Food

A Career As A Competitive Eater In The 1600s Sounds Like It Was Torture

by Penn Collins

February 23, 2017

The life of a competitive eater, even amid the foodie culture of 2017, turns off all but the most dedicated and impassioned people. So you could imagine that carrying the title of competitive eater way back in the 1600s would have been, predictably, far, far worse. 

And you would be correct. 

Sure, there’s an element of subjectivity involved, but eating 12 loaves of bread soaked in “strong ale” for the tidy sum of two shillings is objectively a terrible way to make a living. But such was the life of The Great Eater of Kent, Nicholas Wood, who was recently profiled by Atlas Obscuraconsidered one of the first prominent competitive (though it was more for entertainment in this era) eaters. 

Much of what’s known about The Great Eater of Kent is made available in a promotional pamphlet written by poet John Taylor. The title of the pamphlet is so wordy that it merits its own box quote: 

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

Like modern-day competitive eaters, Wood stumbled into his calling, then subsequently put it on display for anyone willing to pay – most often attendees of fairs and festivals. HIs feats included taking down (on separate occasions) seven dozen (that’s 84, sports fans) cooked rabbits, 60 eggs, and a feast intended for eight people. 

According to a 1678 extract from Taylor’s pamphlet, Wood “made an end of a whole hog at once and after it swallowed three pecks of damsons.” I don’t know what a peck or a damson is, but I know what a hog is, and...gross. (Ok, three pecks equates to six gallons, and a damson is a small plum-like fruit.)

Nicholas Wood was made the subject of various works of art over his career, including this piece which showcases the man eating a duck as two other animals, seemingly resigned to their fate, look back on their lives: 

John Taylor saw a financial opportunity in Woods talent and sponsored the eater’s relocation to London, where he would showcase his insatiable appetite at Bear Gardens, a venue best known for featuring death matches between live animals. 

However, Wood was only a glimmer of his former self at that point, having lost all but one of his teeth while eating an entire lamb. (No – an entire lamb. Bones, brains...everything). 

Taylor respected the man’s abstention and being a poet, offered an especially wordy heaping of praise on the entertainer, stating: 

“Therefore this noble Eatalian doth well deserve the title of Great. Wherefore I instile him Nicholas the Great (Eater). And as these 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[.]”

Wood faded from notoriety, but his pioneering spirit lives on in anyone taking down a pile of chicken wings of cramming dozens of hot dogs into their mouth on the Fourth of July. And if this colorful portrait is any indication, the man spent his life doing what he loved: 

 

 

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