Gluttony is a very public sin. Those of us who overeat tend to become somewhat portly and so cannot conceal that we partake in one of the seven deadly sins. For centuries in Christian Europe, where famines were common, the clergy railed against gluttons. Despite the holy hatred of gluttony, history is full of people who found that they were never full and could not satisfy their hunger.
Here are ten of the most voracious eaters that ever menaced a table.
10 Edward Dando
Today, oysters are regarded as a food of the elite, but at many points in the past, they were simply a welcome addition to your daily diet. In the middle of the 19th century, hundreds of millions of oysters were eaten every year in London alone. Archaeological digs often uncover vast piles of oyster shells wherever crowds of people gathered. Oyster bars in Georgian London could provide a dozen oysters for a few pennies. Despite the low price, there were some who simply could not pay for their addiction to this delightful shellfish.
Edward Dando was the scourge of Georgian oyster sellers. He was trained as a hatter, and some would say he was as mad as the proverbial hatter for his exploits. Some would also call him a thief. To others, he was simply the “celebrated oyster eater.” Dando was well known for walking into an oyster bar, eating up to 360 oysters in a sitting, and then revealing he could not pay for them. The outraged seller would then either beat Dando or have him hauled away to prison. Sometimes, he would be released from prison and set out straight away for another feast. When brought before a judge, he simply said, “I was very peckish, your Worship, after living on a gaol allowance so long, and I thought I’d treat myself to an oyster.”
Not that oysters were his only delight. In 1831, he was arrested after he “devoured divers rounds of toast, and sundry basins of soup and coffee, at the Sun Coffee-house, Charles-street, Hatton-garden, without paying for the same.” Alas, Dando’s tendency to end up in jail cost him his life when, in 1832, he caught cholera in prison and died.
9 Nicholas Wood
You know your eating habits are extreme when someone publishes a pamphlet about them. In the 17th century, one was produced with the title “The great eater of Kent, or Part of the admirable teeth and stomacks exploits of Nicholas Wood, of Harrisom in the county of Kent, His excessive manner of eating without manners, in strange and true manner described.”
Little is known about Nicholas Wood except that the author of the pamphlet saw and heard of his exploits. We are told that he could consume “a quarter of fat Lamb, and three-score Eggs have been but an easy colation, and three well larded Pudding-pies … [and] eighteen yards of black Puddings.” Wood was also apparently not averse to eating a whole duck raw—guts and bones included. At another time, he ate a whole raw sheep, including the wool and horns.
Wood’s fame as an eater did get him into trouble once. Sir William Sedley once bet Wood that he could not eat a feast designed for 30 people. Wood did his best but fell into a food-induced coma before completing the meal. When he awoke eight hours later, he was dragged from the house and placed in a pillory for the public to jeer at his inability to eat everything on the table.
8 Michel Lotito
Not everyone who has a strong appetite restricts themselves to eating things most people would consider as food. For Michel Lotito, the ability to eat almost anything turned into a lifelong career. Known to his French audiences as “Monsieur Mangetout”—”Mister Eat-Everything”—he entertained and horrified people for decades.
Lotito’s exploits are said to have started when he was nine, and he began to crunch glass fragments from a broken tumbler he was drinking from. Over the course of his life, he is said to have eaten “8 bicycles, 15 supermarket trolleys, seven TV sets, six chandeliers, two beds, a pair of skis, a low-calorie Cessna light aircraft, and a computer.” To be fair, some of his meals lasted a long time. He said it took two years to eat the airplane and that the rubber tires were the most unappealing part.
There have been doubts about some of Lotito’s claimed feasts. Did he really eat three bicycles per year? There is no doubt that he certainly put some odd things in his mouth.
Some people’s gluttony becomes so infamous that it is almost the only thing history remembers about them. Aulus Vitellius had a varied career in the first century AD. He was said to have been one of the young lovers of the emperor Tiberius, a friend to the mad emperor Caligula, and an army general in Germany before his troops declared Vitellius himself emperor following the death of Nero. But all anyone talks about today is how fat he was. If a bust or statue of a rotund Roman is dug up, someone, somewhere, will declare that it is the likeness of Vitellius.
However, the sources all agree that Vitellius was given to gluttony. The historian Suetonius tells us that Vitellius was known to steal food from street vendors and even from the altars of the gods to satisfy his hunger. To be able to eat as much as he pleased, Vitellius would take an emetic to vomit up his last meal so he could consume another straight away. On becoming emperor, his brother threw a feast that consisted of “no less than two thousand choice fishes, and seven thousand birds.”
It was one of Vitellius’s own culinary creations that has gone down in legend. He concocted a dish known as the Shield of Minerva. “In this dish, there were tossed up together the livers of char-fish, the brains of pheasants and peacocks, with the tongues of flamingos, and the entrails of lampreys, which had been brought in ships of war as far as from the Carpathian Sea, and the Spanish Straits,” Suetonius tells us. Vitellius was deposed after just a few months and killed by the forces of the rival emperor Vespasian.
6 George IV
King George IV does not have a good reputation in British history. As the heir of George III, the future George IV had to step in as regent while his father suffered bouts of insanity. He had not endeared himself to the public by running up enormous debts while he waited to become the king, up to £650,000 in 1795. These debts had to be paid with funds from Parliament, and people resented having to pay for his lavish lifestyle.
