Tarrare, the Greatest Glutton of All Time

An illustration of a gluttonous man by George Cruikshank
An illustration of a gluttonous man by George Cruikshank
iStock.com/whitemay

Today's competitive eaters are renowned for consuming dozens of hot dogs in a single sitting, but the unusual eaters of old performed much weirder feats. Medieval reports describe people consuming hearty helpings of stones, spiders, and snakes, among other poisonous things, and showmen were making a living touring Europe on the strength of their strange stomachs by the early 17th century.

“The Great Eater of Kent,” a 17th century English laborer named Nicholas Wood, entertained fair-goers at country festivals by consuming 60 eggs, mutton, three large pies, and a black pudding in a single sitting. In the 18th century, one Charles Tyle of Dorset ate 133 eggs in an hour alongside large quantities of bread and bacon (he then complained he hadn’t had a full supper). In 1792, according to medical historian Jan Bondeson, a French showman named M. Dufour ate a particularly Luciferian banquet in front of a packed house in Paris, including an hors d’oeuvres course of asps in hot oil, dishes of tortoise, bat, rat, and mole, an entrée of roast owl in a sauce of “glowing brimstone,” and a dessert of toads adorned with flies, crickets, spiders, and caterpillars. Dufour then swallowed all the candles on the table alongside a flaming glass of brandy, and opened his mouth wide so the audience could glimpse the flickering flames inside his throat.

But the most amazing eater ever recorded is Tarrare, an 18th-century French showman able to consume his own weight in beef by the time he was 17. It’s unclear whether Tarrare was his real name or a nickname; “bom-bom tarrare!” was a popular French expression at the time used to describe powerful explosions, and Bondeson speculates that it may have been applied to Tarrare because of his prodigious flatulence. 

Tarrare’s appearance was reportedly relatively normal, except for an enormous mouth stretched wide over badly stained teeth, and a distended belly that hung so low he could wrap it around his waist when it was empty. He was also said to sweat constantly, and emit a powerful odor. According to a report in The London Medical and Physical Journal, “he often stank to such a degree, that he could not be endured within the distance of 20 paces.” 

Born in the French countryside near Lyons in the early 1770s, Tarrare ate so much that his parents kicked him out of the house when he was in his teens. According to Bondeson, Tarrare then spent a while touring the French provinces “in the company of robbers, whores, and vagabonds” before taking up employment with a traveling quack, swallowing stones and live animals to draw attention to the charlatan’s dubious medical cures. In 1788 he left the quack’s employment and made his way to Paris, where he performed on the streets, swallowing basketfuls of apples, corks, flints, and other objects. After one such show, he suffered an acute intestinal obstruction and had to be carried to the Hôtel Dieu hospital. After being treated by the surgeon there, he offered to show off his talents by swallowing the man’s watch and chain. The surgeon was not amused, and replied that he would cut Tarrare open with his sword to recover his valuable possessions. 

When the revolutionary wars broke out, Tarrare signed up with the French army. The military rations weren’t enough for his appetite, though, and he was soon taken to the hospital at Soultz complaining of exhaustion. Despite being given quadruple rations, and chowing down on all the poultices in the apothecary, his needs remained unsatisfied. The military surgeons were so amazed they asked to keep him in the hospital for experiments. While there, Tarrare ate a meal intended for 15 German laborers, including two enormous meat pies and four gallons of milk. He also ate a live cat—breaking open its abdomen with his jaws, drinking its blood, and later vomiting up the fur and skin—as well as puppies, lizards, and snakes, which were said to be a special favorite. The doctors, which included one M. Courville and Pierre-François Percy, one of the greatest military surgeons of his day, declared themselves astonished.

After a few months in the hospital, the military board inquired about when Tarrare might return to duty, but the doctors were unwilling to part with their fascinating subject. As Bondeson describes it, M. Courville came up with an ingenious, if bizarre, plan to make Tarrare useful for both science and the military—he would courier documents with his own body. First, Courville asked Tarrare to swallow a wooden box with a document inside. Two days later, Tarrare returned from the hospital latrines with both box and document in good condition. After a repetition of the experiment at French army headquarters on the Rhine (Napoleon may or may not have been present), Tarrare was officially employed as a spy. His first task: deliver a message to a French colonel held prisoner in a Prussian fortress.

