From avocados to kale: How one man forever changed the way we eat

Author Daniel Stone, a UC Davis alumnus, discovered how one man changed the way America eats through the introduction of thousands of fruit and vegetable varieties.
Author Daniel Stone, a UC Davis alumnus, discovered how one man changed the way America eats through the introduction of thousands of fruit and vegetable varieties.

We’re a nation of immigrants. So is our food.

Look at the vast array of produce in the supermarket. Where did all these fruits and vegetables originally come from? And how did they get here?

According to author Daniel Stone, we have one man to thank for the diversity of this bounty: David Fairchild.

More than a century ago, Fairchild traveled the world, in search of interesting (and delicious) crops that could be grown by American farmers. Traveling to every continent but Antarctica, Fairchild brought back thousands of possibilities.

Stone details Fairchild’s remarkable adventures and contributions to American cuisine in his new book, “The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats” (Dutton, 416 pages, $28). Stone, a UC Davis alumnus, will speak March 15 at The Avid Reader bookstore in Davis.

“If he had introduced just one or two of these foods, it would have been something,” Stone said in a phone interview. “But he brought back so many. In the process, he transformed America’s diet.”

Among Fairchild’s greatest hits: The avocado (from Chile), kale (from Croatia) and the Meyer lemon (from China). Just those three have a huge impact on what we eat now.

The avocado alone “should qualify Fairchild for sainthood,” Stone quipped. “Fairchild grew up in Kansas. He called them ‘alligator pears.’ Few Americans had seen them before. In Chile, he found what was the ancestor to the Hass avocado. He shipped back a thousand of them, hoping some would survive.”

That’s just for starters, Stone added. Fairchild brought back soybeans (from Indonesia), peaches and oranges (from China), pomegranates (from Malta), nectarines (from Afghanistan), papayas (from Ceylon), red seedless grapes (from Italy) and hops (from Bavaria). He also was responsible for introducing dates, mangoes, pistachios and wasabi to the American table. In all, Fairchild is credited with more than 20,000 plant introductions to the U.S.

“He didn’t limit himself to food,” Stone noted. Fairchild also gets credit for introducing Americans to Egyptian cotton. The famous blooming cherry trees in Washington, D.C., were a Fairchild find in Japan.

What amazed Stone most was few people had ever heard of Fairchild. His Gilded Age exploits at the turn of the 20th century had been all but forgotten.

“I was thrilled by his story of food, adventure, travel and history,” Stone said. “It’s a story I’m glad I could tell.”

Fairchild totally intrigued Stone, a confirmed foodie and fruit fan.

“I’ve always had an interest in fruit,” he said. “I worked on the fruit research farm at UC Davis, studying strawberries and peaches. I also picked fruit (at a friend’s farm) and sold it at the farmers market. I really loved it.”

A Newsweek veteran, Stone now works as an editor for the National Geographic. He found that Fairchild’s food explorations truly spanned the globe.

“His itinerary was amazing,” Stone said. “He crossed the Andes by donkey. He cruised Malaysia for 40 days. He spent a month in Japan. He visited more than 50 countries, almost all by boat.”

Pretty impressive considering most of his work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture was done between 1894 and 1904.

In some ways, Fairchild acted as a food spy, prying closely guarded seeds and propagation secrets out of countries that weren’t always willing to share. (His assistant, Frank Meyer, smuggled that fateful lemon out of China.) He faced repeated dangers and disease in his pursuit of plants.

Not every find was a winner. Fairchild was very fond of personal-size dwarf pineapples (discovered in South Africa), but they never caught on with consumers.

“He had some spectacular failures,” Stone said. “His favorite fruit was the mangosteen. It’s not related to the mango; it’s unique. Fairchild called it the ‘queen of fruit.’ But he couldn’t get anyone to grow it. To this day, few people here know what it is.”

Discovered by Fairchild in Indonesia, the mangosteen remains a rarity in the continental U.S. Inside its tough purple inedible skin is creamy white fragrant and juicy flesh. As for taste, think of a strawberry-peach smoothie made with vanilla ice cream. But the trees need hot, wet tropical conditions to produce and failed miserably in test groves.

Fairchild definitely proved lucky. He found the perfect benefactor in Barbour Lathrop, a millionaire philanthropist and world traveler who was based out of the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. When the USDA wouldn’t fund Fairchild’s requests, Lathrop did. He also accompanied the young botanist in his travels.

As an explorer and scientist, Fairchild was welcomed by other inventors and leaders in his day. He wrote about his encounters with President Teddy Roosevelt, the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver. He married Alexander Graham Bell’s daughter.

In his own exploration of Fairchild’s life, Stone found treasures, too. “His family kept everything – his letters, notes, diaries,” the 33-year-old author said. “Libraries and institutions also kept his papers. It really produced a rich book of firsthand source material.”

Fairchild eventually settled in Miami, Fla. In nearby Coral Gables, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (named for him by a friend) still grows plants from the explorer’s personal collection.

As he tried to retrace at least some of the explorer’s steps, Stone also tracked down Fairchild’s surviving grandchildren in Canada and visited Japan.

“David really benefited from being in the right place,” Stone noted. “His father was president of what’s now Michigan State and Kansas State universities. David grew up surrounded by scientists and men of learning.”

That helped feed his insatiable curiosity, a trait that carried him throughout his career. He always wanted to find more.

“He didn’t bring back one kind of mango; he brought back 58 varieties,” Stone said. “He was always flummoxed by America’s propensity to be satisfied with so few things. Why be happy with only one variety when there are may be hundreds, thousands more out there that might be better?”

