It’s What’s for Dinner

08.10.14

Lake Bacon: The Story of The Man Who Wanted Us to Eat Mississippi Hippos

In this excerpt from American Hippopotamus, the story of three men who waged a quixotic campaign to bring African hippos to the American dinner table.

“Transplanting African Animals,” by Major Frederick Russell Burnham, was published in New York’s Independent magazine in January 1910. Before long, a chain of serendipitous connections were made and Burnham was invited to share his ideas in a hearing before the House Committee on Agriculture. It would be a long afternoon of testimony, but at the very start a federal researcher named W.N. Irwin summed up the matter nicely: “Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the committee,” he told the congressmen, “in studying the resources of our country for a good many years, I was led to the conclusion that we ought to have more creatures than we are raising here.”

It was March 24, 1910. Under discussion was H.R. 23261, a bill to appropriate $250,000 for the importation of useful new animals into the United States—the hippo bill, as the public would come to understand it. H.R. 23261 had been introduced by the Louisiana congressman Robert Broussard, who had limited himself to a very short statement at the start of the hearing, not wanting to detract from the impressive roster of experts he’d assembled—“three gentlemen,” he explained, “who probably have devoted more time than almost anyone else to this matter.”

Ceding the spotlight was not in Broussard’s nature. Then 45 years old, Robert Foligny Broussard was a raucous and charismatic Democrat from New Iberia, Louisiana. He was the son of a Cajun planter and had lived in the district he represented for most of his life. He loved speechifying and glad-handing and generally addressed himself to the job of campaigning the way a gourmand addresses himself to a platter of oysters—despite having never encountered any real opposition in his seven successive reelections. A native French speaker, he sometimes traveled to give campaign speeches for colleagues in close races in Maine or Massachusetts, parachuting in to charm any French-Canadian constituents in their mother tongue.

Louisianans knew Broussard affectionately as Cousin Bob. He claimed to be related to a quarter of the voters in Iberia Parish—sometimes to a full half of them. “Certain Louisianians may protest they are not his cousins,” one Saturday Evening Post profile noted. “That is a matter of minor importance. The point is that Cousin Bob is their cousin; and he is satisfied, even if they are not. It is quite impossible to stop Cousin Bob from being everybody’s cousin.” A company in New Orleans named a cigar after him.

Broussard had met Burnham for the first time that morning. Launching a national effort to import foreign animals that could benefit American society, especially hippos, had been percolating on Broussard’s legislative agenda for some time, and he had been referred to Burnham by mutual friends in Washington who knew the major would gladly advocate for any bill he introduced to fund that work. It was a stroke of symbiotic political matchmaking. Four years earlier, after returning to Pasadena from England following his son Bruce’s death, Burnham had tried to jump-start his own African animal project in Washington. He had called for 30 varieties of edible antelope—klipspringers, gemsboks, waterbucks—as well as other animals, including giraffes, to be imported from Africa and plopped down in the American Southwest. The pioneering conservationist Gifford Pinchot, then head of the forestry service under President Theodore Roosevelt, had been scrambling to claim and protect more land as federal reserves, and Burnham had imagined those areas as ideal incubators for the transplanted creatures. New populations could be built up under the government’s protection, then dispersed. Formerly vacant, unproductive landscapes could be converted into wonderlands for sportsmen and new storehouses for the nation’s food supply. Burnham and several wealthy friends had even raised $50,000 to pay for the first wave of importations. They’d had a successful meeting with President Roosevelt. Pinchot had written to Burnham, “I have talked with a good many men about the plan and no one has developed any weak points yet.”

But the proposition had eventually broken apart in the churning, acidic stomach of Washington politics. An enemy of Roosevelt’s in Congress had lumped the president’s support for the plan into a broader, petty attack. Importing antelopes and giraffes suddenly became politically impossible. The experience had left Burnham angry—mostly at himself. He’d been naive enough to believe that America made decisions about its future in a more commonsensical way.

“I am at a loss to understand why anybody should protest against the hippopotamus as a food animal. There is no good reason beyond that inexplicable American habit of following beaten paths.”

This time around, though, Burnham was partnering with an insider. He and Broussard were like Darwinian finches—the same species of capable specialist evolved to thrive within two parallel environments. As adeptly as Burnham maneuvered through the African desert, Broussard seemed to maneuver through the disorienting wilderness of Washington, reading the landscape, performing what could only seem like magic to outsiders. In Broussard, Burnham saw new hope now that his gorgeous idea for America might become a reality. He called the congressman “a tower of strength for the movement.”

Broussard, for his part, had locked onto the potential of African animals for his own idiosyncratic reasons—and they did not, initially, have anything to do with food. Cousin Bob had set out to solve a different crisis for his constituents. The crisis was a flower.