However, Tarrare’s mental abilities were apparently dwarfed by the powers of his stomach. According to a report in The London Medical and Physical Journal, Tarrare was “almost devoid of force and of ideas.” And so while the army officers told Tarrare he was swallowing papers of key strategic importance, the note he was entrusted with simply asked imprisoned French colonel to report back on any information he might have about Prussian troop movements.

It turned out the French officers were right to be concerned: Tarrare was captured outside the city of Landau almost as soon as the mission began. (This may have had something to do with the fact that he didn’t speak a word of German.) The poor glutton withstood a strip-searching and whipping without betraying his cargo, but after a day with the Prussian counter-intelligence, he finally confessed. The Prussians tied him to a bog-house and waited for his digestive system to deliver the goods. When it complied, however, they were enraged to discover such a banal message inside the wooden box—they believed, as did Tarrare, that he was carrying crucial military intel. The Prussians beat him brutally, then subjected him to a mock execution, letting him get as far as the scaffold before calling off the executioner.

Understandably terrified by his ordeal, Tarrare returned to the hospital begging Dr. Percy to cure him. Unfortunately, all of the reported solutions for excessive eating that Percy tried—tincture of opium, sour wine, tobacco pills, copious amounts of soft-boiled eggs—proved to be in vain. Tarrare found himself unable to live on the hospital’s food, and snuck out to butcher shops and back alleys, fighting street urchins and animals for scraps of decaying carrion. He even drank the blood from other patients at the hospital, and was kicked out of the hospital morgue several times for trying to eat the corpses. 

Several of the doctors complained that Tarrare would be better off in a lunatic asylum, but Percy defended his presence at the hospital. That is, until a toddler mysteriously disappeared from the wards. Tarrare was the prime suspect, and the furious doctors and porters finally drove him away from the hospital for good.

For the next four years Tarrare’s whereabouts are unclear, but in 1798 he showed up at a hospital in Versailles, so ill he could barely rise from his hospital bed. Tarrare believed his troubles stemmed from swallowing a golden fork, but the doctors recognized him as suffering from advanced tuberculosis. About a month after Percy was notified of his admittance, Tarrare was struck with terrible diarrhea. He died a few days later. 

The doctors were loathe to undertake an autopsy—apparently the corpse became “prey to a horrible corruption” soon after death—but the chief surgeon at the Versailles hospital overcame his disgust and opened up the cadaver. He found that Tarrare’s gullet was unusually wide, and when the jaws were forced open, that he could see all the way down into Tarrare’s enormous stomach, which was covered in pus and filled almost the entire abdominal cavity. The liver and gallbladder were similarly oversized. According to The London Medical and Physical Journal, "The stench of the body was so insupportable that M. Tessier, chief surgeon of the hospital, could not carry his investigation to any further extent." 

The cause of Tarrare’s extreme gluttony has never been diagnosed. According to Bondeson, no case resembling Tarrare has been published in modern medicine. And while the reports of his eating habits beggar belief, they were recorded by some of the foremost medical authorities of his time, and well-known among the Parisians who delighted in his macabre displays. Percy wrote in a memoir: "Let a person imagine all that domestic and wild animals, the most filthy and ravenous, are capable of devouring, and they may form some idea of the appetite … of Tarrare."

Why We Eat What We Eat On Thanksgiving

monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images
monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images

When Americans sit down with their families for Thanksgiving dinner, most of them will probably gorge themselves on the same traditional Thanksgiving menu, with turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin pie taking up the most real estate on the plates. How did these dishes become the national "what you eat on Thanksgiving" options, though?

Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

It's not necessarily because the pilgrims did it. Turkey may not have been on the menu at the 1621 celebration by the Pilgrims of Plymouth that is considered the first Thanksgiving (though some historians and fans of Virginia's Berkeley Plantation might quibble with the "first" part). There were definitely wild turkeys in the Plymouth area, though, as colonist William Bradford noted in his book Of Plymouth Plantation.

However, the best existing account of the Pilgrims' harvest feast comes from colonist Edward Winslow, the primary author of Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Winslow's first-hand account of the first Thanksgiving included no explicit mention of turkey. He does, however, mention the Pilgrims gathering wild fowl for the meal, although that could just as likely have meant ducks or geese.

