Over the past several decades, culinary abstinence has become increasingly laudable. Shunning carbs or eliminating sugar is considered a feat of self-control; foregoing meat takes discipline and creativity. The brave, resourceful souls who adopt these eating habits are celebrated, and rewarded with book contracts and appearances on morning talk shows. It seems that inspirational eating is no longer about consumption, but rather lack thereof.
This is all well and good, really—abstaining can, in some cases, encourage better health—but it’s not very fun.
As such, we decided to uncover some of history’s most inspirational eaters: Those individuals who consumed with reckless abandon, and often gag-worthy curiosity. In doing so, we encountered some truly colorful characters: From a man who sampled a piece of Louis XIV’s heart, to an emperor whose feasts were truly life-changing. Move aside, Andrew Zimmern.
At best, they were adventurous; at worst, abhorrent. But there’s one thing they most certainly were not: vanilla.
Marcus Gavius Apicius
Feasting era: 1st century AD, Rome
A known epciure, Apicius is arguably the forebearer of some of Ancient Rome’s most decadent culinary practices. In collection of recipes, De re coquinaria (“On the Subject of Cooking”), he penned the instructions for some 400 variations of sauces; moreover, he’s credited for inventing one of the era’s most ridiculous dishes: lark tongue pie. (Given a lark is about five inches long, we won’t try to discern how many of their poor, diminutive tongues were necessary to create a hearty pie—but we digress).
Photo: The Monastery
From flamingo’s tongue to dolphin meatballs, boiled parrot to jellyfish omelets, there was seemingly nothing Apicius wouldn’t sample. Yet his eating habits—however disgusting they might seem—weren’t cheap. After spending nearly all of his money on decadent gorging, Apicius eventually killed himself: Life without lark tongue pie is, after all, a life not worth living.
Feasting era: AD 203–AD 222, Rome
Gaining an invitation to one of Emperor Elagabalus’ dinner parties was pretty much like getting selected for the Hunger Games: You’ll get a great meal before, but you’ll probably end up dead after. This boy emperor—noted for his vicious brutality and deranged eccentricities—ensured his guests enjoyed the most lavish dinner spreads imaginable but with a truly sadistic surprise at the end.
While eating with Elagabalus, a diner could encounter camel heels, nightingale tongues, parrot heads, flamingo, and peacock brains; dormice baked in poppies and honey; sea-wolves from the Baltic; African snails; and sturgeons from Rhodes. At one banquet, he had some 600 ostrich brains prepared.
Yet enjoying these delicacies did have its price. After one dinner, Elagabalus watched gleefuly as his guests suffocated under a mountain of rose petals; on another occasion, he released wild animals to attack his shrieking, terrified dinner table. Check, please!
King Henry VIII
Feasting era: 1509 – 1547, England
While Henry VIII has gained infamy for his personal life (weddings, beheadings) and is considered the founder of the Church of England, he is also one of history’s most notable gourmands. In a typical year, his royal kitchen would slaughter and serve 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 760 calves, 1,870 pigs, and 53 wild boars; at the time of his death, he weighed close to 400 pounds.
Yet despite his girth, he was thought to suffer from malnutrition, a testament to his truly—ahem—inspired diet. He deemed both water and vegetables as “unhealthy,” refusing to eat them, and consuming enormous quantities of wine, ale, meat, and bread in their place. They say food is a religion; you’ve got to hand it to the guy to sticking to his beliefs.
John Montagu, Fourth Earl Of Sandwich
Feasting era: 1718 – 1792, England
While Montagu didn’t exactly eat jellyfish omelets, he deserves recognition for inventing a truly brilliant and resourceful culinary tactic (hint: see his name). A terrible gambler, Montagu wanted to eat something without leaving the betting table and without soiling his hands. Greasy meat was procured, as were two slices of bread, and the sandwich was born. Here’s to inspirational eating that doesn’t involve tongues or brains!
Feasting era: 1772–1798, France
(Disclaimer: Freak alert.) While the normal-sized Tarrare didn’t physically resemble a glutton, he began consuming massive quantities of food at an early age to sate his incredible appetite. At the age of 17 (and despite weighing only 100 pounds), he ate a quarter of a cow; in his late teens and early twenties, he combined his eating prowess with a knack for showmanship, consuming corks, stones, live animals, and whole baskets of fruit for entertainment.
