This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Meet the Man Who Found, Finagled, and Ferried Home the Foods We Eat Today, first released on April 24, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
DANIEL STONE: I heard Fairchild’s name at National Geographic one day. Someone described him as an adventurer-botanist and I had never heard anyone have that title before. And it sounded so illustrious that I dug deeper and deeper and found his journals and his travel memos and his love letters that painted a portrait of his adventures all over the world.
NICOLA TWILLEY: That’s Daniel Stone, and the person he’s talking about is David Fairchild, one of the most interesting and important people behind the food on our plates… that you’ve never heard of.
CYNTHIA GRABER: But Dan did hear about him and he wrote a book about him! It’s called The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And today, we’re going to get the heck out of Kansas, alongside David Fairchild, and travel the world exploring how so many of our favorite foods—dates, kale, mangoes—how they got here.
GRABER: Dan didn’t write his book just because he got obsessed with this one guy whose travel diaries and love letters were so beautifully preserved. Once he started digging, he realized Fairchild’s story was much bigger than one man’s adventures.
STONE: I started to see Fairchild and the impacts of his travels in everything: everything we eat, you know, on billboards, on subway ads, in the market. And then, yeah, I started to kind of piece together this story that wasn’t just about food. It was also about travel and history and about America at a very pivotal moment when it’s rising into a superpower and largely growing its economy on the industry of food.
TWILLEY: So: who is this Fairchild dude?
STONE: David Fairchild grew up first in Michigan and then in Kansas.
GRABER: He was born in 1869.
STONE: His father, George Fairchild, was the president of both Michigan State Agricultural University, was what it was called, and Kansas State University. And as a boy of the Midwest, Fairchild was surrounded by farmers and he was fascinated by plants and he also had this passion and this longing to travel. It was very rare to be a boy from Kansas and to think about leaving your state let alone your country.
TWILLEY: But unlike most of the kids in Kansas at the time, Fairchild had a bridge to the outside world.
STONE: Because Fairchild’s father was a university president, he would often receive guests from all over the world and one of them was Alfred Russel Wallace, who was a scientist and a contemporary of Charles Darwin. While Darwin was investigating natural selection in the Galapagos, Wallace was was asking the same questions in the Malay islands—in Indonesia and Malaysia. And so Wallace gives Fairchild a book called The Malay Archipelago, and inspires Fairchild with this group of islands on the other side of the world, in the tropics, that’s always warm, where there are uncountable numbers of plants and fruits and delicious types of food that no one from Kansas has ever seen.
GRABER: Wallace’s stories seemed like magic to this young boy in Kansas. And in fact, Dan writes that the Malay Islands may as well have been Jupiter. The young David Fairchild had never even seen mountains or the ocean.
TWILLEY: Even for an internationally traveled scientist like Alfred Russel Wallace, the Malay archipelago was an alien world. Few Westerners had ever dared travel inland, beyond its ports—it was thought to be far too dangerous and remote. But Fairchild could not stop reading about and dreaming about these dripping wet forests and exotic plants on the other side of the world.
GRABER: Eventually, his parents agree that his fate does not lie in Kansas. So when Fairchild’s a teenager, they send him to live with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey. And his aunt and uncle have some connections. A friend of his uncle helps hook him up with a job in Washington.
STONE: Based on his ambition and not really his pedigree—he didn’t have very rich parents, he mainly just had this kind of boundless curiosity—he finds his way to Washington and talks his way into a job at the USDA as a junior scientist studying plant diseases. He’d go into fields in New Jersey and Delaware and he’d investigate all these crop diseases—what was killing the crops.
TWILLEY: You might be thinking, yay, he’s made it. Fairchild is in our nation’s capital, walking its corridors of power. Not so fast.
STONE: You know, the USDA was pretty new at the time. The power of farming was not with the government, it was with farmers. So the USDA was just a small, four-story building. It was brick, you know, a few hundred people worked there.
TWILLEY: So the USDA was not a glamorous place to be. And, actually, neither was DC.
STONE: Washington also was a very meticulously planned city but not, you know, the power center that we imagine today. The White House didn’t really have gates, you could still meet the president. It was a very informal town because it didn’t have a lot of power. It didn’t project the image to the world that it does today of a strong country.
