Anyone who says the U.S. economy has lost its vim and vision doesn't know a thing about ostriches.
The lanky birds with Barbara Bush eyes have set off a speculative boom. Lawyers, real estate agents, antique dealers: all are plunking down as much as $40,000 for a pair of the flightless birds, convinced that on a Thanksgiving not too far off, their fellow Americans will be carving ostrich legs.
"It's the meat of the 21st century," said Chuck Ball, executive director of the American Ostrich Association in Fort Worth, Texas. "Every day more people are learning that ostrich makes good eating and a great investment."
Just seven years ago, a few dozen people in the United States were raising a few hundred ostriches; today, the American Ostrich Association has 3,600 members and there are anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 birds in the country. Mr. Ball said his group is adding 70 members a month.
They are investing tens of millions of dollars, opening ostrich ranches, forming ostrich partnerships and buying into ostrich mutual funds -- even though the only demonstrated demand for ostrich meat comes from a few exotic restaurants, the kind that ** serve rattlesnake and wild boar.
"Getting in on the ground floor means taking a leap of faith," said David Stocking of Joliet, Ill., who quit his job as an accountant in April to open an ostrich ranch with his wife, Sherry. "People say I have my head in the sand, but I'll be laughing last and best."
Not everybody is laughing. A Florida outfit called U.S. Ostrich Corp. was shut down this year after it was accused of bilking 1,300 investors out of $3 million. Investigations by the State Securities Board of Texas recently led to the indictments of two concerns for fraud after they collected $174,000 from retirees by promising them big money in the ostrich business.
"Every time a product seems hot, the con artists move in to prey on people's greed," said Stephan Hodge, the Indiana securities commissioner, who has shut down eight ostrich scams in his state. "When you tell people they're going to make 200 or 300 percent, a lot of them are going to take the bait no matter how fishy it smells."
Just how the 8-foot-tall birds from Africa became promises of the American Dream has a lot to do with cows. Since the word went out about those artery cloggers, investors have developed lucrative and volatile markets in various low-fat meats like
buffalo, venison, alligator and even kangaroo.
The leader of the ostrich pack is Tom Mantzel, 47, of Fort Worth. After making a fortune in the oil business, he founded the American Ostrich Association in 1987.
In his folksy Texas drawl, he'll tick off a dozen reasons why ostriches will take flight, then say, "I'm talkin' your ear off, aren't I?" -- and tick off a dozen more.
He says that ostrich meat is lower in fat and calories than chicken or beef; that ostriches eat less, produce more and need much less land than cattle; that ostrich leather is coveted around the world, fetching about $600 per bird; that the feathers, eyelashes even toenails have lucrative commercial uses.
"Some people say it's a fad, a scam, a pyramid scheme," Mr. Mantzel said, sounding slightly wounded. "But we're not talking chinchillas,Shetland ponies, Vietnamese pot belly pigs, pet rocks, and all those other things ad infinitum because at the end of the day we have a product people want."
Mr. Mantzel said that Europeans, especially the Swiss, Belgians and Austrians, want ostrich meat, and eat 100,000 pounds a year. As to whether Americans will find the birds finger-lickin' good, it's hard to say, partly because for now ostriches are worth more alive than dead.
An ostrich carcass goes for about $750 today, but a fertilized egg sells for about $850. A yearling pair costs $9,000 to $14,000, and by the time they are ready to breed, at about 3 years, a mating pair runs up to $40,000.
Many old-timers have made a fortune selling birds to newcomers, but most people agree that the bubble will have to burst and prices will plummet.
Jeffrey Nathan, the chef and co-owner of the New Deal Restaurant and Garden in Manhattan, which specializes in game, said ostrich "tastes wonderful, like flank steak." (Mr. Nathan serves thin slices of ostrich in a Madeira sauce with caramelized pearl onions and chanterelles.)
He believes that the meat may become quite popular but doubts it will be a household staple because, like other low-fat meats, it requires precise preparation.
"A housewife could destroy it," he said. "It has to be rare or medium rare, or it will be so tough a knife won't cut it."
As ostrich owners look to the future, they can look back, to the turkey. Until the 1930s, it was a rare and exotic bird highly valued for its colorful plumage. Then some visionary decided that it tasted good.
Of course, along the way, something called Thanksgiving was made a national holiday.