Once France’s Revolution broke out, Tarrare became a soldier. Finding military rations unsatisfactory, he was diagnosed with exhaustion and sent to the hospital. It was there that he became the subject of medical experiments to test his capacity for food, eating meals intended for 15 people in a single sitting, consuming live cats, snakes, lizards, and puppies, and even swallowing an eel in one gulp, without chewing. Noting this, the French army eventually enlisted Tarrare to be a spy of sorts, assigning him to swallow enemy documents and then retrieve them through his stool. Shockingly, that didn’t work well.
Sketch of Tarrare: ToryHoke.com
The strange Tarrare spent the rest of his life in desperate search of food—often resorting to deplorable tactics to do so (corpse hunting, anyone?). While his autopsy revealed an abnormally large gullet, liver, gallbladder, and stomach, the golden fork that Tarrare had consumed two years earlier was nowhere to be found.
Feasting era: c. 1778–after 1800, Poland
We like to think Domery and Tarrare might have been good friends—assuming neither man tried to eat each other. In fact, Domery’s story is very similar to Tarrare’s: He, too, was a soldier during France’s Revolution, fighting for Prussia in the War of the First Coalition. He deserted the Prussians for the French solely on the basis of better rations (Tarrare could have told him that was bullshit), eating literally everything he could get his hands on. While stationed outside of Paris, he’d eat up to five pounds of grass per day; that year, he consumed nearly 200 cats.
When British forces captured the freight on which Domery was serving, he became an inmate, languishing under scarce rations (although he was given far more than his counterparts) and eating rats, the prison cat, and even candles to survive. He, like Tarrare, eventually garnered attention for his unusual appetite and became a subject for medical testing. During one such test, he ate 16 pounds of raw beef, several tallow candles, and four bottles of beer in one sitting—all of which he consumed without throwing up, urinating, or defecating.
That, my friends, is what we call a strong stomach.
Feasting era: 1784–1856, England
An English theologian, geologist, and paleontologist, Buckland was fascinated with eating animals, which were part of his lifelong study of “zoophagy.” His career facilitated this interest; while he was a notable lecturer and eventually became the Dean of Westminster, he also held a position at the Society for the Acclimatization of Animals that allowed him to import animals into the United Kingdom to test their suitability for consumption.
From bluebottle flies (one of his few bad experiences) to crisp mice in golden batter, panther chops to rhino pie, crocodile to porpoises, Buckland ate it all. His greatest culinary conquest: Upon encountering a preserved artifact of Louis XIV’s heart, he purportedly cried out in delight: “I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before!” You can guess what happened next.
Feasting era: 1809–1882, England
Darwin’s historical accomplishments are numerous, but his adventurous appetite was equally impressive as his work as a naturalist. Like Buckland, he’d test out nearly every animal he studied— From owls to iguanas to armadillos (the latter, apparently, “taste like duck”). While he was known to love tortoises—his famous pet, Harriet, lived to the age of 175—he wasn’t above snacking on them.
Diamond Jim Brady
Feasting era: 1856–1917, USA
American railroad millionaire Diamond Jim Brady was a quintessential Gilded Age figure, famously living the “good life” in all respects—from his impressive collection of jewelry (hence “Diamond”) to his enormous appetite.
It’s been said he ate nine servings of sole Marguery in a single sitting and would regularly down a breakfast of eggs, breads, muffins, grits, pancakes, steaks, chops, fried potatoes, and pitchers of orange juice (he could drink two quarts at a time). Dinner was often at his favorite New York City restaurant, Charles Rector’s, where he’d feast on dozens of oysters, several crabs, green turtle soup, six or seven lobsters, two roast ducks, and a sirloin steak, plus a healthy side of vegetables.
Photo: New York Times
Like any gourmand, he had a real sweet tooth; in one famous anecdote, Brady impulsively wrote a check for $150,000 for a chocolate factory that couldn’t produce his beloved sweets fast enough. In his obituary, Fred Housman—one of his closest friends—remembered his candy gobbling: Brady was “…certainly an eater, being particularly fond of sweets. I have seen him eat a pound of candy in five minutes.” RIP.