De Vos: Why we go places
May 18, 2017
Because travel broadens.
For instance, on a recent trip to Hannibal, Missouri, I ran across a perfect description of today's Congress in a short story, "Cannibalism in the Cars", written in 1868 by Mark Twain. The setting is a snowbound train where parliamentary procedure determines the next statesman to be eaten, much like today. (Here's a link to an open-source PDF of this short story: http://micah.cowan.name/cannibalism/cannibalism-orig.pdf.)
A stay at the Cliff House in Manitou Springs brought culinary enlightenment. My wife pointed out that one of the dinner entrees came "dusted with boar powder." We puzzled over boar powder until breakfast when we asked the server what it was. He gave a, "where's management?" look around the room before answering quietly, "chopped bacon."
Last week in Baton Rouge, I learned how close we came to dining on hippoburgers rather than hamburgers.
At the 1884 World's Fair in New Orleans, the Japanese delegation brought a magnificent display of water hyacinth which found its way into the nearby canals. Ten years later this prolific breeder was choking out the fish and clogging waterways throughout Louisiana and Florida. It became a serious problem. Chopping and dredging brought it back more vigorously while oils and pesticides killed the fish.
Around the same time, the decade of 1901-10, saw a growing meat scarcity across America. Immigration, urbanization, overgrazing and foreign demand, created such an acute shortage of meat that folks were looking closer at family pets.
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A third wrinkle was that entrepreneurs were clamoring for some way to monetize the unproductive swamplands of the Southeast.
Louisiana Representative, Robert Broussard, had a bold idea to tackle all these problems. In 1910 he introduced H.R. 23261, appropriating $250,000 for the importation the hippopotamus into the United States—the hippo bill, as it came to be called.
The bill was elegant. Flood the swamps with hippos that gobbled hyacinth stems while Americans gobbled hippo ribs. Supporters estimated the Southeast could produce a million tons of hippo meat worth a billion dollars annually. But the taste? Who would eat it? An agriculture committee was assured it tasted like a cross between pork and beef. The committee chairman asked if white men liked it and was told that many of them do. The New York Times praised it as "Lake Cow bacon".
This curious bill had curiously strong support all the way up to President Teddy Roosevelt. Serious businessmen were salivating over that billion dollars. In 1902, that could make one develop a taste for ring-tailed possum.
Two others testifying before the committee were strange bedfellows who fought on opposite sides during the Second Boer War which the British won in 1902. It was a three-year battle fought in South Africa as Britain clung to its colonies. On the British side, was Frederick Burnham, a man who lived such an unimaginably heroic life as to have inspired the Boy Scouts and become the model for Indiana Jones, kid you not. Google him; they don't make 'em like that anymore.
Fighting on the African side was Frederick Duquesne, who carried a nom de guerre of "Black Panther" a savage guerilla fighter and South African resistance leader. Duquesne hated the British and 30 years later went on to form a formidable spy ring, supplying arms and bombs to terrorist groups while providing American and British intelligence to the Nazi's.
The 1910 agricultural committee showcased this odd pairing of deadly enemies who united to bring hippo hamburgers to the American dinner table.
Critics of the 1910 bill pointed out that hippopotamus are dangerous, cranky beasts that would likely be taken out by poachers and trophy hunters. By 1913, the Department of Agriculture lost interest and decided the South could live with the hyacinth, increased the land available for beef production, and adjourned.
So much for Lake Cow bacon.
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