2007_01_foodmir.jpg Many things happened last Tuesday night at a CUNY Graduate Center auditorium lobby reception. Kim Peek, the 55 year-old savant who inspired Rain Man, walked through the crowd to answer strangers' questions about forgotten rural highways, old telephone directories, and birthdays. His father Fran talked about Kim’s abilities and home life in Utah, and passed the nine-pound Academy Award given to him by Rain Man’s screenwriter to anyone who wanted to hold it. Elsewhere at the reception, the inventor Nate True chatted about his Time Fountain, a breadbox-sized contraption pumping with highlighter dyed water and ringed by ultraviolet strobes. When everything works right, it appears to the observer that time is slowing down, stopping, and even reversing for the fountain's falling droplets. Standing near to the cheese plate and chicken finger buffet was Joe Kittinger, who in 1960 jumped off a rickety Air Force gondola hitched to a big weather balloon, and free fell 102,800 feet back to earth, breaking the sound barrier in the process. Yes, this was all part of the inaugural meeting for the Athanasius Kircher Society, a mysterious group of people devoted to understanding the curious, obscure, and spectacular. The group is named for a 17th century German Jesuit scholar, an early adopter of Egyptology, volcanology, and a pioneer of germ theory.

At a folding card table with a huge bag of limes and a paring knife in front of him was Sina Najafi, the Editor-in-Chief of Cabinet Magazine. As a crowd formed, Najafi popped the vacuum seals on a half-dozen cans decorated with Japanese script and an illustration of a plant looking like a cross between a French Breakfast radish and a poisonous Bittersweet. “What’s Miracle Fruit?” people asked, reading the white paper sign affixed to a bulletin board next to the table. Najafi handed out cellophane wrapped berries the size of lima beans. Kircher Society meeting participants ate the fruit as Najafi cut the limes into quarters. “Don’t eat the pits,” he told them. “Just chew and coat your tongue with the fruit.” Moments later, people were biting into limes as if they were apples. Everybody started to smile. Eating Miracle Fruit somehow makes sour food taste incredibly sweet.

Miracle Fruit (Sideroxylon dulcificum) was documented by an explorer named Des Marchais during an 1725 excursion to West Africa, according to Sina Najafi’s interview with Adam Leith Gollner, which can be found in the current issue of Cabinet. Marchais noticed that local tribes picked the berry off shrubs and chewed it before meals. From there, the amazing Miracle Fruit was seemingly lost in the shuffle of colonialism, and was later tested by the U.S. Army and several pharmaceutical giants before being rejected suddenly by the FDA in 1974, under mysterious, X-Files type circumstances (a “high speed car chase;” “men in sunglasses”). Gollner is working on a book examining the “fruit underworld,” including the sad odyssey of the Miracle Fruit, which is legal in many other countries. In Japan, some Weight Watchers-style meals revolve around it, and miraculin can be purchased in tablet form.

It is thought that the active ingredient in Miracle Fruit, or miraculin, is an ordinary glycoprotein molecule with some trailing carbohydrate chains which somehow change the way our tongue perceives taste. The effect, which wears off in a few hours, “isn’t like sugar, because [miraculin] isn’t exactly a sweetener,” Gollner says in the Cabinet interview. “It’s an elusive, illusory effect that depends on what you eat afterwards. With lemons, it has a kind of deep sweetness.” While some dismiss the berry’s properties as a useless food gimmick, a Mentos and Coke sort of thing, consider that chemotherapy patients in Florida currently have limited access to the fruit, because it restores appetite for some whose palettes have been destroyed by massive doses of radiation. Because the fruit has a more prominent effect, than, say Splenda, it also has implications for diabetics. It doesn’t matter if one can bake with it- Miracle Fruit changes the way that people eat to begin with. Gollner cites the results of a pre-FDA ban focus group in the 1970’s: “Miralin placed ads in diabetes periodicals and offered free samples to diabetics. They scored an enormous success rate; 85% of people who received the free samples wanted to order more.”

At the Athananius Kircher Society meeting, all of Najafi’s contraband Miracle Fruit disappeared within a few minutes, leaving behind tipped cans, Japanese instruction sheets, and some pithy lime carcasses. With a satchel around his shoulder, Najafi stayed on hand for a few minutes to answer Miracle Fruit questions from the crowd, before disappearing onto Fifth Avenue. Those who had been lucky enough to snag a piece of the stuff continued through the reception to meet the duo that had performed the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet entirely in Solresol, an invented language weirder than Esperanto. Around 11 PM, the last of the crowd thinned out, headed for taxis or the subway, all the while with the taste of the sweetest limes in the world in their mouths.