America’s food spy: He snuck 15,000 exotic plants to the US
If you really think about it, an American grocery store is a magical place. We casually place avocados and zucchini in our baskets, bags of cashews and seedless grapes, without a second thought to how they got there.
All of these foods originated in other countries, and one man is responsible for bringing their seeds to America.
This is how farmers were able to grow them and why you can buy them all in one store. That man is David Fairchild.
“David Fairchild was a young man of the late 19th century,” said Daniel Stone, a writer for National Geographic magazine and author of the new book, “The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats.”
“He grew up in Kansas and he had two passions: plants and traveling,” he said. “He finds his way to Washington [DC] and becomes a government food spy; an explorer, an adventurer, who’s tasked with going all over the world, touching every continent, to find exotic crops that didn’t exist in America and to bring them back and introduce them to farmers.”
Fairchild brought in more than 15,000 different plants, including avocados; nectarines; mangoes; pistachios; types of seedless grapes; kale; types of peaches and citrus.
“Fairchild went to more than 50 countries, all by boat, all of which took weeks or months to get to,” Stone said. “He’d go to outdoor markets and he’d ask people what the best foods were. He’d asked growers how they were grown, how much water was needed. Then he’d pack all of the seeds and he’d ship them back to Washington. It was a really long process. It was also very dangerous. It was really difficult, especially in parts of the world like Indonesia and Malaysia that were kind of wary of outsiders, they were wary of westerns and they didn’t really understand why this man from America was so interested in their plants. It was suspicious.”
America’s food spy
Stone said the food scene in the United States, at this time, was dull. There wasn’t much variety.
“You had a lot of corn, you had a lot of wheat, you had meat and dairy,” he said. “But not a lot of variety, certainly of fruits and vegetables, in America’s earliest days. And that was a problem because more than half of the labor force were farmers. So farming is a huge portion of the economy and when everyone is growing the same thing, no one is making very much money.”
Adventures were the easy part for Fairchild, despite being arrested and catching diseases. Getting American consumers to try new foods was harder.
“What we eat is curated,” Stone said. “Our whole supermarket is like a museum exhibit that a group of people have decided, over decades, that this is what we eat and this is what we have available. Most of food is marketing. That’s when you start seeing advertising campaigns. The types we see for avocados or a new type of mango smoothie. People are pretty wary of outside foods so to indoctrinate a new food and to really introduce it is a very difficult process.”
Many Americans would consider apples and bananas to be standard fruits, while mangosteens and dragon fruit are exotic. But it’s all in the marketing. If things had gone a different way, if Fairchild had brought back different seeds, and never discovered others, bananas might have only been something you saw on a trip to southeast Asia.
Fairchild also brought cherry blossoms to the US. He made a deal with the Japanese government. So when you see the beautiful pink and white blossoms blooming this spring, think of Davis Fairchild, America’s food spy.