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The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats

The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats by Daniel Stone. New York, NY: Dutton Books; 2019. ISBN: 9781101990599. Softcover, 416 pages. $17.00.

In the late 19th century, the ability of a young man from rural Kansas to travel the globe was limited. However, due to his willingness to explore (taking a Smithsonian grant to study algae cells in Naples, Italy) and some unlikely opportunities (an invitation to travel the world with an eccentric millionaire), botanist David Fairchild did just that, and ended up playing a key role in shaping the diverse food system of the United States.

Daniel Stone’s biography of Fairchild also discusses the history of agriculture in the United States from the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783 to Fairchild’s death in 1954. All told, Fairchild introduced more than 200,000 plants to the United States, engaging in methods that often verged into espionage and smuggling, on behalf of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The variety of plants he brought from all over the world include popular food crops; new strains of economically important commercial crops such as cotton (Gossypium hirsutum, Malvaceae) and rice (Oryza sativa, Poaceae); and decorative trees and flowers, including the Japanese cherry (Prunus spp., Rosaceae) trees that still adorn Washington, DC.

During Fairchild’s youth, the US agricultural system composed a large sector of the economy, but it lacked variety. As such, “American cuisine” did not exist, and the various immigrant groups that populated the country stuck to the staples of their native cultures, with little intermixing. However, the USDA had plans to create a more diverse array of food crops, and Fairchild, who began working at the department after earning his master’s degree in botany from Kansas State College of Agriculture, agreed to go on plant-collecting expeditions as a way to travel the world — a rare opportunity for an American before the “Gilded Age.”

Readers may recognize many of the historical figures who passed through Fairchild’s life: Marian Bell, Fairchild’s wife and the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell; William McKinley, who served as president of the United States while Fairchild was at the USDA, where Fairchild establised and managed the Office of Seed and Plant Introduction; and Frank Nicholas Meyer, a food explorer like Fairchild in whose honor the Meyer lemon (Citrus × meyeri, Rutaceae) is named. These stories help provide context for Fairchild’s own, which could at times seem outlandish with his globe-trotting, tropical illnesses, arrests, and other mishaps.

Readers with an interest in botanical history, or, for example, how kale (Brassica oleracea, Brassicaceae) from Croatia became a staple in the US “superfood” movement, may be interested in the story of Fairchild’s life. Stone, a journalist who writes for National Geographic and Newsweek, among other outlets, approaches the subject of the US agricultural sector with a deft hand, lightening what could otherwise be a dry and dense topic by allowing the reader to view the discovery of avocados (Persea americana, Lauraceae), dates (Phoenix dactylifera, Arecaceae), cashews (Anacardium occidentale, Anacardiaceae), and other plants through Fairchild’s own sense of wonder.