Welcome to the ACF We Are Chefs Book Club! Our March 2019 book is Fruits of Eden: David Fairchild and America’s Plant Hunters. If it sounds like something you’d be interested in reading, we encourage you to pick up a copy at your local library and read along with us. Update us on your progress with the hashtag #ACFbookclub on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, and we’ll hold a Facebook discussion at the end of the month.
Americans are quite familiar with Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. Yet few are as familiar with his son-in-law, David Fairchild, who helped to shape our modern diet.
Before Fairchild’s amazing plant discoveries, American cuisine was restricted to only the produce grown seasonally on local farms or preserved through canning or drying.
Fairchild dedicated his life to proving that America’s diet could not only be different — it could be better. His belief was based on the need for a free and open exchange of food plants, preferably new colorful tasty ones, from the different regions of the world.
As a young scientist, he lobbied endlessly for his belief and finally convinced the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sponsor a series of daring overseas explorations to locate and bring back foreign plants to enrich the American diet.
Amanda Harris’ book Fruits of Eden: David Fairchild and America’s Plant Hunters (University Press of Florida, 2015) vividly documents his nearly forgotten exploits and the small band of equally inspired botanists who traveled with him to the remotest regions of Africa, Asia, South America and Europe in the early 20th century.
Their search led them through remote dense jungles, past desert oases, and deep into lush mountain valleys to discover and return with new and flavor-rich plants, including navel oranges, Meyer lemons, honeydew melons, soybeans and avocados, to name just a few of their diet-changing discoveries.
Their field research led to, not only a renaissance in the nation’s kitchens, but also to a revolution in agriculture, ensuring a continuous food supply for the nation through the diversification of crops and thereby established an enduring economic base for America’s farmers for decades to come.
Then, as now, there were those who fought against this broader, more inclusive view of world trade. Some individuals feared the new foods would contaminate America’s native crops, while others believed the enjoyment of “foreign foods” would lead Americans “morally astray.” Yes, there was a time when some Americans thought melons and avocados were too sinful to be savored!
Thankfully Fairchild fought against such repressive beliefs. As a result, today chefs can delight their guests with dishes that include ingredients from around the world. Harris’ well-researched book captures both the adventures and struggles of this largely unsung hero, whose courageous plant-gathering efforts continue to shape American menus to this very day.