Monday, May 27, 2019

Floral Book Review: "The Food Explorer" by Daniel Stone

Floral Book Review for "The Food Explorer"

Fascinating I think is the best way to describe Daniel Stone's book, "The Food Explorer, The True Adventures of a Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats."

We never (or at least I never/rarely beyond my farm) give much thought to where things we eat daily originally came from. We are in the age of everywhere. We can get anything from almost anywhere and quickly. Break it down one more step and most people never consider (especially with processed food...yes a farmer literally grew/raised your bacon, egg and cheese sandwich on a bagel) the farmer that planted the seed, planted the tree, cared for the plants, harvested the food, packed it in a box and sent it either to the grocery store or processing facility. Unless you shop a farmers market then you know and chat and see the person that does all of the above mentioned things.

And what we really don't think about is how these things got to America in the first place.  However Stone looks into the life of the man who dedicated himself completely to bringing out-of-towners to America and man, did he deliver!

Stone opens the book by saying, "A few years ago, it occurred to me that the same way immigrants came to our soil, so did our food." Shortly after that quote he introduces us to David Fairchild who with the help of a wealthy acquaintance, Barbour Lathrop, traveled literally around the world and back to bring us things like lemons, avocados, nectarines, mangos, watermelons, and more!

For the the time period it amazes me how far and wide these two men traveled. I've been to a fraction of the places they went to and even more impressive it was a time when travel was much less comfortable and far more difficult since you know...they couldn't just pull open their laptop and search for the cheapest flights in a matter of seconds.

In stark contrast from today where 1-2% of the population farms, "In America's infancy, food wasn't a sector - it was almost the whole economy. Farmers accounted for 90 percent of the United States labor force in 1790. Fifty years later, they were only 60 percent and a generation after that, they were just over half (today they're less than 2 percent). Accounting for America's swelling population during that time, from four million to thirty-one million, there were more individual farmers in the late nineteenth century than ever before (or again) in American history."

The book takes you through Fairchild's ambition to get approval of the Department of Agriculture for his journey to bring new food to America. He said, "As a botanist you can help farmer solve problems with their current crops, or you can bring them new crops, the seeds to start rival industries."

By far my favorite part of the book was when he'd make a discovery. I loved when Stone wrote of Fairchild's time in Peru, "Red corn and yellow squash filled the seed sacks that Fairchild prepared for Washington. Both were uncommon varieties with few redeeming traits - but the colors were novelties, good for, if nothing else, attracting bemused onlookers in pavilions of agricultural fairs."

Alligator Pear. I sincerely wish that name would have stuck. But sadly no we're stuck with avocado, which on a funny note is a, "derivative of their (Aztecs) word for testicle. It grew in pairs, and had an oblong, bulbous shape." Alligator pear is what Fairchild called it when he observed our beloved avocados for the first time.

"Fairchild's avocado shipment from Chile helped launch an industry." And if you ever wondered why or where we got "Haas" avocado it's because a guy who's last name was Haas patented, "the variety that would become the world's most popular avocado, accounting for more than 80 percent of the global market."

Stone writes about Fairchild hearing about and finding a seedless grape variety which even more than the grape it's self he was interested in the idea of seedless fruit and ease of eating.

Fairchild not only discovered food but also brought to the United States a new type of cotton.
"This new cotton, he learned, was known as Joannovitch cotton. It was easy to grow and its seeds were easy to reporduce, the perfect combination to satisfy recovering Southern growers short on money and labor. The long fibers were so much softer, and so easy to distinguish from the coarse cotton traditionally grown in the American South..."  This cotton became known as Egyptian cotton a name we still use today and associate with luxury and comfort.

It's crazy that after reading this book how things click. Alfonso mangoes. Seedless fruit. Egyptian cotton. And so many other grocery staples now don't just mean what they are. They represent an observation, a discovery, a hunch of viability, actual viability and longevity. It's really incredible when you think about it. We owe so much of our culinary experience to one guy who's dedication sprung forth endless amounts of enterprise both large (guacamole, avocado toast, avocado everything for that matter!) and small (the kid next door's lemonade stand).

The story of Fairchild and the lemon was so charming and totally one I can relate to: one for them and one (or two) for me. He loved the lemons so much that he was just eating them out of hand the entire journey after their discovery. I think it also represents him enjoying his passion. Savoring his discovery.

"...near the southern tip of Greece, and there, holding his suitcase he his teeth in the tart, seedless fruit. Unlike his haste and angst he felt stealing the citron from Corsica, he now felt the indifference of confidence. He tasted one lemon after another, inspecting each for seeds, the juice running down this chin until his mouth stung with acid.
Fairchild operated with the processional demeanor of a man now granted government funds to do crucial work. But for a rare occasion in his work as an agriculture explorer, he considered picking fruit for himself, simply to enjoy whether it helped anyone or not."

So the above quote is why I included the lemon in my Floral Book Review of "The Food Explorer."  It's an important reminder to enjoy your work. And as a reminder to be a little adventurous in your work, I chose those delicious dyed carnations for the arrangement. Variety may be the spice of the life but I think the secret might be enjoyment and adventure.



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