While the global food news often tells of meat shortages in China and India, as middle class demand for meat increases in these extremely populated countries, the United States faced its own meat crisis in the early twentieth century—and believe it or not, hippopotamus ranching emerged as a proposed solution. This is the remarkable story told in American Hippopotamus (2013) by Jon Mooallem, a product of significant archival research, which you can purchase at Atavist or on Kindle for your own reading pleasure.
Mooallem’s account orients itself around 1910, when a combination of increasing immigrant populations, growing cities, and overgrazed rangeland caused meat prices to soar, as producers struggled to keep up with domestic meat demands. Christened “the Meat Question” in the newspapers, Louisiana Congressman Robert Broussard proposed importing hippopotamuses from Africa and settling them in the bayous of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana to assuage America’s carnivorous ills, as well as to tackle the invasive water hyacinth plants, which clog southern waterways and impact fish populations to this day.
The bulk of the American Hippopotamus narrative presents dueling biographies of the two fascinating characters deployed to support the hippo ranching scheme. Frederick Russell Burnham was a humble frontiersman and “freelance adventurer” who inspired both the Boy Scouts and Indiana Jones. He was once described by an acquaintance as “most complete human being who ever lived.” Fritz Duquesne, on the other hand, was a darkly ambitious con man who sported multiple aliases with such ease that he reads like the combination of a less murderous H. H. Holmes and a more sinister Frank Abagnale Jr. (the inspiration for Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can). Interwoven within these men’s stories, however, American Hippopotamus also tells a tale of interest to food historians and Americanists.While Americans were somewhat appalled by last year’s horse meat scandal, the optimistic players behind hippopotamus consumption believed that the animal could be successfully incorporated into American foodways. One such individual was William Newton Irwin, a seasoned USDA researcher described at the time by The Washington Post as “one of the foremost fruit experts in the country.” Mooallem further characterizes Irwin as having “spent his career championing ideas that were simultaneously perfectly logical and extravagantly bizarre.” In this vein, Irwin claimed the only reason that Americans did not chow down on hippo was “because nobody ever told them it was the proper thing to do.” Mooallem contends that for both Irwin and Burnham:
the Meat Question [w]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…It was only the passage of time that had made a pork chop or a bowl of chicken soup feel American—not their actual origins. Time would make hippo roasts just as familiar.
The taste of food-based cultural innovation also flavored the name of the lobbying firm, the New Food Supply Society, which promoted the hippo cause. Unfortunately, though perhaps an eventuality from the start, the Department of Agriculture dismissed the idea of importing hippopotamuses, instead investing resources to expand not the diversity of America’s meat supply, but developing new ways to increase the production of acceptably palatable animals.
Mooallem contends that choosing beef and eschewing hippo formed one link in the chain that led to today’s factory farming practices that define industrial agriculture; practices related to “all kinds of dystopian mayhem,” including an antibiotics nightmare and issues of animal welfare, as well as contributing to global warming.
Not only does Mooallem connect this historical meat moment to present day meat production methods, but to a seemingly by-gone American political ethos. He argues:
[T]here is something beautiful about the America that considered importing [hippopotamuses]—an America so intent on facing down its problems, and solving them, that even an idea like this could get a fair hearing; where the political system and the culture felt so alive with possibility, and so confident in its own virtue and ingenuity, that elected officials could sit around and contemplate the merits of hippo ranching without worrying too much about how it sounded; where people felt free and bold enough to imagine putting hippopotamuses in places were there were no hippopotamuses.
Published just a few months ago, American Hippopotamus proves a timely piece, not only within the story of a “broken” food system, in which meat production and consumption are a much invoked component, but as commentary on America’s political, economic, and cultural perspective. On this note, Mooallem’s conclusion reminds me of the point of view that Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld endorsed in a recent New York Times article promoting their Triple Package research: “Those who talk of America’s “decline” miss this crucial point. America has always been at its best when it has had to overcome adversity and prove its mettle on the world stage. For better and worse, it has that opportunity again today.” Now is exactly the time for bold and creative solutions.
While the American public may never willingly consider hippopotamus farming or “lake cow bacon” consumption, Mooallem may be on to something that we would do well to view our present and our future with more open mindedness; to recapture a national spirit that is fearlessly open to innovation in all its forms—even hippopotamuses.