The Gross History Of Competitive Eating
Updated: Jul 1, 2019
Up until very recently an abundance of food was not something that people were used to. All throughout history food has been comparatively scarce to modern times and was not something that could go to waste. Mankind didn’t have many methods of preserving food or storing it in refrigerators or freezers, and coupled with that, historically farming wasn’t always as successful as they would have liked it to be, with crop yields varying dramatically from year to year.
What this meant was that only a select few were ever treated to food buffets of the medieval kind. The uber rich, dignitaries and of course the ruling monarchies.
Maybe it comes as no surprise then that the earliest recorded incident of competitive eating took place, not between two mere mortals but rather between the Norse god Loki and a giant named Logi.
As the story goes, the god Loki and his companions arrived at a giants castle to find rows upon rows of giants all stuffing their faces with food and drink. The King of the castle they found themselves in taunted and laughed at Loki and his friends for how small they were in comparison. Loki, not wanting to take this kind of humiliation lying down, stood up for his own dignity and that of his companions, and challenged any one of the giants in that castle to an eating contest. His assertion was that no man could eat faster than he could.
The king chose a contender to go up against Loki and a large animals feeding trough was placed in front of them and filled to the brim with meat. Loki positioned himself at one end and the king's challenger Logi at the other. Upon the king's word they were to eat their way inwards from their end and whoever reached the middle of the trough first would be declared the winner.
As luck and old fairytales would have it they met in the middle at exactly the same time. At first it seemed like a draw except for one tiny detail. While Loki had made sure to clean up every last morsel of meat on his side of the trough the challenger Logi had done one better. Not only had he finished all of the meat on his side, but he had also eaten all of the bones that came along with it and even the trough itself. It was clear at this point that our favourite Marvel super villian had been outdone.
Moving forward in time now to the 1600s and we zoom back in to find a man by the name of Nicholas Wood. He would come to be known as the Great Eater of Kent, and he may just be one of the earliest examples we have of a true competitive eater.
Most of what we know of this Kentish guzzler comes from an account of his career written by the English poet John Taylor, who would later become Nicholas Wood’s representative and manager. He produced a pamphlet that would give Wood his now famous moniker as it was simply titled The Great Eater of Kent. It did have a second working title though that was eventually dropped for reasons that will soon become obvious to you. The pamphlets second title was called: “Part of the Admirable Teeth and Stomach Exploits of Nicholas Wood, of Harrisom in the County of Kent, His Excessive Manner of Eating Without Manners, In a Strange and True Manner Described.” It just rolls off the tongue doesn't it? Something that could not be said for the food that passed Nicholas Woods lips.
As the story goes, the poet John Taylor first encountered Wood in a local inn in Kent. It was here that he bore witness to an incredible sight. He watched in awe as Nicholas Wood devoured 60 eggs, half a cooked lamb, and a handful of pies, with him complaining afterwards that he was still hungry.
Wood was a farmer by profession when he ran into Taylor but in the surrounding region he had already begun to make a name for himself as a man with an extraordinary ability to pack away food. He would often perform at local fairs and festivals as the town glutton eating his way through frankly upsetting quantities of food.
He would also take part in wagers with noblemen who would set him seemingly impossible challenges and reward him handsomely if he could achieve them. It was once claimed that he devoured 84 rabbits in one sitting and on another occasion an entire 3-course dinner feast intended for 8 people.
There is an account of a time when food got the better of him though as, during a visit with a man named Sir William Sedley, Nicholas Wood ate so much that his body simply shut down and went to sleep. I imagine this was the origin of the phrase food coma. When he awoke the next day, things only got worse for him as Sir William Sedley had him sent to the stocks as punishment for his failure.
In another instance, a man named John Dale used some sly trickery to get the better of Wood. He bet The Great Eater that for just two shillings he could provide a meal that Wood could not finish. Wood scoffed at the thought and boldly took the bet. John Dale scurried away and arrived back in due course carrying 12 loaves of bread. Now, 12 loaves on their own would have been a mere appetiser for a man who could polish off 84 rabbits in one sitting, but Dale had a trick up his sleeve. He had soaked each loaf in an incredibly strong ale, and knowing that the combination of bread and beer leads to excessive bloating he was confident of winning his bet. But before he could even finish the 8th loaf the quantity of alcohol that had been absorbed by the bread was enough to make Wood so drunk that he again passed out in the middle of a challenge.
Despite these minor setbacks, Wood had become somewhat of a celebrity in Kent and seeing the great money-making potential in the man's appetite, John Taylor became his manager.
Taylor offered Wood a deal. He would pay for his lodging, all the food he could eat and even earn a tidy sum of money on top of that if he would travel to London with him to show off his gluttonous talents.
Taylor had grand plans for Wood and had already planned the attractions to draw the people of London to their show. He suggested challenges for Wood that included eating a wheelbarrow full of tripe or scoffing down as many puddings as would fit side by side across London Bridge.
