The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats
Did you have some avocado toast this morning? Perhaps some seedless grapes? If so, “you owe a debt of thanks to David Fairchild,” said Ron Hogan in the New York Post. In 1894, when the average American meal was a fairly bland affair, the then-25-year-old botanist embarked on a bid to find and bring home for cultivation the most intriguing fruits, vegetables, and grains he could find. Nectarines, peaches, dates, kale, zucchini, pomegranates, mangoes—all found their way to U.S. farmland thanks to Fairchild’s scouting efforts over the next decade, and he even triggered a beer boom by importing superior German hops. “We’re a nation of immigrants,” said Debbie Arrington in The Sacramento Bee. “So is our food.”
Fairchild’s first excursion “might well have been his last,” said Barry Estabrook in The Wall Street Journal. Sent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Corsica to obtain citron, he was arrested as a spy before managing to talk his way out of jail. Future ventures would bring a bout with typhoid, a brush with cannibals, and a near fall from a 1,000-foot cliff when his donkey slipped on ice in Argentina. Author Daniel Stone, an editor at National Geographic, weaves a lively adventure tale from the material, though his prose is “marred occasionally by a clumsy or clichéd metaphor.”
For understandable reasons, the pace of the story in its final third “slows significantly,” said Ashley Day in USA Today. After a decade of circling the globe, often obtaining foreign plants and seeds through subterfuge, Fairchild settled down, marrying the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell in 1905 and taking a Department of Agriculture desk job. Worries had multiplied by then about the alien insects that had caught rides into the U.S. on foreign seeds and plants, and food spies’ glory days were over. Even grounded, though, Fairchild made a mark, helping to arrange the importation of the first cherry blossom trees from Japan. That episode alone offers “reason enough” for his fame.