When it comes to why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving today, it helps to know a bit about the history of the holiday. While the idea of giving thanks and celebrating the harvest was popular in certain parts of the country, it was by no means an annual national holiday until the 19th century. Presidents would occasionally declare a Thanksgiving Day celebration, but the holiday hadn't completely caught on nationwide. Many of these early celebrations included turkey; Alexander Hamilton once remarked, "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day."

When Bradford's journals were reprinted in 1856 after being lost for at least half a century, they found a receptive audience with advocates who wanted Thanksgiving turned into a national holiday. Since Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the autumn of 1621 and since turkey is a uniquely North American (and scrumptious) bird, it gained traction as the Thanksgiving meal of choice for Americans after Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Moreover, there were pragmatic reasons for eating turkey rather than, say, chicken at a feast like Thanksgiving. The birds are large enough that they can feed a table full of hungry family members, and unlike chickens or cows, they don't serve an additional purpose like laying eggs or making milk. Unlike pork, turkey wasn't so common that it seemed like an unsuitable choice for a special occasion, either.

Did the pilgrims have cranberry sauce?

While the cranberries the Pilgrims needed were probably easy to come by, making cranberry sauce requires sugar. Sugar was a rare luxury at the time of the first Thanksgiving, so while revelers may have eaten cranberries, it's unlikely that the feast featured the tasty sauce. What's more, it's not even entirely clear that cranberry sauce had been invented yet. It's not until 1663 that visitors to the area started commenting on a sweet sauce made of boiled cranberries that accompanied meat.

There's the same problem with potatoes. Neither sweet potatoes nor white potatoes were available to the colonists in 1621, so the Pilgrims definitely didn't feast on everyone's favorite tubers.

How about pumpkin pie?

It may be the flagship dessert at modern Thanksgiving dinners, but pumpkin pie didn't make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims probably lacked the butter and flour needed to make a pie crust, and it's not clear that they even had an oven in which they could have baked a pumpkin pie. That doesn't mean pumpkins weren't available for the meal, though; they were probably served after being baked in the coals of a fire or stewed. Pumpkin pie became a popular dish on 17th-century American tables, though, and it might have shown up for Thanksgiving as early as the 1623 celebration of the holiday.

This article originally appeared in 2008.

15 Colorful Facts About Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe’s enchanting floral still life paintings are now a deeply ingrained part of American culture—so much so that they often eclipse her other colorful accomplishments. For a more complete portrait of the artist, who was born on November 15, 1887, brush up on these 15 little-known facts about her.

1. Flower paintings make up a small percentage of Georgia O'Keeffe's body of work.

Though Georgia O'Keeffe is most famous for her lovingly rendered close-ups of flowers—like Black Iris and Oriental Poppies—these make up just about 200 of her 2000-plus paintings. The rest primarily depict landscapes, leaves, rocks, shells, and bones.

2. Georgia O'Keeffe rejected sexual interpretations of her paintings.

For decades, critics assumed that O'Keeffe's flowers were intended as homages—or at the very least, allusions—to the female form. But in 1943, she insisted that they had it all wrong, saying, “Well—I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.” So there.

3. Georgia O'Keeffe was not a native of the American Southwest.


Joe Raedle/Getty Images

O'Keeffe was actually born on a Wisconsin dairy farm. She'd go on to live in Chicago; New York City; New York’s Lake George; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Amarillo, Texas. She first visited New Mexico in 1917, and as she grew older, her trips there became more and more frequent. Following the death of her husband in 1946, she moved to New Mexico permanently.

4. Georgia O'Keeffe’s favorite studio was the backseat of a Model-A Ford.

In an interview with C-SPAN, Carolyn Kastner, former curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, explained how the artist customized her car for this use: "She would remove the driver's seat. Then she would unbolt the passenger car, turn it around to face the back seat. Then she would lay the canvas on the back seat as an easel and paint inside her Model-A Ford."

Painting inside the car allowed O'Keeffe to stay out of the unrelenting desert sun, where she painted many of her later works. The Model-A also provided a barrier from the bees that would gather as the day wore on.

