The next time you dip some chips in a bowl full of guacamole or order avocado toast for lunch, give thanks to David Fairchild.
Or when you bite into a juicy peach, nectarine or mango, consider doing the same.
Why David Fairchild?
It’s a fair question that is answered by Daniel Stone in his first book, “The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats” (Dutton, $17).
“Mr. Fairchild, who died in 1954 at the age of 85, was a fearless botanist and explorer who often risked his life to travel to remote corners of the earth to bring back foods that had never been grown in this country before — watermelon, avocados, dates, peaches, nectarines, mangoes and papaya, to name a few.
“He was robbed, arrested and threatened with his life. He was like Indiana Jones or James Bond, always hunting for more exotic plants or food,” said Mr. Stone, 35, a newcomer to Santa Barbara with his wife Alanna Ford.
The couple moved to the Mission Canyon area last year from Washington, D.C., where Mr. Stone was an international correspondent for National Geographic Magazine and earlier was a White House correspondent for Newsweek.
“I became intrigued with Mr. Fairchild, who was on the board of National Geographic, where he was known as an explorer botanist. It was such a fascinating title. I decided to dig into the archives and found his diary, travel journal, even his love letters to his wife Marian, who was the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell,” said Mr. Stone.
After 18 months of intense research, he spent another year writing what he feels is “the story of an influential and consequential part of American history. It’s an adventure story of an age-old quest to discover what else is out there. We may think there is nothing new to be found, but Fairchild proved there is another way to look at our world,”
During his travels to more than 50 countries, Mr. Fairchild found kale in Croatia, red seedless grapes in Italy, pomegranates in Malta, papayas in Ceylon and Meyer lemons in China.
While on a two-week train ride in the United States, he made a stop in Santa Barbara.
During the short layover, which Mr. Stone writes about in his book, Mr. Fairchild spent time with “Dr. Francesco Franceschi, a long-nosed plant enthusiast who cut for his visitor a slice of a curious squash — ‘zucchini’— he called it, emphasizing the full whimsy of the Italian name. Zucchini was new to Fairchild, and as a result of his tasting it in California, it qualified for plant introduction to farmers across the country. Its name is Italian for ‘little squash.’ ”
In the chapter, “Alligator Pear,” the author describes Mr. Fairchild’s discovery of avocados in Santiago, Chile: “The crop he was about to find would be mentioned in his obituary as a high achievement, perhaps the greatest of his life. As he bit into the oily flesh, Fairchild couldn’t have known he was holding in his hands the future crop of the American Southwest. But he had a hunch.
“It was a black-skinned fruit, a variety of alligator pear, or as the Aztecs called it, ‘avocado,’ a derivative of their word for testicle. It grew in pairs and had an oblong, bulbous shape. The fruit had the consistency of butter and was a little stringy.”
Mr. Fairchild is also responsible for the cherry blossom trees in Washington, D.C., arranging with Japan for 300 trees to be planted and ending up with more than 3,000 of them.
One of the chapters in the book, “A Brain Awhirl,” is devoted to the love story between Mr. Fairchild and his wife, Marian.
“It’s a portrait of dating and courtship in the early 20th century, The couple had three children and seven grandchildren, one of whom lives in Santa Cruz,” said Mr. Stone. “When Mr. Fairchild married the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, he joined the illustrious family of science and invention. Many summers were spent at the family home in Nova Scotia when Mr. Bell was racing against Orville Wright to see who would invent the airplane first.”
Asked if he had one takeaway from the 323-page book that is packed with information, Mr. Stone said, “Many foods we think of as American are not really American at all. They’re immigrants, just like families, and thanks to them, they have made the current American diet rich because of their diversity.
“Before Fairchild, our food was brown and bland with the focus on oats, beans, wheat, dairy and livestock, which was not great for nutrition and not great for variety.”
Mr. Stone, who continues to write for National Geographic Magazine, is also at work on another book scheduled for release in fall 2021.
“It’s about the Titanic, shipwrecks and other fascinating tales of the deep sea,” he said.
“The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats” by Daniel Stone (Dutton, $17) is available at Chaucer’s Books, 3321 State St. in Loreto Plaza (805-682-6787); Tecolote Book Shop, 1470 East Valley Road in Montecito Village (805-969-4977); and www.amazon.com.