GRABER: Washington, DC, didn’t project the image that America was a strong country, because, really, America was not a strong country at all. This is right after the Civil War, and America is putting itself back together again, and it is not a global power.
TWILLEY: OK, so the USDA is not mighty and powerful, DC is not mighty and powerful, and America is not mighty and powerful. And, in some ways, that lack of power and might—it all comes back to food.
STONE: In the early days of America, food was nothing special. Food was very bland. A lot of corn, a lot of potatoes, a lot of livestock and dairy. Not much variety, certainly no illustrious crops that you’d see in the market now. Mangoes, pineapples, bananas—none of that stuff was here.
GRABER: The food was boring in part because there just weren’t a lot of different types of crops. There were a lot of farmers, though. More than half of the people who were working were working in agriculture. And the problem farmers faced wasn’t just that the food was boring.
STONE: When you have so many farmers all growing pretty much the same crops, right? Corn, wheat, oats—they become commodities and no one really makes a lot of money. So that led in the 1890s to the first agricultural depression where farmers are essentially bankrupt. No one’s making a living. And they petition Washington and say this is a real problem. We’re working really hard, we’re working harder and harder every season planting more and more, and because the market is flooded we’re all sunk.
And so Fairchild grows up in Kansas and sees this problem, sees these farmers and this anguish and anxiety, and that kind of fuels his interest that maybe we need more crops, maybe we need better crops, more diverse crops because diversifying the food system will really diversify the economy.
TWILLEY: Now you might be thinking, as we were, hold up a minute. Why is the American crop-scape so boring? Sure, the colonists brought just a few basics with them, and corn is a super important native crop that became a staple but what about the other indigenous foods? Surely they could have added some variety?
STONE: Very few crops are native to North America for a couple of reasons. One is geography—geology. There were Ice Ages about ten to thirteen thousand years ago that covered every continent, and North America is pretty small, so it didn’t recover as fast as Asia connected to Europe and Africa.
Another reason is that the Native Americans who lived here before the colonists were mostly hunter gatherers. They didn’t establish agriculture as fast and as efficiently as the Aztecs or the Egyptians—big, early civilizations who had big populations. They had to find a way to produce food a lot more reliably and quickly. Native Americans could afford to roam and and farm in a less organized, informal way because there were fewer of them. So, yeah, there were crops here and there were foods being grown thousands of years ago, hundreds of years ago. But by the time Christopher Columbus arrives and colonists kind of take over their land and all of North America, those crops didn’t survive because they weren’t established in a formal agricultural system that could last.
GRABER: Plus, of course, the colonists didn’t value the food that was grown here. And so most of our food, like most of the people who live here today, didn’t originally come from here. Though you should listen to our episode on Native American cuisine to hear more about the people who are trying to bring back these indigenous foodways.
TWILLEY: But meanwhile, back to our hero this episode, David Fairchild. He’s got this job in DC, and one summer he gets assigned to staff the USDA booth at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. This gig was a lot of fun—the Fair featured the world’s first Ferris wheel, built by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr, and the world’s first moving walkway too. And it was massive. Thirty million people came, at a time when only 62 million people lived in the U.S.
GRABER: Fairchild couldn’t quite compete with a huge spinning Ferris wheel, but he did have some tricks up his sleeve. He gave a presentation on how plant disease could kill a crop. Unbeknownst to the audience, he’d contaminated some pear seedlings a few hours earlier. So just at the moment when he was presenting, the plants would begin to die right in front of the crowd’s eyes.
TWILLEY: But all this fun, games, and dying pear trees aside, Fairchild was still obsessed with somehow getting to the Malay Archipelago. And, right before he left for Chicago, a young zoologist he knew told him about a Smithsonian grant program to fund travel to Naples.
GRABER: Naples isn’t Indonesia, but it is overseas. So Fairchild applied to this grant. And while he was still in Chicago, he got a cable from his scientist friend—Fairchild had gotten the job.
TWILLEY: Today, when I can get online, price shop for plane tickets, and be literally on the other side of the world in 12 hours, as long as I have the cash, it’s hard to imagine how completely crazy of an amazing adventure going to Naples would have seemed to Fairchild.
