly bad, but not particularly good either. It reminded me of the raw coffee beans I tried when visiting coffee plantations in Costa Rica. Like a coffee berry, the skin was thick, the interior a slimy mess surrounding a large seed.
The effects of the miracle berry are caused by proteins in the fruit binding with the receptors on your taste buds, which make them react differently to acidity (sour). Wanting to ensure a good coating, I swished the masticated pulp around my mouth, mashing it into my tongue. Then I picked up a lemon wedge and licked it tentatively. Nothing. I bit into it, and my mouth was flooded with a super-sweet juice, like melted sorbet or lemon-flavored sugar. The essence of lemon was there, but it was intensely sweet.
Not quite believing it, I picked up a slice of lime. Same thing. Delicious. “Careful,” Seth warned as I picked up another lemon wedge. “All that acidity will give you a stomach ache.”
For the first few courses I thought I was in heaven. The normally lip puckering out-of-season kiwi and blackberry tasted like they’d been ripened by the sun. Salads of grapefruit and pomegranate, and green apple and fennel tasted like desserts.
Eliana had also put out small dishes of pomegranate syrup and Sriracha sauce. While the miracle berry transformed the normally tart syrup into something conjured up by Willy Wonka, I wasn’t as impressed with the Sriracha. The fieriness was almost overwhelming.
It was in our next course- shrimp and strawberries with mignonette- that I began to realize some of the drawbacks to this “miracle.” While the berry renders vinegar sweet as soda, it also flattens flavors out, cutting out the layers and subtlety that often make dishes so delightful. Normally sweet shrimp tasted like nothing, and the onion that draws contrast in a mignonette was non-existent. I felt like I had the palate of a sixth grader raised on Pop Tarts and Air Heads: everything tasted sickly sweet or like nothing at all.
The tamarind-tomato soup, which I imagined would be a whirl of sweet and sour, instead tasted only of spice. The Cuban sandwich that came next might as well have been made with week old bread and dry turkey- there was no smokiness to the pork, no saltiness in the ham… not even the pickles tasted like anything.
The berry’s effects started to wear off by the time the chicken piccata rolled around. My tongue relished the eye-opening sourness of the caper-studded lemon sauce, thrilled to be able to distinguish the contrast between it and the salty-sweet chicken. I imagine the butternut squash cannelloni would have been rather blah with the berry, but instead it was a delicate balance of creamy cheese and sweet pureed squash.
As I made my way home that night, I thought about how the miracle berry had rendered my normally receptive palate sort of stupid. While the transformation from sour to sweet was fun, having everything taste so cloyingly sweet got old after a while. I missed the ability to taste multiple things at once, to dissect the savory from the sweet, to catch that hint of spice or a whiff of sour. To me, that is the true miracle of food.