It’s hard to say what makes a competitive eater. In our interview with Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti, who once ate 275 pickled jalapeños in just eight minutes, he sums it up thusly: “I don’t have that switch that tells me I’ve had enough. I like excess in everything in my life. Too much of anything for anyone is not nearly enough for me. I don’t have that switch. It’s bad hardwiring, really.”
The ability to consume 69 hot dogs in 10 minutes takes training, sure, but there’s also something genetic about it. It goes to reason, then, that there have been competitive eaters for as long as there have been plates big enough to serve them. In a new piece, Atlas Obscura tells us of one such eater, the Great Eater of Kent, who was the stuff of legend back in the 17th century.
The Great Eater of Kent (née Nicholas Wood) enraptured audiences at fairs and festivals by devouring “seven-dozen rabbits in one sitting, or an entire dinner feast intended for eight people,” often lining his pockets in the process. Much of Wood’s story comes from The Great Eater, Of Kent, Or 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 Strange And True Manner Described, a pamphlet from English poet John Taylor with the most 17th-century title imaginable.
There’s tragedy in Wood’s story, however. Competitive eating in those days wasn’t the amiable affair it is today; to fail was to be punished. As Atlas Obscura writes:
Wood’s reputation was impressive, but far from impenetrable. On at least two occasions, he was in fact defeated by food. During a visit with a man named Sir William Sedley, Wood ate so much that he fell over and went into a serious food coma. Waking up the next day, Sedley had his men put Wood in the stocks to shame him for his failure. In another instance, a man named John Dale bet that he could sate Wood’s appetite for just two shillings. Wood took the bet, and Dale fed him 12 loaves of bread that he’d soaked in a strong ale. If it wasn’t the sheer bloating influence of such a terrifying meal, the ale got Wood so drunk that he passed out. Dale won the bet, and Wood was once again humiliated.
Bread soaked in a “strong ale”? That sounds miserable. So does “a wheelbarrow full of tripe, as many puddings as would stretch across the Thames, and an entire fat calf or sheep.” And then there’s what ended his competitive career: losing his teeth by trying to eat mutton bones. Eating hot dog buns dipped in a glass of water, while gross, pales in comparison to these trials.