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Like Lemons? Quinoa? Thank This Food Explorer For Bringing Them To Your Plate

Feb 20, 2018
Originally published on February 20, 2018 8:05 pm

Botanist David Fairchild grew up in Kansas at the end of the 19th century. He loved plants, and he loved travel, and he found a way to combine both into a job for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At the age of 22, he created the Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the USDA, and for the next 37 years, he traveled the world in search of useful plants to bring back to America. He visited every continent except Antarctica and brought back mangos, quinoa, dates, cotton, soybeans, bamboo and the flowering Japanese cherry trees that blossom all over Washington D.C. each spring, as well as hundreds of other plants.

All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro talked with Daniel Stone, author of The Food Explorer: The True Adventures Of A Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats, which recounts Fairchild's sometimes harrowing adventures acquiring the familiar foods we eat and plants we take for granted today.

Interview Highlights

On how common a traveling foodie would have been in Fairchild's time

This was very rare. This was an era where people did not travel very far and travel was very difficult. It was often by boat or steamer.

Yet Fairchild traveled to over 50 countries, and met all sorts of people, some hostile, some diplomatic, and some friendly. He outran diseases, he got arrested, and he made it back with seeds almost every time.

He caught typhoid at one point, he gets arrows shot at him in the Malay Islands, he almost falls off a mule over a canyon in the Andes while he's looking for quinoa — but he survives.

On Fairchild's tactics for finding plants

He started out as many of us do in new jobs — awkward and unequipped.

He could steal things, as he did in Corsica, searching for new types of citron, or lemons. He got arrested and had to leave very quickly.

But he eventually develops a strategy of talking with people, going to markets, observing what people are eating and what they're growing. And he sends back seeds and cuttings to try in America.

On how Fairchild was sure he'd discovered the next big thing

In 1903 he travels around southern Africa and he finds a pint-sized pineapple — the size of a banana — very small. He thinks everyone's going to want a small pineapple, but the pineapple growers in the states and in South American say, 'No, people want bigger pineapples.' And now, 100 years later, we have even bigger pineapples.

On whether Fairchild was a genius or just lucky

He got lucky. He found a way to feed his wanderlust on a need his country had. So much of the labor force was farmers in that era, and they needed food to grow. The growth of America was the growth of food.

On his efforts to improve existing American food crops

In the late 19th century, American beer was not very good. Germany had been brewing beer for centuries. Fairchild went to Bavaria to find better hops to brew better beer. Now, Germany knew it had great hops and had dogs guarding the hops fields at night.

Fairchild could have stolen some of the hops, but he sees this as an opportunity for diplomacy. He befriends the growers, drinks with them in the beer hall, and eventually one of them says, 'I'll give you some hops but you can't tell anyone and you have to leave tomorrow.'

On the role of foods as immigrants in America

Apples come from Kahzakstan, bananas come from New Guinea, pineapples from Brazil, and the oranges and lemons that have fueled the economies of Florida and California? They originated in China ... Almost every food we eat is an immigrant.

Smokey Baer, Jolie Myers, and April Fulton contributed to this report.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The American dinner plate today is an exercise in variety, and that's thanks in part to a man named David Fairchild. He was a government botanist at the end of the 19th century. Back then, meals were mostly about sustenance, and Fairchild traveled the world, bringing back exotic foods like avocados, kale, citrus fruits, mangoes. He even shares responsibility for the flowering cherry trees that fill Washington, D.C., with pink blossoms every spring.

The journalist Daniel Stone has a new book out about Fairchild. It's called "The Food Explorer: The True Adventures Of The Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats." I asked Stone to begin by describing Fairchild and his work.

DANIEL STONE: This was a man of the late-19th century who grew up on the plains of Kansas, and he had two main passions. He loved plants, and he loved to travel. And he found a way to get paid to explore the world in search of novel foods, novel crops and novel plants that didn't exist in America so he could bring them back here and introduce them to farmers and eaters.

SHAPIRO: This brand of person is very familiar to a 21st century individual - a foodie, a world traveler. Was this a brand of person that people around 1900 would recognize?

STONE: This was very rare. This was an era where people did not travel very far. It was difficult. It was dangerous. It was all by boat, by steamer. Fairchild traveled to more than 50 countries and met all sorts of people, some hostile, some diplomatic, some friendly. And he outran diseases. He got arrested. And he made it back with seeds almost every time.

SHAPIRO: He comes close to dying a bunch of times in this book.

STONE: Yeah. He caught typhoid at one point. He gets arrows shot at him in the Malay islands. He almost falls off a mule over a canyon in the Andes while he's looking for quinoa. But he survives.

SHAPIRO: He found quinoa way before quinoa was cool.

STONE: Technically the people of Central America and northern South America found quinoa...

SHAPIRO: True. True.

STONE: ...Centuries ago. But Fairchild goes and he finds this crop that's been misunderstood for a century, right? People don't know. Do you eat the leaves like spinach? Do you eat the grain - which is not really a grain. It's a protein. And so a lot of the reason why quinoa only peaked in the last two decades and really the last decade is because of marketing.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about his actual tactics for getting plants because sometimes it sounds like diplomacy and sometimes it sounds like espionage.

STONE: Well, he started out as many of us do in new jobs - awkward, unequipped with the tools needed. Sometimes he'd steal things outright as he did in Corsica at one point when he's looking for new types of citron for lemons. He gets arrested and he has to leave very quickly. Eventually, he develops a tactic where he chats people up. He goes to markets in developing countries and finds what people are eating, finds out who's growing them and where they're growing them and the best growing methods. And he collects seeds and cuttings and offshoots. And then he learns how to pack them and to ship them to America for a trip that could take a month or two on a boat.

SHAPIRO: He has this really impressive list of foods and plants that he's responsible for bringing to the United States, but those are a tiny fraction of all of the things he tried to introduce to the United States that never caught on.

STONE: Right.

SHAPIRO: There's one moment in the book where he's sure he's discovered the next big thing - personal pineapples. And he's like, every breakfast plate is going to have an individual pineapple on it all across the United States.

STONE: In 1903, he circumnavigates southern Africa. He finds a pint-sized pineapple, like, the size of a banana, really small. And he says, everyone's going to love their own pineapple. Why do you need a big one anymore? And he tries to introduce it, but the pineapple growers at that point in the United States and in South America said, no, we want bigger pineapples. People want the biggest pineapples they can have. And that leads to a hundred years later, we have even bigger pineapples.

SHAPIRO: So was Fairchild a genius, or did he just stumble into being in the right place at the right time?

STONE: He got very lucky. He found a way to feed his wanderlust on a need that his country had, right? So much of the labor force was farmers in that era. And the growth of America was really the growth of food.

SHAPIRO: In the introduction to this book, you write, few things have been American for long, including foods. Do you think there's something quintessentially American about what Fairchild did?

STONE: Absolutely. When you think of this country and the role of immigrants, foods have been immigrants, too. Apples - they come from Kazakhstan. Bananas come from New Guinea - right? - pineapples from Brazil. And oranges and lemons that have fueled the economies of Florida and California - they originated in China. Almost every food we eat is an immigrant.

SHAPIRO: Daniel Stone, thanks so much for talking with us about your new book.

STONE: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: The book is called "The Food Explorer: The True Adventures Of The Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.