Friday, 29 April 2016

29/04/16 - Domery

Eating is a polarising and divisive concept. Some do it for fuel, others do it for pleasure, and each camp is equally scornful of the other; sure, the former group tend to live longer, but what kind of a life is it? Give me a juicy steak instead of a bowl of quinoa and knock a few years off my life, I think that’s a pretty attractive deal.

Of course, some people have got the hang of volume-eating more than most. It’s interesting to note that the victors in competitive eating situations (which exist in abundance, worryingly) are often svelte and slender Japanese dudes who are able to wolf down several dozen hot dogs with laser-focused rapidity, rather than being the podgy butterballs from Doncaster that you might expect. The trick here is to eat a lot, but not often; allow the stomach to stretch, but don’t always keep it that way.
For other masters of the gastronomic arts, however, gargantuan food intake is not a competitive sport but a way of life, and there’s no greater poster boy for this menu-crushing peculiarity than Charles Domery.

“Who?” you may enquire. Well, I’m glad you asked, thanks for joining in. Domery is a chap from the late-1700s who was born in Poland as Charles Domerz. He served in the Prussian and French armies, and was known above all else for his really quite extraordinary appetite. It was sufficiently hearty that during the War of the First Coalition (the first attempt by European monarchies to topple Revolutionary France), he deserted the Prussian army and joined the French side because their rations were better.
His time thereafter in the French service was chronicled with some degree of astonishment by Dr. J. Johnston in the 1799 Medical and Physical Journal, detailing how in Domery’s time stationed near Paris he ate 174 cats in the space of a year, leaving just the skin and bones. He was basically always hungry, and would eat anything nearby, preferring his meat raw. He had a deep suspicion and dislike of vegetables, and yet if there wasn’t anything else available he was known to eat a few pounds of grass every day just to keep his relentlessly demanding stomach topped up to the brim.

In naval service on the ship Hoche, he tried to eat the severed leg of a fellow crew member which had been blown off by cannon fire, before his shipmates managed to wrestle it from his meaty grasp and suggest that perhaps he was being a bit insensitive. Shortly afterwards, in February 1799, the Hoche was captured by the British and Domery and the crew were interned at Liverpool, where he struck his captors agog with his absurdly bottomless appetite. Despite having been put on ten times the rations of his fellow captives, he was still always hungry; he ate the prison cat, and any rat that was unfortunate enough to scurry into his cell, and could often be found chomping on the prison-issue candles. He also ate all the medication from the infirmary, suffering no apparent adverse effects.

This enthusiasm for gourmandery piqued the interest of the expansively-named Commissioners for Taking Care of Sick and Wounded Seamen and for the Care and Treatment of Prisoners of War (later renamed ‘Sick and Hurt Board’, so as not to waste everybody’s time), who decided to do a little experiment on him – presumably just to glare wide-eyed at his abilities rather than for any sort of scientific merit. Over the course of a single day he was fed sixteen pounds of raw beef and raw cows’ udders, twenty-four tallow candles, and several bottles of porter. He scoffed it all with casual aplomb, and didn’t wee, poo or puke at any point. At the end of the experiment he was apparently perfectly happy, and keen to have a dance and smoke his pipe, then drink some more porter before bed.

You’d expect a man of such vast ingestion capacity to be a bit of a porker, wouldn’t you? But no, contemporary medical accounts have him listed as a man of normal build, shape and muscle tone, with no signs of mania or mental instability. He was just a really hungry chap who somehow managed to digest food extremely efficiently. The only real abnormality was that he’d sweat profusely while he slept and ate – but you can’t sweat out sixteen pounds of udders in a day, can you?

Unfortunately, the fate of Domery is unknown. Nothing is recorded of his life after his time at Liverpool, or indeed how he died. I like to think he ate himself.




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