My son and I recently spent a sick day watching "Sesame Street" reruns. One of the episodes was "National Try a New Food Day!" in which each segment involved one of the characters trying a new food or one prepared in a new way. This special day appears to be fictional, but I decided to use examples from the show to convince my toddler to try mashed potatoes (it didn't work).
The National Zoo Park restaurant used to have its own version of "Try a New Food Day" in the form of the Anteaters Association.
The Anteaters Association was an informal group established in 1944. A search of the press reveals many conflicting accounts of the origin of the group and its name. During an oral history interview (Record Unit 9513), Lucile Quarry Mann recalls that it was the result of a fireside chat between William M. Mann, Director of the National Zoological Park, and L. Gordon Leech, Manager of the independently-operated National Zoo Park Restaurant. It was autumn and Leech was concerned about business now that zoo attendance had dropped. The two men discussed serving special luncheons featuring wild game to bring diners to the restaurant during the colder months. Mrs. Mann recounts a story in which she told her husband and Leech, "Oh, you’re just a bunch of anteaters!" in response to the idea, thereby inspiring the group’s name (she also notes that she doesn't actually remember saying this, but both her husband and Leech insisted this is what happened). Listen to Lucile talk about the origins of the Anteaters Associations below.
. Lucile Quarry Mann discusses the origins of the Anteaters Association, Record Unit 9513, Interview 5 by Pamela Henson, Oral History Interviews with Lucile Quarry Mann, 1977, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
The Anteaters Association grew from an occasional luncheon to a multi-day event open to members and invited guests only. It became popular among Smithsonian and National Geographic administrators as well as local bankers, government officials, and anyone else who had the time for a leisurely weekday lunch. Featured meats ranged from the relatively tame pheasant to elephant steak, kangaroo, and whale blubber. Mrs. Mann noted that they had iguana tail once (the only edible part of the iguana), but it wasn’t very popular. "It looked all right on the plate, but anybody who’d seen it in the kitchen, I think, kind of lost their appetite."
Dick West, a United Press International columnist, was invited to a luncheon in November 1960. He says of the invitation, " . . . when I opened it my stomach began flip-flopping like a troupe of Russian gymnasts . . . I have followed its activities for yerrs [sic] with a fascination bordering on nausea." The luncheon featured barbecued elk tidbits and roasted buffalo. His research assistant, Dr. Zhivago, apparently ate the meal with relish, but West declared that he was now a vegetarian.
Raymond J. Crowley, an Associated Press columnist, also had some trepidation prior to attending his first Anteaters Association luncheon in November 1964. He purchased a cheese sandwich to take with him so that he wouldn't starve if he couldn't stomach the hippopotamus. Crowley, however, was more adventurous than West. He notes, "It looked like dark colored roast beef, rather tough. So your correspondent put his cheese sandwich back in his pocket and ate hippo. It tasted just the way it looked.”
Sometime in the mid 1960s, Leech was outbid on the zoo restaurant contract (it was put out to bid every 3 years) and he opened a restaurant called “The Explorer” in Rockville, Maryland. The Anteaters Association continued at the new location, but the restaurant was never a financial success.
- Throwback Thursday: Anteaters Open Season with Roast Elephant, DC Public Library
- Accession 01-157 – Marion P. McCrane Papers, 1962-1989, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 9513 – Oral History Interviews with Lucile Quarry Mann, 1977, Smithsonian Institution Archives