STUFFED (22)

By: Tom Nealon
March 19, 2017

One in a popular series of posts by Tom Nealon, author of Food Fights and Culture Wars: A Secret History of Taste (British Library Publishing, October 2016, and published this month by Overlook). STUFFED is inspired by Nealon’s collection of rare cookbooks, which he sells — among other things — via Pazzo Books.

STUFFED SERIES: THE MAGAZINE OF TASTE | AUGURIES AND PIGNOSTICATIONS | THE CATSUP WAR | CAVEAT CONDIMENTOR | CURRIE CONDIMENTO | POTATO CHIPS AND DEMOCRACY | PIE SHAPES | WHEY AND WHEY NOT | PINK LEMONADE | EUREKA! MICROWAVES | CULINARY ILLUSIONS | AD SALSA PER ASPERA | THE WAR ON MOLE | ALMONDS: NO JOY | GARNISHED | REVUE DES MENUS | REVUE DES MENUS (DEUX) | WORCESTERSHIRE SAUCE | THE THICKENING | TRUMPED | CHILES EN MOVIMIENTO | THE GREAT EATER OF KENT | Etc.

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Nicholas Wood, The Great Eater of Kent

Poking through some old books, I ran across a piece on “The Great Eater of Kent” by John Taylor, the Water Poet, collected in his Workes (1630). Taylor was a funny character in early 17th century London — he was employed as a boatman who ferried people, often theater goers, across the Thames and he wrote a few pieces on the vicissitudes of the boatman business. He is often credited with the first English palindrome, “Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel.” and he made a number of silly trips that caught the public attention, including tying stockfish to his oars and rowing a paper boat from London to Queeensborough (a feat recounted in his “The Praise of Hempseed”; he also wrote “The Pennyles Pilgrimage or The Moneylesse Perambulation of John Taylor, Alias the Kings Majesties Waterpoet”). His verse tended towards doggerel, but he was prolific and a man of the people.

He also wrote a short but charmingly illustrated history of English monarchs from 2858 BC to the present.

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The Great Eater of Kent, who also went by Nicholas Wood, was born in Kent sometime in the 1580s and rose to fame for his prodigious feats of consumption. It’s not clear exactly when he began eating as a spectacle, but there is indication of him doing so at fairs and other public gatherings in the 1610s. The feats often took the form of dares by wealthy landlords (the only people with enough extra money to be financing competitive eating) and he repeatedly won bets by eating impossible quantities of food.

In the introduction, Taylor invokes Aulus Vitellius, the famously gluttonous Roman Emperor who was reportedly served 2,000 sorts of fishes and 7,000 fowls at one supper. He claims Wood ate an entire (save the skin, hooves, and bones) 16-shilling sheep, raw (which, at the time, and maybe still, wins you the nickname “tugmutton”), another time a whole hog with 3 pecks of damsons (a sort of plum) for dessert. Then Taylor warms to his subject — 8 pounds of brawn (calf’s head meat with jelly) then, after, 12 raw puddings. “Two loynes of Mutton, and one Loyne of Veale were but as three Sprats to him”. He ate seven dozen rabbits at Lord Woetens in Kent, enough for an army of 168 men — then it gets into classic mock-epic hyperbole: His paunch is a roost for fowl, a stall for the oxe, roome for the cow, a sty for the hog, a park for the deer, a warren for coneys, a storehouse for fruit, a dairy for milk, cream, curds, whey, buttermilk, and cheese. His mouth a mill of perpetual motion, his guts the rendez-vous for the beasts of the field, the fowl of the air, fish of the sea, and though they be ever so wild or disagreeing in nature, one to another, yet he binds and grinds them to the peace, in such manner, that they never fall at odds again. Etc. etc. A real-world Pantagruel.

When he first met Wood, Taylor apparently watched him eat 60 eggs (doing Cool Hand Luke 10 better) and was sold. He decided to bring him to London for an eating exhibition and wrote this pamphlet to drum up interest in the event. Each day would be another event — e.g. eating a wheelbarrow of tripe, or enough puddings to stretch across the Thames.

Bu Wood started getting worried. He had been victimized a couple of times by the landlords running his eating bouts — once he passed out and failed to finish and the lord put him in the stockade to be ridiculed. Another time he was bet that he couldn’t eat 2 shillings of food and some clever bastard soaked 12 loaves of bread in strong ale, rendering him unconscious halfway through. Not long before the event, he was forced to eat the bones of a sheep that he was bet he couldn’t eat “all of” by some smart-ass, and knocked out most of his teeth. London seemed like a bad bet for a working-class eating hero, so he bailed and his legend faded. But still we remember, at least a little, Nicholas Wood, The Great Eater of Kent.

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STUFFED SERIES: THE MAGAZINE OF TASTE | AUGURIES AND PIGNOSTICATIONS | THE CATSUP WAR | CAVEAT CONDIMENTOR | CURRIE CONDIMENTO | POTATO CHIPS AND DEMOCRACY | PIE SHAPES | WHEY AND WHEY NOT | PINK LEMONADE | EUREKA! MICROWAVES | CULINARY ILLUSIONS | AD SALSA PER ASPERA | THE WAR ON MOLE | ALMONDS: NO JOY | GARNISHED | REVUE DES MENUS | REVUE DES MENUS (DEUX) | WORCESTERSHIRE SAUCE | THE THICKENING | TRUMPED | CHILES EN MOVIMIENTO | THE GREAT EATER OF KENT | Etc.

MORE POSTS BY TOM NEALON: Salsa Mahonesa and the Seven Years War, Golden Apples, Crimson Stew, Diagram of Condiments vs. Sauces, etc., and his De Condimentis series (Fish Sauce | Hot Sauce | Vinegar | Drunken Vinegar | Balsamic Vinegar | Food History | Barbecue Sauce | Butter | Mustard | Sour Cream | Maple Syrup | Salad Dressing | Gravy) — are among the most popular we’ve ever published here at HiLobrow.

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