5. Georgia O'Keeffe also painted skyscrapers.

While nature was O'Keeffe's main source of inspiration, the time she spent in 1920s Manhattan spurred the creation of surreal efforts like New York With Moon, City Night, and The Shelton with Sunspots.

6. Georgia O'Keeffe immersed herself in nature.

While in New Mexico, O’Keeffe spent summers and falls at her Ghost Ranch, putting up with the region's hottest, most stifling days in order to capture its most vivid colors. (The rest of the year she stayed at her second home, located in the small town of Abiquiu.) When she wasn't painting in her Model-A, O'Keeffe often camped out in the harsh surrounding terrain, to keep close to the landscapes that inspired her.

7. Not even bad weather could keep Georgia O'Keeffe away from her work.

The artist would rig up tents from tarps, contend with unrelenting downpours, and paint with gloves on when it got too cold. She went camping well into her 70s and enjoyed a well-documented rafting trip with photographer Todd Webb at age 74. Her camping equipment is occasionally exhibited at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.

8. Georgia O'Keeffe married the man behind her first gallery show.

"At last, a woman on paper!" That’s what modernist photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz cried when he first saw O'Keeffe's abstract charcoal drawings. He was so enthusiastic about this series of sketches that he put them on display—before consulting their creator.

When O'Keeffe arrived at his gallery, she wasn't pleased, and brusquely introduced herself: "I am Georgia O'Keeffe and you will have to take these pictures down." Despite their rocky beginnings, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe quickly made amends, and went on to become partners in art and in life.

9. Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz wrote 25,000 pages of love letters to each other.

When the pair met in 1916, Stieglitz was famous and married; she was unknown and 23 years his junior. All the same, they began writing to each other often (sometimes two or three times a day) and at length (as many as 40 pages at a time). These preserved writings chart the progression of their romance—from flirtation to affair to their marriage in 1924—and even document their marital struggles.

10. Georgia O'Keeffe served as a muse to other artists.

Thanks in part to Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was one of the most photographed women of the 20th century. Stieglitz made O'Keeffe the subject of a long-term series of portraits meant to capture individuals as they aged, and she made for a striking model. Though he died in 1946, the project lived on as other photographers sought out O'Keeffe in order to capture the beloved artist against the harsh New Mexican landscapes she loved so dearly.

O'Keeffe later wrote:

"When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me—some of them more than 60 years ago—I wonder who that person is. It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives. If the person in the photographs were living in this world today, she would be quite a different person—but it doesn't matter—Stieglitz photographed her then."

11. Georgia O'Keeffe quit painting—three times.

The first break spanned several years (the exact number is a matter of debate), when O'Keeffe took on more stable jobs to help her family through financial troubles. In the early 1930s, a nervous breakdown led to her hospitalization, and caused her to set aside her brushes for more than a year.

In the years leading up to her death in 1986, failing eyesight forced O'Keeffe to give up painting entirely. Until then, she fought hard to keep working, enlisting assistants to prepare her canvas and mix her oil paints for pieces like 1977's Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds. She managed to use watercolors until she was 95.

12. After going blind, Georgia O'Keeffe turned to sculpting.


By Alfred Stieglitz - Phillips, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although her vision eventually made painting impossible, O'Keeffe's desire to create was not squelched. She memorably declared, "I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” O'Keeffe began experimenting with clay sculpting in her late 80s, and continued with it into her 96th year.

13. Georgia O'Keeffe is the mother of American Modernism.

Searching for what she called “the Great American Thing,” O'Keeffe was part of the Stieglitz Circle, which included such lauded early modernists as Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand, and Edward Steichen. By the mid-1920s, she had become the first female painter to gain acclaim alongside her male contemporaries in New York's cutthroat art world. Her distinctive way of rendering nature in shapes and forms that made them seem simultaneously familiar and new earned her a reputation as a pioneer of the form.

14. Georgia O'Keeffe blazed new trails for female artists.

In 1946, O’Keeffe became the first woman to earn a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Twenty-four years later, a Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective exhibit introduced her work to a new generation. Fifteen years after that, O'Keeffe was included in the inaugural slate of artists chosen to receive the newly founded National Medal of Arts for her contribution to American culture.

15. Georgia O'Keeffe wasn't fearless, but she rejected fear.

O'Keeffe was purported to have said, "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

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