Thirteen bizarre, brilliant things we’ve learned from podcasts

From the truth about McDonald’s fries to where never to sit at a Christina Aguilera show

Formula 47: McDonald’s used to cook its fries in beef dripping. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty

Formula 47: McDonald’s used to cook its fries in beef dripping. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty

 

The bizarre and brilliant facts podcasts have taught us, from the truth about McDonald’s fries to where not to sit at a Christina Aguilera show

McDonald’s fries are scientifically less tasty than they used to be

Podcast Revisionist History
Episode McDonald’s Broke My Heart
During my many years working at McDonald’s I must have cooked several tonnes of fries. I thought I knew all there was to know about those chips until I heard an episode from series two of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast. Older heads would claim some McDonald’s products aren’t as tasty as they used to be, but I thought it was some middle-aged fantasy about how things were better in the old days, as a sceptical Gladwell describes that same suspicion. But they were right: in 1990 McDonald’s switched from beef fat to vegetable oil for cooking its fries, and the reasons for the change are fascinating, as are the food scientists who re-create the old-fashioned chips. It’s a perfect episode from Gladwell, the master of drawing novelty from unlikely places. (He also tells the story of McDonald’s fries here, in the New Yorker magazine.) Do you want fries with that? Yes, but only if they’re cooked in Formula 47. Andy Welch

Woody Guthrie wrote a song about Donald Trump’s father
Woody Guthrie wrote a song about Donald Trump’s father

Donald Trump’s father was such a bigot, Woody Guthrie wrote a song about him

Podcast The Dollop
Episode 300A, Donald Trump
This popular comedy-history podcast chronicles the lives of historical figures, with an emphasis on the cruel, unusual and inept. Fittingly, then, the two-parter for the show’s 300th episode recounts the storied history of one Donald J Trump. Inevitably, much unsavouriness about the current Potus’s past is uncovered. Yet, if anything, his father, the humbly titled Fred Christ Trump, comes off even worse. A notorious real-estate magnate who was investigated by a US Senate committee for profiteering, Trump Sr’s segregationist rental policies prompted one tenant, the folk singer Woody Guthrie, to write a song about how much of a scumbag he was. “Old Man Trump knows/ Just how much racial hate/ He stirred up/ In the bloodpot of human hearts,” Guthrie sang. Who else might those lyrics apply to, eh? Gwilym Mumford

Tall boys or tube men, they were inspired by Trinidadian carnival artists
Tall boys or tube men, they were inspired by Trinidadian carnival artists

Those wobbling inflatables outside car showrooms are based on Trinidad carnival dancers

Podcast 99 % Invisible
Episode
Inflatable Men
Are they “Tube Men”? “Fly Guys”? “Air Dancers”? They are not. They are “Tall Boys” and, while you’ve seen them everywhere from the opening ceremonies of sporting events to the forecourts of garages, you probably have no idea as to their origins. As this episode of the beloved design podcast reveals, they were invented by Trinidadian carnival artist Peter Minshall, who imagined them emulating the “limpid and loose” dance moves of the carnival. What he failed to foresee though was that, after an appearance at the 1996 Olympics, he would be beaten to a patent and would have to deal with seeing his undulating creations swaying towards him every time he went for a drive. Happily, he seems to have taken it graciously in his stride. Phil Harrison

Hackers are trying to steal your username – and it’s a booming business

Podcast Reply All
Episode The Snapchat Thief
It is impossible to listen to the internet-flavoured podcast Reply All and not learn something, whether that’s “what is that strange song that only one person can remember hearing in the 90s?” (in the episode The Case of the Missing Hit) or where the word incel came from (in INVCEL). Sometimes its revelations are particularly disturbing, however, such as those found in episode 130, The Snapchat Thief. It turns out that if you have a coveted social media handle – think @lizard – your account could be held to ransom by scammers and sold for thousands of dollars. While compelling, the whole thing might just be enough to make you want to start a new life as a Luddite. Or at least change your username. Hannah J Davies

Orson Welles subsisted on giant plates of steak tartare

Podcast You Must Remember This
Episode Polly Platt, the Invisible Woman, Part Four
The sixth season of Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, about old Hollywood, dives into the unfinished memoir of the late film producer Polly Platt. In 1970, Platt arrives to work on Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, and the director insists on making her his “signature” dinner. Using “three pounds of top-of-the-round beef” for two people, Platt recalls, “he would fix this giant serving of steak tartare, mashing it around in this great big bowl with his own hands. Then he’d plop an Orson-sized pile of it on a plate. When I didn’t finish mine, he would actually be hurt.” The pair washed it down with an entire bottle of brandy – and then ate it again the next night. Welles died of a heart attack at 70. Issy Sampson

From Disneyland to hallucinogens, every writer is guided by a small set of obsessions

Podcast Longform Podcast
Episode 347
Michael Pollan has written books on hallucinogens, caffeine addiction, cooking, eating and architecture. His journalism is even more wide-ranging (one highlight is his 1997 piece on community friction in the Disneyland Florida town of Celebration). Yet, as he says in his June 2019 episode of the Longform podcast, his work is always underpinned by a small set of what he calls “final questions”. Every writer has these, he says: the persistent curiosities that shape the worldview you bring to any subject. His are “nature and God”. Working out what yours are is harder than it sounds – it took Pollan finishing his second book to decipher his. Laura Snapes

Professor Stephen Hawking once held a party for time travellers. Photograph: Tom Dymond
Professor Stephen Hawking once held a party for time travellers. Photograph: Tom Dymond

Stephen Hawking held a soiree for time-travellers – but only told them after it finished

