AMY: This horror story starts with the Bermuda Triangle … the moniker my hubs and I have less-than-affectionately given our mailbox. When we decided to do an article on synsepalum dulcificum—the miracle berry that makes sour foods taste sweet (and sweet foods sweeter)—we knew the biggest hurdle would be getting the stupid things delivered. It’s always the same — with UPS (who can’t find our house), FedEx (who refuse to look for our house and leaves packages in four different places) and LaserShip (who just lose our packages altogether). So we begged the nice folks at Ethan’s Garden, where we ordered the berries, to use the United States Postal Service. It’s usually pretty good … unless our regular carrier is on vacation.
Which she was.
The “flavor tripping party” was scheduled for Tuesday. The berries didn’t arrive. Turns out the post office redirected the shipment to the wrong zip code. So we rescheduled for Wednesday … but they still didn’t show up — although the tracking information claimed the package was delivered. Getting desperate, we called Ethan. He was kind enough to send out two more boxes — one to Sarah and one to the We The Eater’s post office box downtown. Both arrived in time for our third party attempt: the following Monday.
We were chopping up foods to sample as guests began to arrive.
APRIL: You met one of those guests last week. Remember Dan, the fellow who has no sense of smell, and, therefore, a very different sense of taste than the rest of us experience? We thought he’d make a fun addition to the group. After we’d assembled, Amy popped open the box of pretty little berries. These so-called miracle berries look a lot like fresh cranberries, but grow in tropical climates.
Although, as Amy has noted, the rather unremarkable-looking berries do a pretty remarkable thing: A molecule in the fruit, miraculin, binds to your sour taste buds and send only sweet signals to your brain. Long story short, until the molecule is washed away—which takes anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or more—tricks your brain into thinking you’re experiencing a sweet taste when eating sour and tart foods.
SARAH: Something that makes sweet things taste sweeter and sour things sweet? Sign me up. Of course, while I love the sweet stuff, I wasn’t sure just how this was all going to work. We needed a large variety of flavors to sample—sweet, sour, tart and spicy—in order to get a true experience.
The tasting spread we put together, with help from guests and random additions from Amy’s pantry, was pretty remarkable. We had sweet fruits, tart veggies, fermented tidbits and interesting bottles of liquids to sip. We didn’t know if there was a specific order we should taste things in. For instance, would the super-sweet things overpower the sour-turned-sweet foods? And where should that bottle of hot sauce fall in the grand order of things? All in all, and in this order, we served the following: strawberries, Granny Smith apples, lemons, limes, grapefruit, kale, radishes, sweet pickles, dill pickles, hop pickles (tangy and spicy, made with Dogfishhead 60 Minute IPA), Amy’s homemade kimchi, Sarah’s homemade sauerkraut, a Thai soup called Tom Kha, tamarind paste, a variety of vinegars (white, apple cider and balsamic), Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, sparkling water and two different beers.
AMY: After I gave out some basic instructions, everybody popped the berries in their mouths. After rolling them around on our tongues a few minutes, we started to dig in. I had the awesome privilege of standing on the other side of the counter from our “tasters.” It was pretty amazing seeing their reactions!
APRIL: We all made some pretty amusing faces, I can attest to that. The strawberries were big hits — a bit too sweet for some, but I thought they tasted like the sweetest, ripest berries I’d ever tried. The dill pickles tasted like sweet pickles (mmm … ), and the sweet pickles were unbearably so — even too sugary for Sarah, our resident sweet tooth. Ditto for the little satsuma oranges; they seemed to have been cured in aspartame. And while we were looking forward to tasting a dramatic difference in the radishes and kale, I thought they seemed the same as usual.
SARAH: Agreed, April! The strawberries tasted like the ones my mom soaks in sugar for her shortcakes: super-sweet, but yummy. And, while the kale didn’t really taste like anything more than kale to me, other tasters spat out their leafy bites in horror. I will never forget the look that crossed Amy’s face seconds before she discarded hers.
The faces and reactions were one of the best parts of the whole flavor tripping endeavor. It was fascinating how differently we all seem to taste things. While the We the Eaters team loved the sickeningly sweet strawberries, guest Dan couldn’t take them.
“They were too sweet for me — and I love strawberries,” he said.
Dan’s favorite turned out to be the limes, which he said tasted like limeade … and he doesn’t like limes. I had the same reaction to grapefruit while I was flavor tripping; they were delicious, but I can’t stand them normally.
In other words, some of us loved things we normally hate, and hated things we normally love.
AMY: I thought these berries would just intensify flavors. As in, if you hate kale, you’d really hate kale while flavor tripping. But that wasn’t the case at all. I like kale normally, but the miraculin made it taste bitter. And although, like Sarah, I don’t typically eat grapefruit, I was in the same ecstasy as she with those sweet-tart wedges after the berries.
In a side note, that first package of berries actually did show up — eventually. The mail carrier had “delivered” them to the steps of the building next to ours. He or she just randomly sat our personal mail on the communal steps that service a four-unit condo building. In the rain. Along with our new passports. I wish I was kidding.
Talk about a nightmare … and one almost as bad as those hop pickles — my least favorite flavor tripping bite. They tasted like acid to me.
APRIL: Actually, those pickles tasted worse than acid. Guest Sophie wasn’t too put off by them, somehow, but I thought they tasted like old socks. Yuck. Lucky for me, Sophie had concocted the perfect thing to wash away that nastiness: a delightful drink of sparkling water with a twist of lemon and lime. It tasted like Sprite, she said, but I’d say it was far better than that — the perfect balance of refreshing and sweet.
Sophie admitted that she probably overdid it on the citrus fruits (which pretty much everyone agreed were delicious). “I was like licking lemons,” she said. “Now my tongue hurts — but it was worth every lemony bite!” And she was in the camp that loathed the kale, too.
AMY: Count Caroline in on the anti-kale team, as well! She said she felt like the “weenie of the bunch,” because, after three bad experiences, she was pretty much done. One of the culprits for her were capers.
“It tasted like the capers had given up their caperhood,” she said.
So she decided to just camp out with the items she liked, primarily grapefruit and lime. I think most of us agreed they were the hands-down favorites. I actually followed Sophie’s lead, too, adding a huge slice of grapefruit to sparkling water with a twist of lime. It was so delicious!
SARAH: As it turns out, I’m not the only one with a sweet tooth around here. Adam was a big fan of some of our super-sweet items as well. He liked the sweet pickles best, as well as the lemons and strawberries — the sweeter the better! But as he migrated away from the sweets down to the savory liquids, he had some horrifying reactions.
“The Tabasco was brutal” and tasted like cough medicine, he said. For Amy, the hot sauce was more like fire … it was as if she had actually burned her mouth. Anything spicy, including the kimchi, caused that reaction for her — the hotness seemed to intensify, and took a while to go away.
As for some of the other liquids, here’s one of the best quotes of the night, from Adam: “The vinegars tasted like soda to me, but left my lips and my stomach burning. System failure … foreign materials have been introduced … abort!”
AMY: Yeah … ugh. My belly took a day to fully recuperate.
APRIL: The whole endeavor was a ton of fun. It was as much fun to brainstorm what foods we should bring as it was to taste them.
If you’d like to give flavor tripping a try, we suggest eating real food ahead of time. if you’re still hungry for something more substantial afterwards, it may taste unpleasant until the berries’ effect wears off. Not to mention, it’s probably not a good idea to mix so many random, acidic foods on a completely empty stomach …
AMY: Right! Like all foods, moderation isn’t a bad thing. The lemons may taste awesome, but eating 10 of them, with a shot of balsamic to chase it all down, isn’t in your tummy’s best interest!