STONE: Right after the Civil War we begin to see people travel a bit more, more freely. This is referred to as the golden age of travel—not because travel was easy but because it was new. People could take steamships across oceans and to foreign countries in a bit cheaper way than in the early days of the European explorers. If you had the money you could travel from Baltimore to Italy or Baltimore to India or to Australia and it would take many months. But that was a very novel idea, especially to a country where no one had really gone anywhere before.
GRABER: Fairchild left Chicago, headed back to DC, quit his job at the USDA—not without a little bit of panic, of course—and prepared for his first trip off American soil.
STONE: So Fairchild’s on the steamship across the Atlantic Ocean and on this boat he meets pretty much the person who will end up directing the destiny of his travels and his whole life. He meets a fabulously wealthy, world-traveling, playboy bachelor named Barbour Lathrop who’s in his 40s. He is wealthy because he inherited his money from his family real-estate fortune.
TWILLEY: Lathrop is tall, handsome, and had a perfectly groomed mustache.
STONE: And he has traveled around the world a dozen times at this point. He tells these greatly embellished tales of times he was in Japan and times he saw rhinos in Asia and times he crossed the Andes on mule back. And young Fairchild is taken in by this portrait of this man—this most fascinating man in the world, he calls him—who pretty much is the image of a Fairchild’s dreams lived out. And Fairchild honors him. He looks at him with such ambition and admiration. And Lathrop enjoys this.
GRABER: Eventually the boat reaches Naples. Fairchild doesn’t speak a word of Italian. He doesn’t have a place to live. But he met a painter on board the boat who took pity on the hapless American and set him up with a room in his brother’s house.
TWILLEY: Fairchild reports to work at the Smithsonian Zoological Station, and they set him up with a microscope and tell him to study the algae in the Bay of Naples. Which he does. But meanwhile, in the evenings, he’s exploring, and taking copious notes. He tastes his first pizza, he falls in love with all the different pasta shapes. He goes to the theater to see melodramatic plays where everyone kills each other and the audience spends most of the time heckling.
GRABER: Now, while he’s working in Naples, the American secretary of agriculture sends him a letter in the mail. It contains an order to go to Corsica on a secret mission. Corsica is a French island in the Mediterranean. And the Corsicans grow the best citrons in the world.
STONE: Citron’s a relative of a lemon. Fairchild is sent there to acquire better citron cuttings or seeds of the best citron in the world.And he’s very bad at this work. It’s his first adventure. It’s his first assignment and he is immediately arrested. He’s accused of being a spy, which he is. He is an agricultural spy but they think he’s a military spy or an economic spy. And, yeah, he’s apprehended, he’s interrogated and he ends up talking his way out of it by promising that he’s not there for anything valuable. Also he doesn’t speak any French so, you know, what can they do with him? And he’s allowed to leave.
TWILLEY: Fairchild is undaunted. He’s determined to succeed in his mission despite this initial setback.
STONE: And, on his way out of Corsica, he dips into a grove of citron and he takes three cuttings and he takes three fruit, stuffs them in his jacket and before he leaves he sticks the cuttings in potatoes so that they will be nourished on the month or two-month long voyage back to America.
GRABER: They make it all the way to Washington—
STONE: They are sent to USDA experiment stations in California, citrus zone, and they are infused into the citrus crop and the citrus industry out west in a way that really fuels new growth. The exact sort of thing Fairchild had in mind.
GRABER: At this point, things are going pretty well for Fairchild. Safely back in Naples, he continues studying seaweed. And then one day the world-traveling, mustachioed, wealthy man from the boat—otherwise known as Barbour Lathrop—he just totally randomly drops by. And Lathrop has an even more random and completely outlandish suggestion.
TWILLEY: On the boat, Fairchild had mentioned his childhood dream of travel. And Lathrop has come up with a plan.
STONE: He decides to give him a thousand dollars, which in those days is a lot of money, to fuel and fund his travels, particularly to the Malay islands where Fairchild has always wanted to go since boyhood.
TWILLEY: So, in his little lab in Naples, Barbour Lathrop makes this offer. And Fairchild is like, uh, what? And we were too. Why would Lathrop do that?