But sadly, it was not to be. The Great Eater of Kent was getting on in years and was looking forward to a quieter life in the countryside. By this point, he had only one tooth left as a painful and permanent reminder of an ambitious bet he took to eat an entire mutton shoulder, bones and all.
The poet John Taylor still paid tribute to the great eater however in a passage that shows just how highly he regarded the talents of the man.
He wrote: “Therefore this noble Eatalian doth well deserve the title of Great. Wherefore I instile him Nicholas the Great. And as the forenamed Greats have overthrown and wasted countries, and hosts of men, with the help of their soldiers and followers; so hath our Nick the Great, (in his own person) without the help or aide of any man, overcome, conquered, and devoured in one week, as much as would have sufficed a reasonable and sufficient army in a day[.]”
There is a woodcut illustration from Taylors pamphlet that shows Nicholas Wood devouring a duck, head first and still with all it’s feathers on. You can see it for yourself in the show notes on the website foodhistorypodcast.com. Standing next to him in this woodcut are a pig and a sheep, both looking decidely unhappy, and no wonder as their fate was likely dawning on them as they watched this Great Eater pick his teeth clean with a single feather plucked from the tail of the duck as he made sure to push the last of it down his gaping maw and into his belly.
Jan Bondeson's book “The Two-Headed Boy And Other Medical Marvels” tells the story of a Bohemian man in the early 1700’s who became famous for his capacity for eating incredible amounts of raw meat. He travelled all across Europe, performing widely in Germany and Austria. He is said to have once had an entire roasted calf for breakfast and could finish a whole leg of mutton in minutes. By 1709 this so called “Bohemian Glutton” was being advertised in flyers and posters posing with a puppy between his teeth. What was possibly most frightening of all was that the this same man would often pull off a party trick of placing a large stone into his mouth and crushing it with his powerful jaws.
This same book tells a short story from 1765 about a brewers servant name Walter Wiley who was bet a wager of 2 guineas that he wouldn’t be able to eat a 6 pound roast goose, a four pound loaf of bread and to drink three quarts of beer. He was given an hour to finish the task and somehow managed to complete the feat in little over half that time.
One final story is very reminiscent of the Great Eater himself and tells of a man named Charles Tyle who in the space of a single hour consumed 133 eggs, a slab of pork and a large loaf of bread. Afterwards, he was said to have complained that there had not been enough eggs and that he was indeed looking forward most hungrily to his supper.
Not much more happened in the world of competitive eating for well past a century. It began to work its way into the public consciousness again in the mid-1800’s as the industrial revolution began to change not only the way that people lived but also the access they had to commodities like food.
Along with this came improved storage methods, refrigeration, canning and farming techniques that yielded higher returns on crops. In short, food was becoming more plentiful than at other time in history.
And it was around this time that fairs began to hold eating contests to entertain the crowds. They weren’t like the contests we know today but focused on the mass consumption of local crops like corn, watermelon and apples until the sticky sweetness of homemade fruit pies took over top spot as the competitive eating food of choice.
Not long into the 20th century and the First World War had dragged most of the world into chaos. Men were off fighting far from home and they needed to pass the time with something fun and familiar.
By this time competitive eating had become a symbol of national pride for America and the soldiers saw it as something incredibly patriotic. They would take turns on their army bases challenging each other to eating contests with whatever they had available. As they were under strict rationing at the time, this practice was technically illegal but higher ups turned a blind eye to it as it boosted morale within the ranks.
But it wasn't only soldiers that saw this American trend as patriotic. The competitive hot dog eating contests of today all started with a somewhat dubious yet longstanding legend of a small Coney Island hot dog stand called Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs. Supposedly four immigrants to the United States all wanted to prove that they, in fact, were the most patriotic to their new home. And, what better way to prove their all American status than by seeing which of them could scoff down the most hotdogs. Ever since then, Nathans Famous has held a yearly hot dog eating contest that has produced the almost universally recognised names of Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut who in 2018 ate a frankly unbelievable 74 hotdogs in one sitting.
The early 1900’s brought with it a slew of competitive eating challenges that bordered on the downright weird. In 1919 the New York Yankees player Ping Bodie challenged an ostrich to a spaghetti eating contest. But that my friends, is an episode entirely on its own.
Since the inception of Guinness Book of Records the official record for the most food eaten in one sitting belongs to a man name Eddie Miller who, in 1963, at a restaurant in San Francisco ate 27 whole chickens to win the title of "world's greatest trencherman."
Eating, it seems, has evolved from a necessity into a luxury for many around the world, and from a luxury into a sport for the fearless few who train themselves to perform such acts of extreme eating. This sport has been called gluttonous by many and hailed as an extreme feat by others but, I’ll leave it up to you the listener to choose on which side of the fence you find yourself.
Until next time. Bon Appetit.