The weirdest things we learned this week: Rats with fetishes and America’s first banana

Our editors scrounged up some truly bizarre facts.

What’s the weirdest thing you learned this week? Well, whatever it is, we promise you’ll have an even weirder answer if you listen to PopSci’s hit podcast. The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week hits iTunes, Anchor, and everywhere else you listen to podcasts every Wednesday morning. It’s your new favorite source for the strangest science-adjacent facts, figures, and Wikipedia spirals the editors of Popular Science can muster. If you like the stories in this post, we guarantee you’ll love the show.

Fact: The banana was introduced to the United States as a luxury item, wrapped in tin foil, and eaten with a knife and fork.

By Claire Maldarelli

Everyone is entitled to their own dietary preferences, but my favorite fruit, by far, is the banana. It comes with its own biodegradable wrapping, it’s easy on the stomach, and it even has gut-healthy fiber.

Today, bananas can be purchased at any grocery store, by the bundle, often for only a few dollars. In fact, they are so ubiquitous in the American diet today that we have a popular bread recipe that calls for unused, overripe bananas.

But it wasn’t always this way. The banana, which finds its roots in the rainforests of Southeast Asia and might have even been cultivated as early as 1,000 BCE, was an unknown exotic fruit to the American people. That is, until the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, America held the Centennial International Exhibition in the city of Philadelphia. This multi-month long extravaganza later became the first official World’s Fair in the United States. Held on the fairgrounds along the Schuylkill River in the Fairmount neighborhood of the city of brotherly love, the international celebration, which went on for seven months straight and attracted nearly 10 million visitors, was also a kind of modern-day consumer electronics showcase. New innovations were placed on display for the first time for the public to see. These included the telephone, the typewriter, and even Heinz Ketchup and Hires Root Beer.

A bit down the road was a 40-acre display of tropical plants. And there, for the first time, adventure-seeking Americans could purchase individual bananas, wrapped in tinfoil, served with a knife and for, for 10 cents—which at the time was about an hour’s wage worth of work. Listen to this week’s episode of Weirdest Thing for the rest of how the banana became one of America’s most popular fruits.

Fact: New York City should really be called ‘The Big Oyster’

By Eleanor Cummins

Last month, when New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio announced he would invest $10 billion in fortifying the Financial District at the tip of Manhattan, including efforts to expand the East River waterfront by 500 feet to prevent against climate-related sea level rise and extreme weather, I was reminded of this sprawling metropolis’s original defense: oysters.

As Mark Kurlansky describes in his incredible underwater odyssey The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, this town’s original currency was oysters. The Lenape people, Native Americans who lived on the land before European colonists drove them out, left enormous oyster middens around the city— that’s actually how Pearl Street got its name. In New Amsterdam, which was later renamed New York, oysters were harvested en masse and eaten by the billions. They were thick and deep like coral reefs, protecting Long Island from the ocean and filtering the brackish waters of the city’s riverside harbors. At one point, experts estimate, there were more than 3 trillion of the little bivalves in these waters.

But, within a century or two, humans destroyed these naturally resilient populations, reducing them to a fraction of their former bounty. In this episode of Weirdest Thing, I talk about what caused the oysters to disappear—and the efforts to bring them back.

Fact: A group of scientists once gave rats a sexual fetish for tiny jackets

By Rachel Feltman

What does it mean to have atypical sexual preferences? In the ’60s, the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) had a section on “deviations” that included basically everything but heterosexual intercourse between cisgender people. By the ’80s, scientists got a little less backwards by talking about “paraphilic disorders”—what most people mean when they talk about fetishes. But the “conditions” they discussed included things as innocuous as enjoying dirty phone calls. Many of the so-called disorders were far from rare, and even many of the most unusual were totally harmless among consenting adults.

These days psychiatry only considers a paraphilia a disorder if it causes you or someone else harm or distress, and we’re starting to recognize that human sexuality is a lot more varied and fluid than we used to assume. Foot fetishes, for instance, are actually pretty common—and there may be a reason for that locked in our actual, physical brain. In this week’s episode I talk about how our thinking on these matters has evolved, and how a bunch of scientists once turned lab rats into enthusiastic jacket fetishists.

If you like The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week, please subscribe, rate, and review us on iTunes (yes, even if you don’t listen to us on iTunes—it really helps other weirdos find the show). You can also join in the weirdness in our Facebook group and bedeck yourself in weirdo merchandise from our Threadless shop.