John Kelly: The Night of the Iguana and Other Exotic Edibles

Russell Deremer, chef at the National Zoo's old restaurant, turns a chunk of elephant ribs being smoked before being served to Anteaters.
Russell Deremer, chef at the National Zoo's old restaurant, turns a chunk of elephant ribs being smoked before being served to Anteaters. (1962 Photo By Wally Mcnamee -- The Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Anteaters Club was a group of high government types who, once a month, ate exotic animals at the National Zoo restaurant. I imagine this quietly died off in the 1960s. Can you give the readers any insight into this practice?

-- Frank Emmet, Queenstown

There are people who love animals, and then there are people who really love animals, preferably served with a nice bechamel sauce. Members of the Anteaters Club were in the latter category.

From 1944 until the mid-1960s, members sampled everything from antelope to zebu. Answer Man should point out right off the bat that although these feasts were held at the National Zoo, no zoo animals were consumed.

Two men were instrumental in the club's formation: William Mann, the longtime director of the National Zoo, and Gordon Leech, who held the concession to operate the zoo's restaurant.

In the 1940s, the restaurant was a proper sit-down establishment, not a hot dog and pizza cafeteria that's more typical of zoo dining today. One day, so the story goes, Mann jokingly asked Leech why buffalo wasn't on the menu.

While you might have laughed off such a question, Leech considered it a challenge. He procured a side of buffalo -- actually bison, from Oklahoma -- and served it up, inviting adventurous diners to join him and Mann. The name Anteaters Club was picked because it was, paradoxically, a creature no one could envision eating.

What could they envision eating? Among the animals prepared over the years by Leech's versatile chef, Russell Deremer, were whale, beaver, harp seal (just the flippers), water buffalo, turtle, reindeer, elk, eland, wild duck, wild boar, sturgeon, Scottish stag, ring-necked pheasant, elephant, hippo, rattlesnake, alligator, "young western black bear," kangaroo, iguana, caribou (served during a "Salute to Alaska"), Canada goose, Chukar partridge, moose and venison.

Membership included politicians, along with diplomats, business people, journalists, sports figures and other restaurateurs. The club met once a month during the winter, with hundreds of members attending. Writer James Cain joined the Anteaters for a meal in 1949 to research a novel he was working on in which a character ate a bear.

Oddly, few stories actually mentioned what the exotic meat tasted like. Therefore, we have no record of what diners thought of the 60 iguanas they supped on one November evening in 1957. According to The Post: "Leech said he obtained them through an iguana dealer who knocked a mere pittance off the price for the privilege of keeping the hides. They'll show up eventually as billfolds and ladies' slippers stamped 'Product of Guatemala.' "

We do have a report on the 1,500 pounds of elephant that arrived in 1963, "quick-frozen from Rhodesia": It "tasted like pot roast, dry tasteless and like mother used to make." Ample wine was required to choke it down.

Leech lost the zoo restaurant concession in 1964, and the Anteaters Club folded. In 1967, he tried to revive the concept at the Explorer Restaurant on Rockville Pike. But the location wasn't right, and the mood had changed. The restaurant closed, and iguanas everywhere breathed a sigh of relief.

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