Hear more about ‘Food Explorer’

Where: The Avid Reader, 617 2nd St., Davis

When: 7:30 p.m. March 15

Admission: Free


Author Daniel Stone will discuss his new book, “The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats” (Dutton, 416 pages, $28), and sign copies.

Cucumber and avocado gazpacho with grapes

This cold soup recipe is refreshing any time of year. The recipe comes courtesy Chicago Tribune.

Makes 4 servings

1 large seedless cucumber (14 to 15 ounces), ends removed

1 cup vegetable broth

4 green onions, trimmed, chopped (or ¼ cup roughly chopped chives)

1/2 small jalapeno, halved, seeded

Leaves from 1 large sprig mint, about 1 tablespoon roughly chopped

1 large ripe avocado, halved, pitted

Juice of ½ lime, or more to taste

½ to 1 teaspoon salt

Seedless red grapes, cut in half

Diced ripe avocado

Chopped chives

Use a vegetable peeler to remove and discard half of the cucumber peel. (This helps prevent bitterness.) Roughly chop the cucumber. You should have 3 loosely packed cups.

Put cucumber, broth, onions, jalapeno and mint leaves into a blender. Process until very smooth. Refrigerate in the blender jar, covered, about 30 minutes or up to 2 days.

Scoop avocado pulp into the soup base in the blender. Add lime juice and ½ teaspoon salt. Puree smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning with additional salt as desired. Refrigerate up to 1 day.

To serve, pour into soup bowls. Garnish with grapes, diced avocado and chives.

Crisp kale chips with chile and lime

Want a healthier snack? Try these kale chips, spiced up with lime and chile powder. Recipe courtesy the New York Times.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

20 cups kale (about 2 bunches), torn into bite-size pieces, washed and thoroughly dried

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

Finely grated zest of 2 limes

Flaky sea salt, or to taste

Mild chile powder

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Make sure the kale is dry; if it is not, it will steam rather than crisp in the oven.

In a large bowl, toss kale pieces with olive oil and kosher salt; you may need to do this in two batches. Massage the oil onto each kale piece until the oil is evenly distributed and the kale glistens. Spread the kale out on two 17-by-12-inch jellyroll pans (or do this in batches). Bake the kale chips until the leaves look crisp and crumble, about 12-16 minutes. If they are not ready, bake for another 2 to 4 minutes.

Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature. Sprinkle with the lime zest, sea salt and chile powder to taste. Serve.

Lemon-garlic kale salad

This side dish combines kale and Meyer lemon, two foods introduced to the U.S. by food explorer David Fairchild and his staff. Recipe adapted from the New York Times.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 cups sliced almonds

⅓ cup freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice (from 2 to 4 lemons)

Kosher salt

1 ½ cups extra-virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, crushed with the flat side of a knife, peeled and left whole

10 to 12 ounces washed and dried kale leaves, thick stems removed (weight after trimming)

1 ½ cups freshly grated Parmesan (optional)

In a toaster oven or skillet, toast almonds until golden brown and fragrant. Set aside to cool.

In a bowl, combine lemon juice and 1 heaping teaspoon salt. Slowly whisk in olive oil. Add garlic cloves and set aside to steep.

Working in batches, cut the kale into thin ribbons: gather a large handful of leaves, bunch together tightly, and use the other hand to slice into 1/4-inch-thick pieces. This need not be done very precisely or neatly; the idea is to end up with a kind of slaw. (Recipe can be made up to this point 1 day ahead. Keep kale and dressing refrigerated separately.)

Place chopped kale in a very large bowl. Sprinkle surface with almonds and then with cheese, if using. Remove and discard garlic cloves from dressing. Pour half the dressing over the salad and toss. Taste for dressing and salt and add more as needed, tossing to coat thoroughly. Serve within 1 hour.

Meyer lemon limoncello

Got lemons? This refreshing Italian lemon liqueur can be made at home. It can be enjoyed straight on the rocks, added to cocktails or used as flavoring in other recipes. Recipe adapted from Sunkist.

Makes about 6 cups

8 Meyer lemons, peel only

4 cups vodka

For simple syrup:

2 cups sugar

2 cups water

Wash the lemons, and then use a vegetable peeler to cut long strips of lemon peel, working from the tip to the base. Use a paring knife to gently scrape off any white pith attached to the yellow peel.

In 48-ounce or larger glass container (do not use metal or plastic), combine the strips of lemon peel with the vodka. Cover and set in a kitchen cabinet or dark closet to steep for 14-21 days. (Yes, that’s two to three weeks.) The longer you let it steep the more intense the color and flavor will become.

Make simple syrup: Combine water and sugar in a saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil and stir until sugar completely dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool.

Remove the lemon peels from the vodka.

Combine the simple syrup with the lemon-infused vodka and chill. The limoncello is best served ice cold. You can place the limoncello in the freezer for an hour before serving to make sure it is properly chilled.

Meyer lemon roasted cedar planked salmon

This recipe comes from Chef Justin Severino, of Cure and Morcilla restaurants in Pittsburgh, PA., courtesy Sunkist. It can be served hot or cold.

Makes 6 servings

1 1/2 pounds salmon, preferably wild sockeye, cut into 6 skin-on portions

2 Meyer lemons, cut into wheels

Extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Place salmon skin side down on cedar plank.

Lightly brush salmon with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Place 3 wheels of Meyer lemon on top of each portion of salmon.

Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2-3 hours to allow lemon to season fish.

When ready to cook, preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Remove plastic, and place plank directly in oven. Bake for 15 minutes.

Remove from oven and enjoy hot, or leave uncovered and place directly into the refrigerator to chill and serve cold.