Water hyacinths had been brought to New Orleans in 1884, distributed as gifts by the Japanese delegation to an international cotton exposition. New Orleanians loved the frilly, pale lavender flowers and gradually planted them as decorations around the city in garden ponds. The hyacinths multiplied rapidly. (The plant reproduces asexually.) Soon they were spreading through local waterways, clotting into impenetrable mats, then drifting toward the mouth of the Mississippi like big, menacing hairballs toward a drain.

By 1910, when Broussard introduced his bill, the flowers had been plaguing his state for at least a decade. They’d clogged up streams and made shipping routes that had previously moved millions of tons of freight unnavigable. They’d blanketed rivers and wetlands, hogging the oxygen and killing fish. The hyacinth had destroyed fishermen’s livelihoods and transformed some of the state’s greatest resources into a chain of stinking dead zones. The War Department was staging an all-out offensive against the flower, “[b]ut they have only been partially successful,” Broussard said. “They clean a stream today, and in a month it is covered all over again with the same plant.” They’d even tried throwing oil on the hyacinth, but the plant would just sink to the bottom, wait out the disturbance, then send out another bulb and rise again.

Broussard was not the sort of man who could abide such defeat. He liked to plug up problems with big solutions; he was “a large operator,” one reporter wrote, who “goes in for broad effects.” It occurred to him that perhaps some animal could be brought to Louisiana to swallow this particular problem up, and he seems to have hit on the hippopotamus after encountering the curious, aging bureaucrat he’d now called to brief the House Agricultural Committee just before Burnham.

William Newton “W.N.” Irwin was a veteran researcher at the pomological branch of the Bureau of Plant Industry at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was an apple guy, basically—“one of the foremost fruit experts in the country,” according to The Washington Post. Irwin appears to have spent his career championing ideas that were simultaneously perfectly logical and extravagantly bizarre. (Another of his crusades was trying to convert Americans from eating chicken eggs to eating turkey eggs. The advantages of turkey eggs were just so obvious to Irwin: They were richer, larger, and more nutritious, and had thicker shells and membranes, so they stayed fresh longer. Sometimes he wouldn’t eat a bunch of turkey eggs until six months after he’d purchased them. And still, he bragged, “the yolks would drop out round and plump, and the white, or albumen, would be perfectly normal.”) He had first laid out the case for hippopotamuses while delivering a paper at a conference in Missouri the previous year. He reviewed the causes of America’s gathering meat crisis and noted that, in the past, the country had sidestepped these kinds of Malthusian forecasts by expanding just a little farther west. There had always been more land to put into production. But now the great prairies had all been overgrazed or carved into farms; there was little suitable rangeland left to occupy. The only way forward, Irwin concluded, was to find ways of wringing nourishment out of land that now seemed barren or worthless, for example, the vast marshes along the Gulf Coast. Extracting the energy embedded there would require assembling a new set of tools, new technologies. The hippopotamus was one such technology.

Hippopotamuses eat aquatic vegetation, like water hyacinths—loads of it, Irwin learned. Deposit some hippos in a hyacinth-choked stream, he argued, and they’d suck it clean in no time. That is, hippos could solve Louisiana’s problem with the flower while simultaneously converting that problem into the solution to another—an answer to the Meat Question. The animal, Irwin now told the committee, would “turn the plague that they now have in the South into good, wholesome flesh for our people.” The hippopotamus was a perversely elegant win-win.

Of course, it could be hard to see that logic through all the lavish weirdness of the proposal. But for Irwin—and Burnham—any resistance to their idea came down to simple small-mindedness. The only reason Americans didn’t already eat hippopotamuses, Irwin claimed, was “because their neighbors don’t, or because nobody ever told them it was the proper thing to do.” Like Burnham, he saw the Meat Question as a test of American ingenuity and resolve: To defend our freedom and way of life, some generations of Americans are called to go to war; this generation was being called to import hippopotamuses and eat them. And, also like Burnham, Irwin seemed incapable, or at least unwilling, of letting any emotional objections or queasiness detract from the divine common sense of the plan. At times he seems to have gotten a little pissy about it, actually. A few months earlier, Irwin had invited a Washington Post reporter to his office, fed him a stick of hippo jerky while showing him a photograph of five East African men skinning the very beast he was now digesting, and whined: “I am at a loss to understand why anybody should protest against the hippopotamus as a food animal. There is no good reason beyond that inexplicable American habit of following beaten paths. Everyone seems to hate to go out and blaze a trail.” In one scientific paper, Irwin compared himself to Christopher Columbus, being laughed at as he sailed toward what looked like the edge of the earth but was, in reality, a new and nutritionally superior world of turkey eggs and hippopotamus brisket.

This article is excerpted from American Hippopotamus, a recent single from The Atavist.