A century ago, the American diet was bland and boring, limited to basics like wheat and potatoes. But around the turn of the 20th century, a young botanist named David Fairchild began to change all that. “Fairchild’s life is the story of America’s blooming relationship with the world,” writes Daniel Stone, a contributor to National Geographic and author of The Food Explorer, a new biography of Fairchild.
Acting almost as a food spy, Fairchild traveled to every (farmable) continent in search of new crops to introduce to American farmers and eaters. In his early 20s, Fairchild, a Kansan who’d gone to Washington, D.C., to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, lucked into a friendship with the eccentric millionaire Barbour Lathrop. Funded by Lathrop’s fortune, the two traveled to far corners of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, South America and Europe, braving rough conditions and life-threatening illnesses in their search for edible plants. We can thank Fairchild’s curiosity and persistence for our easy access to avocados, nectarines, kale, mangos, cashews, citruses, dates and other produce, as well as improved industrial crops like soybeans and cotton. Fairchild’s efforts also extended into agricultural diplomacy—he was responsible for Washington, D.C.’s flowering cherry trees, which beautified the city and helped smooth strained Japanese-American relations.
The book retraces Fairchild’s journeys and includes enough cultural and political history to situate the reader in early 20th-century America, though Stone does not looking too closely at the ethics of Fairchild’s work, which sometimes involved stealing plants and seeds. Fairchild’s life and work intersected with some of the era’s biggest leaders and inventors: Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson; the Wright brothers; and Alexander Graham Bell (the story of Fairchild’s courtship and marriage to Bell’s daughter Marian, an energetic sculptor, is charming). Despite occasionally awkward phrasing, The Food Explorer does a wonderful job bringing Fairchild’s story to life and giving this American original some overdue recognition.