Feb. 27th, 2017
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.
08.10.14 4:45 AM ET
“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.”
( Read more... ) 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.
( Read more... ) 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.