STONE: A few reasons. One Barbour Lathrop was bored, right? He had circled the world more times than most people could ever dream. He really had no purpose in doing it, just to continue moving. And also he kind of had this record of meeting what he called well-formed young men who were really strong in their upbringing but still really form-able in their character, in their life’s path. And he liked playing this role of mentor and dream-maker and king-maker.
GRABER: This is obviously a dream come true for the 25-year-old scientist. He marvels at the money—it’s twice the average yearly salary at the time. He’s overwhelmed at the idea of seeing the landscape he’s imagined since childhood. But then Fairchild dithers.
STONE: He was surprised. I mean, some some strange person offers you money to go to the other side of the world. Fairchild was convinced, you know, I shouldn’t really take the money unless I have a plan. And he spends more than a year kind of getting these impatient letters from Barbour Lathrop saying, what are you doing? What are you waiting for? And David Fairchild almost just, you know, stays still and doesn’t travel because he’s so intimidated by the prospect and doesn’t feel worthy of such an opportunity.
TWILLEY: I know, right? Come on man! But before you reach back through time and join me in giving Fairchild a good smack to bring him to his senses, we want to tell you about a couple of sponsors this episode.
TWILLEY: Fairchild dithers for a full year. Lathrop is writing him letters, wondering what on earth is the problem. Fairchild keeps dithering. Part of the anxiety is he feels like he needs a new job to justify quitting his USDA job. Lathrop’s promise just doesn’t seem solid enough to bet on.
GRABER: And so Fairchild writes to a Dutch scientist who runs the botanical garden on Java.
TWILLEY: Today, Java is part of Indonesia, but back then it was all part of what was called the Malay Archipelago—Fairchild’s dream destination.
GRABER: So the Dutch scientist writes him back and says he’d love help studying how termites build colonies. And this seems to be enough to make David Fairchild go, sure, now I’m ready to head to Java!
TWILLEY: So he does, and he’s blown away by the orchids and the fruit and the bamboo that grows up to a foot a day.
GRABER: He’s not so impressed by the putrid smell of durians, which are legendarily disgusting smelling. But he gets to work on termites.
TWILLEY: And then, after he’s been there eight months, Lathrop shows up, with his brother and sister-in-law and some random young woman. And Fairchild takes off from work to show them around. And at the end of a few days, Lathrop says, look, this termite stuff you’re doing is boring and pointless and I’m going to cancel that salary I promised unless you come traveling with me.
GRABER: Fairchild does feel a little bad about bailing on his termite research, but he gives in. He quits, and heads out to sea with Lathrop.
TWILLEY: Fairchild and Lathrop—together, they make kind of an odd couple. Lathrop was super wealthy, so the boats they traveled on were pretty luxurious.
STONE: Barbour Lathrop would always get the second officer’s cabin. Fairchild would always get a bunk bed somewhere else on board. But he was very happy with that. And they would spend, you know, days on boats and then they would explore a foreign port, Barbour Lathrop telling stories the entire time of the last time he was there. And, yeah, he had been everywhere and he had been on every boat.
At one point, you know, they cross kind of a sandbar down near Australia and Fairchild thinks that the scraping on the bottom of the boat means the boat’s sinking, and he wakes up Barbour Lathrop and says, we’ve got to get off the boat. And Lathrop says, oh, you know, I’ve been over this before. Just go back to sleep, it’s fine. So it was a very awkward pairing at first. Barbour Lathrop’s been everywhere, he’s talked to everyone, he knows how to command a table and a dining room. Fairchild has never really attained those skills. He doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know when to laugh. He’s very awkward. He doesn’t know how to talk to a woman or even another man or how to interview someone for plants. He’s very much the image of a young kind of nerdy, bumbling scientist looking at his shoes.
GRABER: The first thing they decide to do is hopscotch to islands around the Pacific—Australia and Fiji and Hawaii. And they come up with a plan for what they’re going to do together.
STONE: Barbour Lathrop had seen plants that no one else had seen in America. And so he and Fairchild kind of dream up this idea that maybe, if they go from port to port and country to country, that they’ll pick up some odds and ends, they’ll pick up some strange fruit, they’ll pick up some novel type of grain that no one’s ever seen and they’ll kind of deliver them—you know, armfuls of of plants and seeds on the doorstep of America, as kind of a gift. Here you go, here’s something new—see what you can do with this.
TWILLEY: But, as they travel the world together, it’s not all fabulous fruits and tall tales and cigars at dusk on the deck.
STONE: There were many difficulties they faced on the ocean. I mean, on one boat Fairchild and Lathrop are sitting on the deck with about 50 cattle right right next to them for several weeks at a time around South America. Fairchild picks up a case of typhoid at one point in the Indian Ocean and nearly dies as a result. He sailed through the Malay islands of Indonesia and Malaysia and the Philippines.
TWILLEY: His childhood dream, the Malay Archipelago.
STONE: With tribes of people who had never seen a white person before and shot arrows at him. And he was arrested from time to time.
GRABER: Despite some setbacks, the two travelers do what they planned to do. Fairchild collects all sorts of fruits and vegetables and grains that he thinks might be useful to American farmers. But getting those home wasn’t as simple as packing them up and heading to FedEx.
STONE: It was really hard. He didn’t know and no one knew if a boat would take three weeks or two months to get back to America or if it would arrive at all. Fairchild developed a few methods. One was sticking cuttings in potatoes right to keep them moist for the whole ride. He also wrapped them in clay. He experimented with damp peat moss that would have to be kind of wet every few days to keep it damp. No method was perfect because you never knew where these things were going to end up. And a lot of his work ended up dying.
TWILLEY: But some things make it back alive to the US of A. And they are a huge success. Like dates, which Fairchild thought would be a perfect crop for southern California and the desert southwest.
STONE: So Fairchild goes to Baghdad, which for many centuries of course was the crossroads of all civilization. And he has great difficulty getting there. He is on several boats. One of the boats is suspected of having a case of typhoid on board so he has to sit in quarantine for two weeks eating boiled onions. And he finally gets to Baghdad in search of the best dates. Baghdad has thousands of types of dates.
Fairchild does his investigation, right? He talks to growers. He visits farms, he sees which are the best. And he packs a lot of them and he wraps them in clay and mud in hopes that they’ll stay alive for the trip back. Those date trees make their way back to southern California especially. And anyone who’s been to Palm Springs or Coachella has seen date farms, right? Date trees, date farms, palm trees. And that industry grew very much because of the Middle East.
TWILLEY: Still today, if you drive east from LA, you hit the town of Mecca, California, where you can get the best date shake on the planet, at least in my experience.
GRABER: Granted, you haven’t been to the Middle East.
TWILLEY: I hope to be able to verify this one day. But my point is, dates are still a thriving industry here today, and it’s thanks to Fairchild.
GRABER: Another crop that we can thank Fairchild for? One of my favorites, though not Fairchild’s. Kale.
STONE: Fairchild never really liked cabbages. Kale’s a cabbage, right? He picked up these things but he never thought these things would be transformative. Also, where he picks up kale in Croatia, kale is not a novel food, it’s not a particularly popular food. It’s only ubiquitous because it’s cheap and it’s easy to grow, and it’s really peasant food for like a century. It grows very easily and it takes salt out of soil. So it’s kind of an agricultural dream but it’s not really profitable in a big sense.
Fairchild imports, you know, many varieties of this type of cabbage, of kale—brings it back. It is grown. It’s around the country. It produces an industry, but not a huge one. And, for most of the twentieth century, kale is really used as decor, as foliage and decoration in salad bars, in bouquets of fruit or flowers. And it wasn’t really till the early 90s when nutritional research started revealing that kale’s actually pretty good for you, and we should grow and eat more of this stuff.
TWILLEY: And here we are, a hundred years later, having a kale moment. Not what Fairchild would have bet that his legacy would be, but hey.
GRABER: And, okay, maybe not everyone loves kale, or, really, leafy greens in general, as much as I do, but I think we can nearly all agree that mangoes are amazing.
STONE: Fairchild loved mangoes. And he found them everywhere in South Asia, pretty much from India over to the Philippines, where mangoes have grown for thousands of years. He picked up 58 different varieties of mangoes—some bigger than others, some sweeter, some less stringy.
