What’s in this post: Review of the 2018 book, The Food Explorer, by Daniel Stone
If I had known there was a job called “agriculture explorer” when I was a kid, that’s exactly what I’d have told everyone I was going to be when I grew up. David Fairchild was the first of a select group that had that title with the now defunct Office of Seed and Plant Introduction at the US Department of Agriculture. They introduced over 200,000 species and varieties of plants to the US from 1898 to about 1930.
“The Food Explorer” tells about the exploits of Fairchild along with his (and the American public’s) rich, somewhat-eccentric, egotistical benefactor, Barbour Lathrop. Also featuring prominently are his nemesis and childhood friend, Charles Marlatt; his fellow explorer, Frank Meyer, bringer of the eponymous Meyer Lemon; and his marriage to Marian Bell, Alexander Graham Bell‘s youngest child.
The story weaves official records and historical correspondence during this dynamic period of American history. the seeds and plants the explorers brought back were not just curiosities, but crops meant to provide additional income for farmers and provide heartier varieties for America’s expanding farmland.
I enjoyed the colorful and intimate descriptions of the adventures, including trips to Indonesia, Japan, China and Mozambique. Though travel may have required more glamorous attire in those days – tuxedos for dinner on the steamships – travel itself wasn’t a more glamorous affair. Tales of near-paralyzing yellow fever and weeks and months of ocean travel make me nauseous at the thought.
What I really liked was learning about the then-new acquisition of popular items like kale, brought to the US from what’s now Croatia, his love affair with mangosteens, and his search for the perfect avocados.
A few snippets:
In East Africa, landing required “being lowered in a wicker clothes basket into a small dinghy”. Imagine doing that with both of the boats rocking!
“We have only one life to live, and we want to spend it enriching our own country with the plants of the world which produce good things to eat and look at.
“In just a few hours on the islands, two hours into his first assignment … on behalf of the American government, Fairchild found himself arrested.”
There’s much more to the story: the war with Marlatt, his childhood friend zealously devoted to protecting the US from foreign insect infestations (and thereby preventing or greatly slowing the importation of new seeds and plants); the gift of the cherry blossoms to the nation from Japan; and his misunderstanding of Frank Meyer’s depression in China, that led to his death in China. All these story lines make for a fast-paced, enthralling read.
Find it at your local bookstore or library: