Who brought us the avocado?
National Geographic writer Daniel Stone recently returned to Beinn Breagh where, four years ago, David Fairchild’s descendants gave Stone their blessing to bring Fairchild’s story to light and regaled the author with stories of the early twentieth century botanist’s life and work. Stone’s riveting work of historical non-fiction entitled The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats is now complete. The easily consumed tale may change the way we look at everyday produce. The Standard sat down with Stone during his stay in Baddeck, between speaking engagements in partnership with the Alexander Graham Bell Foundation and Cape Breton Partnership’s Creative Island initiative.
Carolyn Barber: You write in the book that “Fairchild’s ingenuity faced the angry criticism of a nation crouched in fear.” In 1912, Fairchild’s friend-turned-nemesis Charles Marlatt succeeded in having the Plant Quarantine Act passed. To Marlatt, Fairchild’s new plant imports were “plant enemies”, going so far as to recommend building a wall to keep new plant species out. This tone, and language, has once again surfaced in America.
Daniel Stone: That part of the book was coming together during this political moment in America. As the wave was cresting, I took comfort in knowing that this has happened before and this is perhaps a cycle. Every so often, maybe every 100 years, nations that expand through exploration and adventure tend to come back together and close their eyes. Maybe for a decade, maybe for two. That it happened before gives me hope that [the expansion] will happen again.
CB: Is the Plant Quarantine Act of 1912 still in effect?
DS: Yes, it's been amended and changed several times. I usually like to say that, when you get on a plane to the United States and you have to fill out that little form on the plane that says 'I haven't been on a farm or not bringing in fruit', that's a result of the Act. That was a response to Fairchild's work.
CB: Fairchild’s quest for new and interesting edible plants took him all over the world. Other than Beinn Breagh, where did the research for this book take you?
DS: I spent a lot of time in Florida where he and Marian lived after he retired in Coral Gables. I spent a couple months in Japan tracing the steps of the cherry blossom episode in the book. Fairchild had footsteps in most countries. Most of his records are in Washington or Maryland or Florida or here. I thought about going to Java, to parts of the Malay archipelago, Venice, Bavaria, Morrocco. But, he was only in each place for a short period and it was 100 years ago. I didn't have confidence there would be any record of him. One place I followed his travels and footsteps was in National Geographic. Fairchild did 12 feature stories for the magazine over the span of 20 years. His first one is in Sumatra. Overtime you could see all the places he's visiting, how he describes the places, the people, the foods and tastes, and then the magazine started running photographs in the 19 teens and you could see what these places look like. So that is about as close as you could get to visiting those places at the time that he visited them.
CB: How did the story of such an influential person ring so quietly for so long?
DS: Fairchild was a botanist, and we don't generally celebrate botanists. It’s not a ‘pop’ science role. He also traveled a lot, so he wasn't in the US very often giving interviews, sitting for profiles and portraits. He wasn't like Thomas Edison who had this quirky house of himself where people would come over for decades and visit. Fairchild was also very modest. He enjoyed people, but I never got the sense that he enjoyed talking about himself and all of his experiences and his accomplishment.
CB: How difficult was it for you to structure all of this material into a book?
DS: It took me years. It was hard because Fairchild did so much and went so many places and met so many people and had impact on so many commercial crop industries. I found three main themes, and they're all themes of change. The first is the change from Fairchild as a young boy from Kansas becoming a refined world traveller. The second is American food from a fairly blank agricultural campus to, by the time of Fairchild’s passing, the most productive and economically efficient industrial food system in human history. That happens in his 80 year life span. The third is America, from a feeble, reconstructing nation after the civil war to post-world War II, the biggest and greatest superpower in world history. I braid those three together.
CB: In the epilogue, you right that you didn't like ending the book. If you could write one or two more chapters, what would you cover?
DS: I would write more about Frank Meyer. One of the challenges about Fairchild is that he got married in 1905 and stopped traveling in the way that he did earlier in his life. He's still traveled a lot, but it wasn't the kind of kinetic, USDA agricultural explorer type travels. Instead, he hired a bunch of young men to continue that work. One he sent to Guatemala to find better avocados. He sent another to Russia to find better wheat. And, he sent Frank Meyer to China to literally walk across China. China had been farming for thousands of years and had some of the hardiest crops in the world. And Meyers' job was to go find them by himself. I mean I even thought of taking mention of Meyer out of this book to write a sequel about him, but my editor thought there weren't many people wanting to read a book about agricultural explorers, so I just put them all in one book.
CB: Now that you have finished your first book, where do you go now as a writer?
DS: It’s very difficult to find another topic. You really have to find a piece of yourself in a story to be able to commit three to four years, or longer, of research. You have to find something that makes you wake up on a Sunday morning and just want to dive into it. I love history. I am fascinated by food, what we eat, why we eat it, and what we might eat in the future. This story included all of them and I'd like the next story to include, at least some of them.
CB: When did you know that you had a topic worth digging into?
DS: It took a year of finding not just Fairchild's story and reading about him, but finding enough material - records, archives, diaries, journals and memos - that I could piece together into an actual story. But, the real moment - which there is never really one moment – was when everyone I told said “Oh, that's really interesting! I've never heard of him.” Or, “David Fairchild brought us the avocado, no way!" That happened time and time again. Every single time I thought to myself, this is a story that either I should tell or someone else should tell about this man – a man that hasn’t faded into history, but he certainly hasn't got his due as a transformer of North American history.
(L-R) David Fairchild and Hugh Muller, grandchildren of renowned botanist and plant explorer David Grandison Fairchild (1869-1954) spent the afternoon of Aug. 12 in conversation with National Geographic editor Daniel Stone, author of The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats.