Who was David Fairchild?

food explorer.jpeg

There was a time when many Americans didn’t know what a soybean or a zucchini looked like. Dinner plates were filled with corn, potatoes, cheese, grains and meat—pretty drab. The rainbow of foods that we eat now can be traced back to the self-deemed ‘agricultural explorer’ David Fairchild, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s namesake.

He has earned titles of ‘traveling adventure-botanist’, ‘food spy’, and most recently in David Stone’s book of the same name “The Food Explorer”. Fairchild was responsible for importing more than 200,000 plants into the US in a time when his travels were by boat or train. He adventured to parts of the world many Americans wouldn’t have dreamed of going to. Fairchild was a man “with a lot to say and he wrote it all down”. Stone’s book eloquently details the life and travels of Fairchild as he brought many of the plants that are common to our diets today. The book is a colorful and fascinating narrative of the life of a man who lived in an age where Americans were eating purely for subsistence, who traveled the world to bring flavor and spice and diversity into our diets.

As a young botanist, he left Kansas to work for the Department of Agriculture, where he conceived and established the Office of Seed and Plant Introduction. He was tasked with expanding the diversity of crops grown in America, considering whether people would like the new flavors and where it would grow. He was befriended by philanthropist and world traveler Barbor Lathrop who craved more purpose to his travels and came to fund many of Fairchild’s expeditions. The lavish wealth that the two traveled in ensured their security even as they traveled to places where American tourists weren’t warmly welcomed.

From Egypt they brought cantaloupes, peppers, okra, pumpkins, onions, and Egyptian cotton. When trying to leave Bombay with overflowing baskets of mangoes the captain told Fairchild it was too many to bring on board, so he hired children to eat them as fast as they could while he packed the seeds into wet charcoal for the journey back to America. In China he searched for peaches, also collecting persimmons, ginger, and olives. From Quetta, Pakistan the nectarine. Dates from Baghdad. Wasabi from Japan, which only lasted until American farmers, realized its close relative the horseradish root grew faster and was more pungent than delicate wasabi. From Hawaii he was given a ceremonial exit with a Plumeria lei.

Quinoa, the grain we are all familiar with by now, originated with the Incas on Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Fairchild was too early in his discovery of the edible seeds of Chenopodium quinoa in the Amaranth family—a group of herbs and subshrubs including spinach. Microscopes and refractometers weren’t advanced enough to assess the nutritional value, and it wasn’t until 2005 that quinoa was labeled a super food causing its price to triple.

Disease chased the two men all over the world. Lathrop succumbed to yellow fever in Brazil and Fairchild to typhoid fever in Ceylon, the British colony that would eventually become Sri Lanka. Typhoid was one of the most debilitating diseases of the nineteenth century, and when the manager of the hotel where they were staying discovered that one of his boarders was infected, he demanded their immediate departure. Lathrop threatened the man with a silver revolver and no more fuss was made.

When he decided to settle down he courted and married Marian Bell, youngest daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor who patented the telephone. Marian was the an artist and the first woman in Washington DC to get a drivers license and her father agreed to their marriage in spite of Fairchild’s modest family. Of all of Fairchild’s plant introductions, the cherry blossom was her favorite. They both wore the flowers at their wedding (though Marian forgot her corsage for the ceremony). The two bought land and settled in Maryland. With his very own canvas to fill as he pleased, he planted a magnificent garden of cherry blossoms, which brought onlookers to their front yard.

The next time you drink a beer take note of the wanderlust that smuggled some of the finest hops into the USA for us to enjoy.