Food for Thought
Move over Lois, there’s a new celebrity plant in town
They call her Sweetie, or Sugar. But Shug would be a better Twitter handle, should she decide to follow in her famous neighbor’s footsteps (that would be the tweeting Lois the stinky Corpse Flower).
And while both plants reside at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Lois is now hidden away in the greenhouse, dreaming the next time she’ll bloom, while Sweetie is now taking center stage in the Cockrell Butterfly Center where she will be the star of the museum’s Valentine’s Day Cultural Feast.
You see, Sweetie is a Synsepalum dulcificum.
Okay, you can just call her the Miraculous Berry bush of Western Africa.
Chevalier Des Marchais, a French cartographer and navigator, “discovered” the odd shrub in West Africa in the 18th century, where natives were long used to her unique little red berries.
“If their bread went bad,” explains the museum’s horticulturist hunk Zac Stayton, “the natives would make it into a pudding with these berries.” Making it, if not exactly healthier to eat, certainly more palatable.
Scientists aren’t exactly sure how the berries work, although the prevailing wisdom is that the berries contain a protein called miraculin that binds with taste buds to induce a sweet taste to the most sour and acidic edibles and potables.
This sounded so bizarre that, in the line of duty, I agreed to a tasting with Stayton and a few other museum staffers.
Although she’s in bloom, Sweetie is still just a little shrub (Stayton explains that in the wild they can grow up to 20 feet tall), so the berries we ate came courtesy of the Internet. The small, frozen handful on hand cost around $100 and would last — even frozen — only a month.
“They’re safe, right” I asked. “Anyone ever have any side effects? How long will my taste buds be mixed up, because I’m supposed to have Tex-Mex for lunch, you know, I’m just asking.”
“Are you a food writer or what? Just suck it up and try it!”
Well, that’s not exactly what the staff told me, but it was close.
So we nibbled on a few items set out on the table: two kinds of potato chips, pickles, lemon and lime wedges, goat cheese, grapes, sour gummy worms and chocolate. Then we popped a single berry into our mouths and slowly chewed, rolling the firm pulp and flesh around our tongues.
There’s not much taste to the berries, it was kinda like eating a frozen grape, more texture than taste. A little sweet, but not overly so.
“Um, how long does it take?’ I asked.
Stayton quickly grabbed a lemon wedge and sucked on it. The answer apparently was right away.
“Everything that was sour a second ago and clinching up my jaw, that instant pucker that you get, is totally gone, everything is sweet,” proclaimed Stayton.
I grabbed a lime wedge and tried it.
Delicious, as though it was coated in sugar.
But, man, this was gonna screw with my plan to have a margarita with lunch.
“Yeah, probably,” they told me.
“Well, it will wear off in 15 minutes to a couple of hours,” said Stayton.
Oh, that’s comforting.
Note: An hour later sitting down with dad at Maria Selma, my Pacifico tasted like someone had poured a packet of Sweet’N Low into the beer. An hour and a half after eating the berry things were just starting to taste normal.
Back at the tasting, the sour gummy worms weren’t so sour, the potato chips almost flavorless, the lemon drops were sweet, while the green and red grapes and the goat cheese tasted just hideous.
Not only that, but after every bite there was a yucky (yes, I’m a writer and that’s the best word I can find) aftertaste that made we want to gag and desperately spit.
Someone handed me a glass of tonic water, which tasted like Mountain Dew. Not a fan of the Dew.
I tried some orange juice, which was almost like sipping an Orangina. Ah, that was better.
But then came a glass of Chardonnay. Miracle berries and wine do not mix. I repeat: Do. Not. Mix.
Think of the worst, sweetest, cheapest wine you’ve ever tasted. And then double that.
Miracle berries hit the American market in the 1970’s. They are expensive and short-lived but have been made into tablets, sometimes used by chemo patients to decrease the metallic taste they often experience, and at one time were thought to be a sugar substitute, but the FDA quashed that. Conspiracy theorists claim the sugar industry was behind that little move, although the FDA denies it.
Today you can order the berries, or the tablets made from them, over the Internet. Or, you can sign up for the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Valentine’s Day Cultural Feast, February 14 from 6 to 8 p.m. Only about 150 people will be allowed in, at timed intervals. The cost is $45 ($37 for museum members) and you can sample the miracle berry before wondering the romantically lit trails inside the three-story, glass pyramid that is the Cockrell Butterfly Center where appetizers and drinks await. Expect some really, really sweet chocolates, tropical fruits and honey.
Oh yes, and you can see Sweetie herself, spotlighted in the rainforest, basking in the fame just as Lois once did.