Competitive eating seems like a purely modern invention. Mass production and the rise of the fast food industry means that more food is readily available to stuff into your face as rapidly as possible. But in reality, weird competitive eating contests have been held since the 1800s, and some are recorded even earlier. The history of professional eating contests shows how this odd activity morphed from fringe pastime to nationally-televised sensation.
Strange competitive eating contests forced contestants to overindulge in some pretty odd stuff. Sure, platefuls of spaghetti and slabs of pies are delicious, but could you swallow helping after helping of stinging nettles? How about raw meat? These foods and more all appeared at eating competitions at local fairs or big gatherings.
Over time, what began as a way to have a little fun morphed into a very lucrative business for some competitive eaters. But the most bizarre of eating contests weren't about the prize money - they were about local flavor and having a good time.
On April 3, 1919, a particularly unusual eating competition was held at the South Side Pavilion in Jackson, Florida. The co-owner of the Yankees, Colonel T.L. Huston decided to pit New York Yankees outfielder Ping Bodie against an ostrich named Percy, advertised as "the best eater in the world."
People bet heavily on the ostrich, and the competition was going well until the tenth bowl of spaghetti. Then, Percy began to grow noticeably sick. A spectator supposedly yelled, "Do you want your bird killed?" On the eleventh bowl, Percy stopped eating, staggered off stage, and collapsed. Bodie was declared the winner, and the ostrich supposedly died.
The 19th century prospector Alfred "Alferd" Packer is something of an infamous figure in Colorado. He confessed to eating a group of his fellow prospectors to survive a blizzard, and ended up in jail until 1901.
Decades after his death, the University of Colorado named their cafeteria the Alferd G. Packer Memorial Grill and began holding an annual Alferd Packer Day. In the '70s, students celebrated the unofficial holiday by taking part in a raw meat-eating contest. Over the years, the event has become a regular eating contest.
On Thanksgiving day in 1929, while the rest of the world was eating turkey and stuffing, a 110-pound woman named Olga Cinek was trouncing a man in a breakfast eating competition. A headline in the Atlanta Constitution read "Little Woman Beats Husky Man in Eating Contest," after Cinek devoured 27 pancakes and 23 sausages, and drank six cups of coffee.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the existence of a "Fat Man's Club" wasn't unusual. These clubs catered to larger framed men, welcoming them in with the motto "We're fat and we're making the most of it." You had to be at least 200 pounds to join, and membership required a $1 entrance fee and the sharing of a secret handshake and password.
In 1909, the Manhattan Fat Men's Club hosted a competitive eating event between three men. The winner, 380-pound former alderman Frank J. Dotzler, finished off 275 oysters, more than 8 pounds of steak, 12 rolls, 11 cups of coffee, and three pies for a prize of $50.