Until the turn of the 20th century, the food choices available to most people in the United States were limited to bland staples such as wheat and potatoes. But then David Fairchild (1869-1954), an intrepid young botanist, began to change all that.
“Fairchild’s life is the story of America’s blooming relationship with the world,” writes author Daniel Stone. Fairchild scoured every green continent searching for new crops for farmers and exotic fruits and vegetables to tantalize American palates.
Fairchild, a Kansan, went to work for the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C. when he was in his early 20s. Serendipitously, he met 47-year-old world traveling millionaire Barbour Lathrop there and described the need for more nutrition and variety in the American diet.
Lathrop’s money funded their joint travels to more than 50 countries seeking out edible plants. Thanks to Fairchild’s diligence and Lathrop’s curiosity, many grocery stores now offer a wide selection of colorful and tasty fruits and vegetables to eat.
Fairchild introduced avocados from Chile, seedless grapes from Padua, kale from Germany, and mangoes from Pakistan to the U.S. market. In addition, he brought in hearty species of cashews, oranges, lemons, hummus, dates, zucchini, watermelon and hundreds of other plants to North American planters. He also found improved varieties of soybeans and cotton for the farmers and new types of hops that fueled the growth of American breweries. Fairchild arranged for the planting of flowering cherry trees in Washington DC after World War II , thus using his great knowledge and love for plants to help ameliorate strained Japanese-American relations.
The biography provides a fascinating political and cultural history of the times, and on occasion, reads like a spy novel as Fairchild sneaks around to steal some plants and seeds. There is even an intriguing, fumbling love story about Fairchild’s courtship and marriage to Alexander Graham Bell’s daughter, Marian.
Stone’s text is splendidly descriptive and accompanied with many photographs from the archives of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Florida. The rich narrative helps to bring back to life the legacy of this important contributor to the diversity of foods we enjoy. The author has given Fairchild the long-overdue recognition he deserves.