When he’s in India on one trip, he finds a perfect mango variety. It’s the smoothest, it’s the sweetest, it’s bright yellow. And he wants to bring it back but the ship that he’s about to board won’t let him bring back hundreds of whole mangoes. It’s a lot of cargo. So he hires a group of young kids to basically eat hundreds of mangoes in just a few minutes and drops pennies all around them while they’re doing it and everyone’s giggling and laughing. But eventually Fairchild just gets the seeds and packs them, which is much much smaller, and takes those seeds, chewed up by little Indian children, back to America.
TWILLEY: Those mango seeds that Fairchild brought back, they included the ancestor of the champagne mango, which is an excellent mango indeed. Today, some of the champagne mangoes we eat are grown in the U.S.—in Florida, mostly—but actually, the U.S. is the world’s largest importer of mangoes. We eat them but we don’t grow them.
GRABER: Mexico grows those champagne mangoes for us. In fact, Mexico is our primary source of mangoes. Fairchild had intended mangoes to be a huge source of income for American farmers. But he wasn’t always thinking too clearly about just what type of crops might best suit the American climate.
STONE: One of the challenges Fairchild had, especially when traveling in the tropics, is when you bring things back to the U.S., there’s not much tropical land in America. We had in those days South Florida and part of Texas and Southern California, which kind of qualified. But, by and large, mangoes did not blanket the Midwest or the Pacific Northwest or the South in ways that Fairchild would have dreamed of, just because they won’t grow there.
TWILLEY: The mango was not Fairchild’s only import with a more limited success than he would have hoped. His favorite fruit in all the world, the one he thought was the most delicious? Also a bust.
STONE: Fairchild had many disappointments. One of them was a vegetable pear, he called it—a chayote in the Caribbean that he thought would be brilliant. And no one really cared. Another was a personal-sized pineapple, a really small pineapple that he picked up in South Africa that he thought, like, who wouldn’t want a pint-sized pineapple? And it turned out the growers were, like, we want bigger and bigger pineapples, not smaller.
TWILLEY: I want a personal-size pineapple, dammit.
GRABER: I think someone should try again. But that wasn’t Fairchild’s biggest disappointment.
STONE: His biggest disappointment was his favorite fruit. This is a man who had gone to 50 countries in his lifetime, who had tasted thousands of fruits, and his favorite was called the mangosteen. So he loved a mangosteen. And if you’ve never tried, it’s delicious. It’s sweet, it’s pure. It’s not related to a mango at all. It’s small and purple. It’s got little wedges of of white fruit in the middle that all have seeds in them. And he thought: this is the best fruit in the world. Who wouldn’t want to eat this?
TWILLEY: But the mangosteen’s deliciousness had blinded Fairchild to some of its handicaps.
STONE: So the mangosteen has a really thick peel. It’s a lot of weight that that you don’t eat. Its fruit is really small and measly and takes a lot of work to get to. It ripens really fast, as soon as you pick it. So you really only have like two days or three days off the tree. And it bruises very easily so you can’t ship it a thousand, 3000, 5000 miles. So when you compare it to a fruit like an orange or an apple or a banana, right, these hardy crops of world trade and world distribution, the mangosteen has a pretty weak resume.
TWILLEY: Some fruits are just not destined to conquer the world. In other cases, the fruit could have been a contender, but it didn’t get the love it needed.
GRABER: Because if you’re going to try to introduce a new crop, it’s not enough just to make sure that America has the right climate for it. There are two other challenges.
STONE: One is you bring the seed and you try to get farmers to grow it. And the second is that you have to get people to buy it and eat it. And it’s a catch 22 because farmers won’t grow something that no one’s going to buy. And people can’t eat something that no one’s growing.
TWILLEY: Take the cashew.
STONE: Fairchild picks up varieties of cashew in Asia and Europe and he sends them back. No one really knows what to do with them. And so they don’t really catch on.
TWILLEY: But, overall, Fairchild had enough hits to make up for his misses. His and Lathrop’s crazy scheme became one of the U.S. government’s most prized agricultural development programs.
STONE: The agricultural depression of the 1890s was a result of not enough diversity. William McKinley, when he ran for president in 1898, he basically said, I know, we need more food, we need we need more variety in this country. And in his State of the Union address a couple years later he basically bragged about Fairchild’s work and said, we have explorers in the world who are going around trying to find ways to improve American food and agriculture. And this became not just a point of pride for William McKinley but eventually Teddy Roosevelt got on board. And William Taft got on board.