Podcast Cartridge
Episode Stephen Hawking’s Time Travel Party
In an unusually high-minded episode of this video game podcast we learn that on June 28th, 2009, Professor Stephen Hawking held a party at the University of Cambridge specifically for time-travellers, with Krug champagne and hors d’oeuvres. In order to prevent frauds from attending, the renowned theoretical physicist only announced the party after it had finished. Sadly, no one turned up. Theories as to why Hawking was left as a Billy No Mates include: he sent the invites to an alternative reality; time-travellers don’t like hors d’oeuvres; or Hawking had them all killed to avoid disrupting the time-space continuum and imploding the universe. Rich Pelley

Christina Aguilera at the 3Arena in Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Christina Aguilera at the 3Arena in Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

If you ever see Christina Aguilera live, avoid sitting in the third row

Podcast Legends Only
Episode 10 Years of Christina Aguilera’s Bionic
This riotous pop culture podcast hosted by NYC-based “media gays” Bradley Stern and T Kyle MacMahon focuses on pop star-related escapades. Occasionally it also unleashes anniversary specials, including a two-hour dissection of Christina Aguilera’s near career-killing Bionic album. Despite being a pop obsessive, I’d somehow missed the fact that seconds before a performance of heart-tugging ballad You Lost Me live on The Today Show, Xtina had removed a piece of gum from her mouth and lobbed it into the third row. The crowd-shot video, entitled “Christina Aguilera throws gum at her fans”, is fast approaching 600,000 views on YouTube, making it one of her most enduring hits. Michael Cragg

There were a surprising number of illegal Bible games on Nintendo in the early 1990s

Podcast Apocrypals
Episode Spiritual Warfare Is Good, Actually
In each instalment of Apocrypals, non-believers Benito Cereno and Chris Sims read a different Bible text and, in their own words, try not to be jerks about it. It sounds like Sunday school but is actually a delight, combining erudition, irreverence and nods to Van Halen. In a recent episode, the pair went deep on a series of bootleg 1990s video games based on Bible stories. Cruddy knock-offs such as Super 3D Noah’s Ark sold hundreds of thousands of copies despite being completely unsanctioned by Nintendo. Was this a cynical cash grab or a devilishly smart way to promote Christian values? It’s hella fun finding out. Graeme Virtue

Pete Doherty performing in 2009. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Pete Doherty performing in 2009. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Pete Doherty would fall asleep on stage during Babyshambles gigs

Podcast 22 Grand Pod
Episode Alan McGee
With its title riffing on 22 Grand Job by the Rakes, there is no mistaking the subject matter of this series: the grimy indie scene of the mid-00s. Each week, interviewers Harry H and Tom Atkin of the Paddingtons interview one of the era’s protagonists. While they haven’t got round to scene king Pete Doherty yet, the interview with Patrick Walden of Babyshambles reveals that the band went onstage in such a state of disrepair that Doherty would catch a nap mid-gig. Alan McGee also tells the bloodcurdling story of how, three days into managing the Libertines, he turned round to find Carl Barât with his eye dangling from its optic nerve after an encounter with a sink. The first operation on it sewed it back incorrectly; McGee had to stump up £8,000 to get it fixed. Alex Needham

Astronaut John Glenn suits up prior to his mission of orbiting around the Earth, in 1962 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photograph: AP Photo/NASA
Astronaut John Glenn suits up before orbiting Earth, in 1962, in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photograph: Nasa/AP Photo

John Glenn thought he saw a message from God in space. It was actually the contents of his toilet

Podcast The Memory Palace
Episode The Glowing Orbs
The brilliant bite-sized history series The Memory Palace reached celestial heights with an episode about Ohio-born John Glenn, who was the first American to orbit Earth, in 1962. Over a gently tinkling soundtrack, host Nate DiMeo tells of the mysterious dancing lights that began to swirl round Glenn as he floated in space. Glenn, a religious man, decided they were a gift from God; it took more than 30 years for less holy minds to solve the mystery. What had looked to the astronaut like tiny seraphs were in fact particles of urine – Glenn’s own – expelled from the capsule on its journey around Earth. Fiona Sturges

Alan Moore will never watch the Watchmen

Podcast Cinematic Universe
Episode 105

When news broke last weekend of the death of journalist Seb Patrick, many paid tribute to his career spent celebrating geek culture. Particularly loved was this podcast in which he and James Hunt dissected comic book-inspired movies. In one fascinating episode, the pair explained why they wouldn’t be covering the recent Watchmen TV show. Watchmen is now a cultural behemoth, but when the comic launched in 1986 nobody could have imagined it would still be available to buy a month later – let alone 34 years. That was why creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons signed a contract with DC that dictated the rights to the story would revert to them as soon as the comic was out of print. Unfortunately, it was a roaring success and has never been allowed to go out of print, a decision Moore believes was in part a ploy to swindle him out of his dues. It’s why he is never involved with any of the cash-ins, and why Patrick and Hunt refused to recognise Watchmen the show. Toby Moses

Dogs are pretty impressive – even if Louis Theroux isn’t a fan

Podcast Grounded With Louis Theroux
Episode Rose McGowan

This fact comes from Theroux – “not a dog person” – less than a minute into his lockdown chat with the actor and activist Rose McGowan. She’s been prescribed a therapy puppy, and Theroux tries to ingratiate himself with her by sharing fascinating dog facts. (They can sniff out cancer, it turns out.) In this 10-part series, Theroux remotely interviews people he’s “always been interested in meeting but have never had the chance to”; others include the Watford footballer Troy Deeney and the YouTuber KSI. Expect all the probing questions of his TV documentaries with added insight into Louis’s own lockdown life. Plus, it turns out, the oft-impersonated interviewer is not too bad at impressions himself. Leah Harper – Guardian

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