Miracle fruit in the WSJ

Today’s center column on the front page of the Wall Street Journal is all about this blog’s favorite berry, miracle fruit. I held a tasting of the fruit for friends a few weeks ago. In a weird sequence of events, what I expected to be a small group of foodies turned into a sizeable party, and one of the guests was none other than the reporter writing this article. The night’s festivities are covered in the opening of the story. The offbeat center column of the Journal has always been one of my favorite features in the paper, so it’s bit of a thrill being in it.

The article [update: temporary, ungated link], which is only available to subscribers, has lots of fascinating new info about the fruit. Of special interest is the inside scoop on the murky regulatory standing of miraculin:

Miracle fruit remains in a kind of regulatory limbo in the U.S. It’s perfectly fine to grow and sell it, because the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require prior approval to sell fresh fruits, though it can intercede if it suspects problems. The trickier part comes when people try to use it as an additive in other foods. That’s when regulators start asking questions.

Two American entrepreneurs, Robert Harvey and Don Emery, tried this route back in the 1970s but the venture ended in heartbreak. Their initial focus was on products for diabetics, but some of their financial backers, which included Reynolds Metals Co. and Barclays Bank PLC, had a loftier goal. “They were interested in replacing half the sugar industry in the world,” Mr. Harvey says.

Mr. Harvey figured out how to turn miracle fruit into a dried powder and then a tablet. His company, Miralin Co., explored making everything from chewing gum to a miraculin-coated drinking straw. It developed recipes for diabetics which assumed people would pop a miracle-fruit tablet before eating the results.

Reynolds, now part of Alcoa, then owned the Eskimo Pie brand of frozen snacks and suggested trying miraculin-coated ice pops. In the summer of 1974, a group of Harvard Business School students conducted ice-pop taste tests on Boston playgrounds, giving children a choice between regular ice pops and miraculin-coated ones. The children preferred the latter by a wide margin, Mr. Harvey says.

That same year brought a big setback: The FDA sent a letter calling miraculin a “food additive” requiring years of testing. The letter effectively scuttled the venture, which was on the verge of selling products and wasn’t prepared to spend money on extensive testing. Miralin filed for bankruptcy and fired 280 employees. It’s only in the past five years that “I’m able about to laugh about this instead of crying,” says Mr. Harvey, now 75 years old, who went on to a lucrative career making blood pumps used in heart surgery.

The suspicions of libertarian foodies are confirmed: the government is to blame for our lack of delicious, miraculin laced food products.

For the how my tasting party ended up in the Journal and how a failed postal delivery almost ruined the evening, read on.

After David Barzelay’s wonderful miracle fruit party two months ago and our much-linked blog entries about it, several of my friends expressed an interest in trying the fruit for themselves. The fruit has a fixed shipping cost, so it’s much more cost effective to order for a group than to order individually. So, expecting just a few people to actually be interested in coming to a party where we eat a strange, semi-illicit fruit, suck on lemons, and screw up our taste for beer and wine, I sent out an email inviting some friends over to a party of my own. To my surprise, lots of people said yes.

The fruit wasn’t going to arrive in time for the original party date, so at the last minute I had to push it back a week. This happened to be extremely fortunate, because three days later I got an email from Wall Street Journal reporter Joanna Slater. She had found my blog entry and wanted to do a story on miracle fruit. In addition to answering her questions, I invited her along to the tasting. Amazingly, she accepted the offer and agreed to come all the way down from New York to attend this exceedingly strange party.

The party was scheduled for Friday, March 2. On Thursday at 4:00 pm I still didn’t know if the fruit was going to be ripe enough to mail. Finally, around 4:30, I got a call from the supplier confirming the shipping details. We double checked the address, made sure no signature would be required for delivery, and sealed the deal. The miracle fruit party was on! I emailed the guests and Joanna to tell them we’d be tasting the next day. Everything seemed to be lined up perfectly, but Friday wasn’t going to be that easy. It went something like this:

2:00 pm: I get off work at to make sure I have plenty of time to set up the party. As I walk to my doorstep, I eagerly await the site of the miracle fruit package. As I get closer, I see there is no package. And when I finally ascend the stairs, I see my worst fear: a failed delivery notice! I drop a major F-bomb.

2:45: I run to the local post office. They tell me there’s nothing they can do because my package is on the truck. I press further and they give me the phone number of the area headquarters.

2:48 The guy at headquarters tells me I’m screwed. I tell him that’s a very big problem, that it’s their fault, and that I really need to get this package. Eventually he hands me off to the supervisor. We’ll call her Mary. Mary assures me that I can come pick up the package at Arlington headquarters when the truck comes in. That should be around 5:30, and since she’s there till 8, I should have no problem at all. I feel much better now.

3:00 I pick up my friend Chad, who’s kindly hosting the party at his apartment, and we go grocery shopping for the party. We buy ungodly amounts of citrus fruits and dark beer. The cashier thinks we’re odd. She’s right.

5:10 Taking no chances, I drive to headquarters and park in the lot. I call Mary and ask about the package. She says my neighborhood truck has arrived and puts me on hold while she looks for it.

5:11 Um, why is this taking so long?

5:12 Mary can’t find the package.

5:13 Mary looks again. I try to figure out what I’m going to tell Joanna and the other 40 guests when they arrive at Chad’s house if Mary can’t find this thing.

5:14 Nope, still not there. She concludes the driver must have dropped it off at my local post office for some reason instead. The post office I visited earlier. The one that closed 14 minutes ago. This is not looking good.

5:21 I race back to the local post office and park, possibly illegally. It’s closed, but I hear workers lingering behind the metal screens. I bang on a screen until they talk to me. I tell them Mary sent me and they finally open a door.

5:23 They say Mary must be crazy. They don’t have the package and there’s no way the driver brought it here. It’s got to be back at headquarters. They call Mary again. She looks again. At this point I’ve pretty much given up hope. Yet, amazingly, she finds it. She says it’s in her hands. Apparently, the post office was experimenting with a new system for delivering overnight packages, so it ended up on a different truck than it normally would.

5:35 I drive back to headquarters, my gas light flicking on empty for the third time, and call Mary again. I walk into the wrong door, accidentally invading the loading dock. I find Mary, she hands me the precious package, and I sign it out. All is right with the world. I’m very grateful to Mary. I hope I make it to the gas station.

Obviously, everything worked out great in the end and the party was a complete success. People were shooting pure lemon juice and loving every second of it, beers sat half empty all around the apartment, and more citrus fruit was consumed in one night than I have ever seen.

[Cross-posted at EatFoo.]


6 thoughts on “Miracle fruit in the WSJ”

  1. Holy shit. I sat down this morning to my daily coffee and WSJ (thanks to my roomie’s subscription) and saw Jacob Grier of Arlington Virginia on the front page. Your parents must be so proud that you’re quoted on the front page of one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world saying “Make sure it coats your tongue.” Congrats on your 15 minutes of fame!

  2. As I said on Facebook, I couldn’t believe it when I picked up the WSJ in Honolulu and saw you on the cover! If only they had done one of those ink sketches of your face. That would have been sweet.

  3. Congrats on getting into the WSJ. I thought the article was really good and an interesting introduction to miracle fruit.

  4. Love it, I’m really glad to see the Miracle berry made it into the WSJ, it deserves to be too. I’ve been following the berries progress for years since owning a plant and have enjoyed throwing parties time and time again.

    Interesting story it seems you had also!

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