GRABER: After about a decade of exploring and tasting and collecting, Fairchild’s travels with Lathrop come to an end. Mainly because he gets married and settles down in DC. But the government still thinks there’s a lot of amazing crops out there that could help American farmers.
STONE: So Fairchild hired a young team of explorers to continue this work. And he hires one man named Frank Meyer, a Dutch immigrant, to quite literally walk across China in search of anything. China has the best and hardiest varieties of crops in the world and Meyer’s job was to walk for months at a time and find crops that no one in the West had ever seen before.
TWILLEY: Meyer’s adventures—that could fill another whole episode. You’ll just have to buy the book. And poor Meyer wasn’t traveling on luxury ships with a wealthy sponsor—he was roughing it on the Chinese mainland on his own for months and months at a time. His most famous introduction is the Meyer lemon, an extremely delicious citrus fruit that looks like an orange-y lemon, but tastes sweeter than a lemon and tangier than an orange.
GRABER: But eventually Fairchild’s food exploration program is brought down—by the man who stood beside him at his wedding.
STONE: One of the most fierce critics was a man named Charles Marlatt, who was Fairchild’s friend. They grew up together as boys in Kansas and they both worked for the Department of Ag. Fairchild was a botanist and Marlatt was an entomologist and studied insects. And he really hated insects, he hated the damage and the risk. And he always thought that Fairchild’s work was too rosy, was too optimistic, and that it was blind to all of the risks. And they eventually had this debate very publicly. They both wrote cover stories for National Geographic magazine
TWILLEY: Fairchild wrote an impassioned article saying that plants were immigrants, making America stronger and more diverse.
GRABER: And Marlatt wrote an equally impassioned article arguing that imported plants were dangerous, they contained pests and parasites, and they would bring disease and destruction and hunger to the U.S.
STONE: Marlatt eventually prevails in this debate. He convinces a country that’s kind of nationalistic and crouched in fear that we can’t afford the risk. And so Congress passes a quarantine law. That quarantine law restricts the flow of plants. Everything has to come through Washington, a very inhospitable climate for plants. It has to be grown from seed and inspected thoroughly and a lot of plants, you know, that doesn’t work. It takes months at a time and plants die.
TWILLEY: This vendetta between the two men—it got very bitter and very personal. But it’s a real issue. Fairchild thought the benefits of new crops were worth the risk. Marlatt had seen fields wiped out and farmers destroyed by introduced pests and diseases. Quarantine, where you wait to see if the plant is healthy in a greenhouse or contained environment, before you go out and plant it everywhere—it’s a sensible precaution, but, like Dan says, it also has a cost.
GRABER: It seems as if in Fairchild’s case, the shiploads of plants he sent to America from around the world didn’t bring death and destruction with them. Of course, like all plants, they did carry insects and fungi along for the ride, but none of them seem to have been particularly harmful. But, really, that was just luck.
TWILLEY: Marlatt had a good point. And, in the end, he won. Fairchild’s work carried on for a while, but it moved more slowly because of the quarantine bottleneck. Meyer died in China. And then World War 1 broke out and people had other things on their minds. By the 1920s, the program was pretty much shut down and Fairchild retired to Florida.
GRABER: But even though his program died, Fairchild had a huge impact. Now, nearly a century later, there are a lot of foods that you can see in the supermarket that are at least in some way connected to Fairchild’s international collections.
STONE: Certainly varieties of mangoes, varieties of hops, seedless grapes, types of lemons. Most varieties of lemons are remnants of Fairchild’s work. Varieties of watermelons and pineapples and avocados from South America. Soybeans from Asia and types of oranges and grapefruits.
TWILLEY: Dan could have kept going, it seemed like for hours. Fairchild’s food exploration, it really shaped what we eat today. But his overall impact—that’s even larger.
