Among the hundreds of stories that folklorist Barry Ancelet has collected, the most famous are probably the Pascal Tales. Told in Fred's Lounge, these tales tell of the incredible adventures of Pascal and friends who traveled by bicycle on telephone wires or on hay balers to get to the moon. The clients there are used to tall tales. But I think if one nice Saturday morning in Mamou I began telling the following story, the people there would take me for the biggest liar in the country. And yet every word of the story of how they tried to make us eat hippo over a hundred years ago is true.
The United States of the early twentieth century was changing at a high rate of speed. The population growth put pressure on the amount of food that farmers could provide. For meat, the situation was catastrophic. There were more mouths to feed, but the number of cattle had dropped dramatically. Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, had forced the government to improve conditions in substandard slaughterhouses, further reducing meat reserves. The fear of not being able to feed everyone was real. But a plan designed by an unlikely trio, consisting of a mercenary who inspired the creation of the Scouts, a Boer hunter who spied for the Nazis and a Cajun representative who began his political career by opposing the lottery, to bring hippos to the Louisiana swamps proposed to eliminate this fear.
Frederick Burnham was getting by alone since the age of twelve in California. Two years later, around 1875, he met one of the last of the scouts of the Far West who taught him the skills to survive in the desert. Gradually, the young Burnham learned an unimaginable number of survival skills that will serve him later in the exploration in Southern Africa during the Boer War. It was there that he made the acquaintance of Lord Baden-Powell. This English noble was so impressed by Burnham’s prowess that he decided to form an organization to teach his methods to the young people: The Boy Scouts. Fritz Duquesne was a Boer, therefore the enemy of Burnham who fought alongside the British. They were considered the best soldiers of each side; their mutual task, which fortunately for the rest of the story they did not accomplish, was to kill each other. The essential ingredient in this combination was Robert Broussard – politician, planter’s son from New Iberia and descendant of deportees of the Grand Dérangement – whose local problem had nothing to do with the lack of protein on American tables. It was rather the overabundance an aquatic plant that was causing him trouble.
Native to South America, the water hyacinth arrived in New Orleans in 1884 on the occasion of the World Exposition celebrating the centennial of the first export of cotton to England. The Japanese contingent distributed it to the passersby who admired its flower. Hyacinth was spreading so fast that the bayous and rivers were soon choked, preventing the passage of commercial vessels. The American Hippopotamus Bill of 1910, H. R. 23261, proposed to allocate $250,000 to kill two birds with one stone: the hippos would eat the water hyacinth and people would eat the hippos. This project failed to pass Congress by very few votes. After this failure, the initial enthusiasm never returned and we forgot about this crazy idea when we found other ways to increase meat production. We still have water hyacinths that clog our waterways, but no hippopotamuses. When you consider that hippos kill hundreds of people each year in Africa, I think we'd rather see the pastel petals in our bayous, even if they deplete oxygen levels.
It is almost impossible to imagine today that one of our national dishes could have been a hippopotamus stew, but that's exactly what they envisioned for us. I still get the impression that if the idea had worked, there would be a TV show, Bayou Hippo Hunters.