While Prince of Wales, he became very fat from his fondness for food. He was lampooned in the press as the “.” A cartoon of the day shows George leaning back in a chair after one of his feasts, picking his teeth with a fork, while his waistcoat struggles valiantly to cover his distended belly and holds on by a single button. When he did become king, George kicked off his reign with a feast that cost £27 million in today’s money. It featured over 7,000 pounds of beef, 7,000 pounds of veal, and 20,000 pounds of mutton. To be fair, George did not eat all this himself.
At one of George’s last recorded meals, he was joined by the Duke of Wellington for breakfast. On the table was an enormous pie stuffed with beef steaks and pigeons. The duke wondered how many others were joining them for the meal, but it was to be just the two of them. The king polished off most of the pie himself.
5 Competitive Eaters
Competitive eating as a sort of sport dates back to the 19th century. The first pie-eating contest took place in Canada in 1878. Competitive eating sees people meet to see who can consume the most food over a set period of time. Everything from garlic to stinging nettles to insects has been eaten competitively over the years.
Perhaps the most famous event sanctioned by the Major League Eating organization is the Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest held each year on the 4th of July in New York. The length of time the contest lasts has ranged from just three and a half minutes to twelve minutes. Contestants have to eat as many hot dogs as they can during this time. Penalties are given for sloppy eating, which might drop some of the food, as well as disqualification for “reversal of fortune”—better known as vomiting.
Interestingly, the best competitors have tended not to be obese. They only overeat during contests. Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi, who dominated the sport in the 2000s, was notably svelte. Studies have shown that champions’ stomachs can expand by two to three times the normal limit of non-competitive eaters.
4 William Buckland
William Buckland was not a man who ate a lot at once, but he did like to consume a lot of different and unusual things. He found fame in the 19th century as a geologist and paleontologist. It was Buckland who wrote the first scientific description of a dinosaur. Fossilized dung, known as coprolites, was among his favorite topics, and he even had a table in his home inlaid with slices from them.
His interest in the natural world extended to discovering what animals tasted like. All animals. Buckland was a dedicated zoophage. Over the course of his life, he is known to have consumed mice on toast, puppies, panthers, porpoises, hedgehogs, crocodiles, and ostriches. Not everything he tried was a success. Blue bottle flies were apparently disgusting, and the humble mole was said to be the vilest food he ever tried.
Buckland did not limit his eating to animals. When he was shown a portion of the preserved heart of King Louis XIV, Buckland declared, “I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before,” and gobbled it down. Buckland’s son Francis carried on the family tradition by eating kangaroos, exotic birds, and elephant trunks.
3 Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, was one of the greatest musical superstars of the 20th century, but for our purposes, we will be discussing him as one of the greatest eaters of the 20th century. The tales told of his gluttony are legion and have been mythologized. You may see some accounts that say he ate 65,000 calories a day. Better research has reduced this to a more modest 12,000 calories—five times the recommended amount.
Elvis loved the food of the American South. Fried chicken and greasy sides were among his favorites. His most famous meal dates from 1976. That year, he flew a group of friends to enjoy what he considered the best sandwich in the world—the Fool’s Gold Sandwich. This consisted of a loaf of bread, buttered and layered with peanut butter, jelly, and a whole pound of bacon. While it was designed to satisfy eight people, Elvis enjoyed a whole one to himself.
2 Charles Domery
When a Polish soldier serving in the French navy was captured by the British in 1799, one of the most extreme cases of ravenous hunger was discovered. Dr. J. Johnston was called in to care for Domery and wrote up what he observed.
“The eagerness with which he attacks his beef when his stomach is not gorged, resembles the voracity of a hungry wolf, tearing off and swallowing it with canine greediness. When his throat is dry from continued exercise, he lubricates it by stripping the grease off the candles between his teeth, which he generally finishes at three mouthfuls, and wrapping the wick like a ball, string and all, sends it after at a swallow. He can, when no choice is left, make shift to dine on immense quantities of raw potatoes or turnips; but, from choice, would never desire to taste bread or vegetables.”
Over the course of a day, Domery was fed four pounds of raw cow’s udder, 10 pounds of raw beef, and a pound of candles. When Domery’s initial prison rations proved insufficient, he was known to have eaten a cat and 20 rats. It is said that while still serving on his ship, one of his crew mates had their leg blown off by a cannon, and Domery attempted to snatch up the severed limb to eat it.
It is a biological fact that some people are hungrier than others. Sometimes, the signal that lets most people know they are satisfied does not register in the brain. These people have to live their lives always gnawed by ceaseless cravings to eat. The most famous victim of this lived in France at the end of the 18th century, and he was called Tarrare.
Because of his ravenous appetite, Tarrare was thrown out of his home by his parents, who could not afford to feed him. He began to perform on the street for money, and his act consisted of eating stones and live animals. Tarrare joined the army, but even getting four sets of rations, he was never full. He resorted to eating food he found in the gutters.
Tarrare was hospitalized for being chronically underweight despite his enormous diet. While there, he snuck out of the ward to satisfy his urges. He ate offal discarded from butchers, drank blood, and raided the morgue to try and eat the cadavers. Tarrare was only thrown out of the hospital when he was suspected of eating a 14-month-old infant. On Tarrare’s death, it was discovered that his stomach was vastly bigger than that of a normal person.