STONE: I started investigating him as a food explorer—you know, a guy who ran around the world in search of food. But what I started to realize was this was a very formative era for America—American food and America in general. The growth of our food and the diversity of our food really fueled the growth of America. And so, you know, Fairchild is born in the days of Reconstruction and he dies after World War II. And in that span of time America grows from kind of beleaguered country into the greatest superpower in the world. A lot of that is because of food. A lot of that is because of farms. Fairchild’s legacy is certainly with food and plants but it’s also, you know, we are a richer country, we are a more advanced country, because this work was undertaken. And this work, you know, connected with America at a time when America was hungry and eager to grow. And Fairchild fueled a lot of that.
GRABER: But then if this was so important and made such a huge difference, why aren’t people out doing the same sorts of things now? Well, one reason is that a lot of large-scale farmers today aren’t as interested in new, unusual crops, not like they were a century ago.
STONE: We continue to grow. And a hundred years later we’re still growing and becoming more industrious and efficient. And so that means growing maybe fewer crops but growing them better. So that’s kind of the state of American agriculture now and why you hear a lot about monocultures. We don’t have as many types of tomatoes or potatoes or apples growing in the U.S. as we once did.
TWILLEY: Another reason that food exploration is no longer a thing is simply that fewer fruits and vegetables remain to be discovered. When Fairchild was traveling, travel was unusual—people didn’t just visit other continents. Now, it’s relatively commonplace in rich countries for our food to travel around the world, as well as many of us.
GRABER: But there is still another issue that we have today that Fairchild didn’t even see as a problem. We recognize that the plants in a given country belong to that country. We see these types of activities as stealing—as biopiracy.
TWILLEY: In Fairchild’s day, that wasn’t even really a concept.
STONE: He always made the case, I want to be botanical friends not agricultural enemies. But still, you know, he’s attempting to acquire what amount to strategic economic assets from these countries. But Fairchild always, you know, kind of veered toward botanical diplomacy. He was very rarely kind of stealing and running out of fields, more than he was, you know, walking up to farmers’ doors and asking them for advice. When you approach it differently like that, you know, even if you’re doing the exact same thing, people respect it a bit more. And he ended up keeping in touch with a lot of these farmers. And he’d write letters and he’d, you know, give them updates about the growth of America’s date or hops or mango industry in ways that could help the original growers feel a little ownership and and kindness themselves for having helped America grow.
GRABER: But even so, even if he saw what he did as being botanical friends and the farmers he met gave him their seeds or crops willingly, Fairchild was taking from countries that weren’t as powerful as America was.
STONE: He took plants from countries that sometimes weren’t very rich themselves. And Fairchild brings these things here and America grows.
TWILLEY: In some cases, the fact that Fairchild brought this genetic material to the U.S. helped preserve it. We all have better crops today because of his work. But also, America and American farmers and agricultural companies—they are clearly the ones who benefitted the most. That’s an aspect of Fairchild’s legacy that is more problematic. And that’s really why food exploring, the way Fairchild did it—it’s not something that really goes on anymore.
GRABER: These are all really big picture ideas about food and farming and plant intellectual property and biopiracy, but, really, at the heart of this, for Dan, this is a story about two men and their adventures around the world. So what ever happened to Barbour Lathrop?
STONE: Well, they end up becoming friends and colleagues. They spend more than a decade traveling together. Fairchild eventually gets married and kind of takes himself out of rotation of running around the world. Barbour Lathrop continues to travel for decades more. He dies in his 80s in motion. He dies in Philadelphia just because that’s where he happened to be. He was a man who was never really comfortable wherever he was. And for whatever reason. I didn’t find much evidence about him personally, about his lifestyle, about his preferences and his friends and desires. But, you know, he was a man who ran constantly, he never felt at ease in established society. And so they had kind of a friendship that really, you know, depended on each other for a long time. And Lathrop had made this early investment in young David Fairchild—a thousand dollars. And by the end of both of their lives, certainly when Lathrop died, you know, you could see Fairchild talking and surrounded and consulted by people like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and Alexander Graham Bell and big titans of science and industry and visionaries of the future. And so when you think of giving someone a thousand dollars, it’s hard to imagine a greater return on investment than what Fairchild was able to do with it and the work and the passion that it fueled that assisted his country.
TWILLEY: Dan Stone, ladies and gentlemen. Buy his book, it’s called The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats. We have links on our website. It’s a really fun read—we recommend it.