Eating too much turkey's become a November tradition, but quail was once the fowl of choice for diners set on overindulging.
As David Wondrich notes in his splendid new book, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, 19th-century sports were terrifically fond of the "betcha can't eat 30 quails in 30 days" wager. Since reviewing restaurants in Dallas is tantamount to taking that bet again and again, I dipped into the archives today to discover whether Gilded Age gamblers had developed any tricks for making the birds go down easy.
The origins of the bet, which pivots on the assumption that an eater's resolve will falter in the face of quail's overwhelming gaminess, may be Biblical: According to Exodus, when the wandering Israelites grouched about their monotonous diet of manna, God responded with a storm of quail. Scholars who've done the math estimate it took billions of quails to "cover the camp" in a pile "two cubits high."
Forget one billion: In the 1800s, it only took a few dozen quails to make betting men blubber.
"It was evident to the most unobservant that something ailed Mr. Walcott," a New York Times reporter covering W. S. Walcott's run at the quail-eating crown wrote on the 18th day of his month-long attempt in 1883. Walcott's $500 wager called for him to eat two quails a day, a challenge he tried to subdue with catsup, salt, Worcestershire sauce and "a statuesque bottle labeled 'Gastrine, a sure cure for dyspepsia'."
"Mr. Walcott gazed at the birds before him with lackluster eye, then lifted one of them from the platter to his plate by means of a fork, and gazed upon it again as if it were his evil angel," the Times reported.
Walcott rallied, and the press continued to heap coverage on the bettor and his quails, drawing a pair of showmen to the final devouring session. Described as "a small man with a light moustache and a slouch hat, and a large man with a black hat and sloucher hat," the hucksters apparently planned to kidnap Walcott and haul him away in a wheeled cage.
"An attempt was to be made to confine him in the museum and cause him to eat quails, feathers and all, in competition with a Zulu, for the amusement of the populace, an indefinite number of consecutive days," the Times explained.
Yet observers were so thoroughly fixated on Walcott's quest that the scheme was completely forgotten when his quail plate arrived. Walcott picked the birds clean and ate the peas, beans and celery too.
Walcott's feat was repeated numerous times over the following years -- a record that didn't deter leading papers from enthusiastically chronicling new attempts, or sports from believing it couldn't be done.
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"Danger signal! Breakers ahead! / A few more quail and life is dead," philosopher George Francis Train wrote in a poem inspired by Walcott.
The myth that eaters who dare eat 30 quails in 30 days flirt with mortality has persisted for nearly 150 years: "I don't know nothing about stomach enzymes," Amarillo Slim Preston recounted in his 2005 memoir, "but I know there have been plenty of bets about a man trying to eat a quail for thirty days in a row, and the longest I have ever heard of someone doing it was seventeen days."
That's called a challenge in gambling circles, and Lee Merschon took it earlier this year. Perhaps in homage to the gullibility of great gamblers before him, professional poker players Phil Laak staked $10,000 Merschon would fail.
"Lost the quail bet to Lee," Laak wrote on his blog. "Turns out eating a quail a day for 30 days is easy. The tricky part is to eat a freshly killed WILD quail, not the frozen store bought ones. So that was a big waste of time and money."