Don’t have a cow but, at one point in history, it could have been that Americans weren’t having cows at all. Had the country’s cuisine gone on a different trajectory, Americans may have all been eating hippo meat instead. In American Hippopotamus, author Jon Mooallem recounts this fascinating and altogether quirky time in history.

The idea of hippo meat came about at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the time, a combination of high rates of immigration, increased populations within cities, overgrazed rangeland, and escalating meat prices led to a demand for meat that couldn’t be met. It became known in newspapers as the Meat Question, and two colorful characters, Frederick Russell Burnham and Fritz Duquesne, proposed hippopotamus as the Meat Answer.

Burnham and Duquesne had a few things in common. Along with a common vision of introducing hippopotamus meat to the United States, both were spies. The two also spent time in Africa. And each man had a penchant for posing with animals they slaughtered.

That may have been the extent of their similarities, though. Frederick Russell Burnham was the inspiration for both Indiana Jones and the Boy Scouts. Fritz Duquesne definitely wasn’t either of those things; more of a con man with many aliases, his career highlights included gaining notoriety for creating the Duquesne Spy Ring and faking his own death (only to later change his mind and return).

Some might ask, Why hippopotamus meat? to which Burnham might have replied, Why not? He reasoned that Europeans had imported cows, sheep, poultry and pigs to the United States and also noted that animals such as the ostriches in California and African camels in the southwest had also successfully adapted to their new American surroundings. Burnham’s rationale attracted some notable names, including as William Newton Irwin, a USDA researcher who believed the sole reason Americans didn’t dine on hippopotamus was “because nobody ever told them it was the proper thing to do.”

The introduction of hippo meat also gained the attention of Louisiana Congressman Robert Broussard. Broussard's interest was the result of a curious problem within his district. In 1884, a visiting Japanese delegation had brought water hyacinths to New Orleans as a gift. After their introduction, the flowers quickly took over the surrounding rivers, killing many of the fish that inhabited them. Broussard’s solution to the hyacinth problem was to have Hyacinth Hippo come over and perform the Dance of the Hour in a tutu import hippos from Africa and introduce them into the waters of Louisiana.

For Broussard, the benefits were twofold; not only would the hippos provide a solution to the meat scarcity by living in areas like bayous that cattle couldn’t inhabit, since they were known to enjoy a meal of hyacinth, they would also alleviate the river congestion by eating the plants--sort of a way of having one foreign species come in to get rid of another foreign species.

Together, Broussard, Duquesne, and Burnham started the New Food Supply Society, to explore and promote their idea. Congressman Broussard introduced H.R. 23261, also known as the Hippo Bill, which sought the appropriation of $250,000 to import useful animals (such as hippos) into the United States. Citizens wrote letters in praise of his proposition, its taste was touted in an editorial in the New York Times as “lake cow bacon” and The Washington Post announced that hippopotamus would be readily available within the United States in a matter of years.

As we all know, America went down a different meat sourcing path. Although Mooallem doesn’t necessarily think the United States would have been better off with hippo meat, he notes “...there is something beautiful about the America that considered importing them—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 where there were no hippopotamuses.”

Head over to the Atavist to read the entire story.

Image Credits: Unknown Artist, Charles F. Holder (Frederick Russell Burnham papers, Yale University) Fritz Joubert Duquesne (Published in Field and Stream) all via Wikimedia Commons.