A wiry man in narrow, metal-rimmed glasses sits in a plywood-laden, nondescript apartment or drab hotel room eating a fruit and describing how it tastes to camera. There’s no gimmick involved and it doesn’t appear to be a particular fetish. The production value is terrible. But nearly 57 thousand subscribers repeatedly tune in to watch Jared Rydelek’s Weird Fruit Explorer channel on YouTube. Over the past five and a half years, he’s reviewed hundreds of varieties (the long pepper review, posted earlier today, was episode 309) with almost encyclopedic specificity. It’s mesmerizing and sort of quaint and has absolutely nothing to do with Rydelek’s day job as a full-time body contortionist.
I had to learn more about how he ended up with such disparate passions—and found a hungry market for both—and so I reached out to the body contortionist-slash-global fruit explorer.
MUNCHIES: What made you want to start reviewing fruit on YouTube? Is there a mission or takeaway behind Weird Fruit Explorer?
Rydelek: I was working in Malaysia. There was a ton of interesting fruit in Malaysia and I didn't really see many videos online talking about fruit as a focus for a channel. Fruit is too interesting for text, it needed to have not only the visual, but a human reaction to the smell, taste, texture, cost, how people use it. There are over 70,000 edible fruit species in the world and at supermarkets we only get a couple dozen. When I made my series originally it was almost impossible to find jackfruit in NYC, but now you can get them at Whole Foods across the country. People stumble across my channel that have no interest in fruit whatsoever and then they write to me telling me they just bought some persimmons because of me. That's so rewarding to me.
In your videos it seems you're always traveling all over the world. Is that out of passion for discovering new fruits or for a related job?
I work as a contortionist performer. My performing life and fruit-hunting life are pretty separate except that performing gives me the opportunity to travel. Anytime I go somewhere to do a show I always make a point to visit the markets there. I was raised vegetarian and when I was little I would always gravitate to the little international produce section at the market and pick up whatever weird fruit I could find.
Fruit is just so much more interesting to me than other foods out there. It’s not man-made; it's just growing out there on the earth. If you want to try it, you can't make it, you have to find it. Every time I go fruit hunting I feel like I'm on a vegetarian safari.
How did you become a contortionist?
When I was 6 or 7 [years old] I became obsessed with magic. I loved performing but something about magic never really sat right with me. I hated keeping secrets and misdirecting my audience. Then one day I saw my first sideshow performer on TV. His name was Todd Robbins and he hammered a nail up his nose. What he did was like magic—but there were no tricks, nothing to hide. When it came time for me to go to college, I decided to go to NYC because Todd Robbins was teaching sideshow stunts in Coney Island. I learned it all: fire eating, sword swallowing, walking on broken glass. I graduated college and got an office job. I never expected to perform full-time, but then the recession hit; my entire office shut down and the only money I was making was from burlesque shows, so that gave me the motivation to hone my act and make it marketable.
What was the first exotic fruit you tried that really surprised you? What constitutes "weird" fruit to you?
What's "weird" is completely subjective. I've gotten comments from people who get insulted by my channel name. They'll be like "How dare you! I eat that fruit every day. It's not weird at all." I guess "weird" has a negative connotation, but I use it as the greatest form of compliment. "Weird" to me means what makes something unique and special compared to what I'm used to. From my perspective it's fruit that is not commonly known by Americans. A lot of the fruit I review are actually native to the United States, but nobody knows about them. Take the paw paw for instance, those things look like potatoes, taste like mango pudding, and they grow from trees right here in the U.S. When I learned about them it made me appreciate my home country a little more.
What has been your favorite video to date?
One of my favorite videos is on something called the calabash fruit. This thing is like a big green bowling ball and when it grows on a tree the branches can barely hold them because they're so heavy. When I was in the Philippines I saw one of these trees growing in someone's front yard. I was taking public transport at the time, but I got out, knocked on their door and asked them about it. The family there was so hospitable and kind to me. They picked one off the tree, invited me into their home, showed me how they prepare it by cooking it and straining the pulp into a juice. They sent me back to my hotel with a bottle of it. It was just such an incredible learning experience about how the fruit is used there, as well as a wonderful bonding experience with people from another part of the world.
What about the worst fruit you've tried?
The worst fruit I've had was noni fruit. It’s absolutely disgusting. It looks like a diseased insect egg sac and tastes like vomit and cheddar cheese.
It seems friends often send you fruits, how do you get those past Customs? U.S. has pretty strict rules about bringing fruit back from abroad.
A lot of my viewers are gardeners in the US that are trying to grow rare tropical fruits in their backyards. Some of them have been kind enough to contribute to my channel by sending me rare fruit in the mail. All of those fruits are grown on U.S. soil though; if you send fresh fruit from another country it's illegal since it can spread invasive species of plants, diseases and pests.