A Caravan of Immigrants

First, please bear with me as I set the tone with a bit of personal history about times gone by.

No, I am not going to bore you with a story of walking 10 miles to school in the snow. I am not even going into detail about my Mom, stopping at the grocery store on her way home from work to purchase food to prepare dinner. She then walked the 5 miles home, carrying said groceries. We lived in what is now known as a food desert. (As I wrote that, I realized that that history is probably why I feel guilty about the current glut of wonderful markets available locally.) I grew up with food always made from scratch, but limited in spice (our cabinet spice collection was salt, pepper and cinnamon), and limited in variety. I thought grapes were only those soft little ovals in cans of fruit cocktail. I thought cherries were defined by their neon red color and were the fruit we fought over from the same cans of fruit cocktail (hard to divide the 4 pieces among 6 children). Cranberries were just that fat garnet log you pried from a can.  I was an adult before a close friend brought me a wonderful gift-a pomegranate. Of course, I had no clue how to eat it.

Because we lived in a food desert; because we were poor; and, most of all, because of the time in which I grew up, the variety of foods available was very limited. All of that has changed. But the change is not my doing. For the variety of foods available to me and to the rest of this country, we can thank David Fairchild-a person with whom few are familiar, while most are indebted.

David Fairchild was a food explorer. He was a USDA botanist who trotted all over the globe in search of diversity. He lived a life full of adventure, history, food and travel. Fairchild’s plan was to travel the continents in search of interesting and profitable crops for American farmers. He brought back 20,000 new foods and transformed America’s diet into one of global diversity-a pantry of immigrants. Our kitchens are homes to caravans of immigrant botanical species. Among the new menu items…

  • Avocados from Chile. Fairchild, a child from Kansas, he called them “alligator pears”. His avocados were the ancestors of the Hass, the best of avocados.
  • He brought Kale, Soybeans, Peaches and Oranges from China, Pomegranates (from Malta), Nectarines (from Afghanistan), papayas (from Ceylon), red seedless grapes (from Italy), hops (from Bavaria), figs (from Syria), and water chestnuts.
  • In addition, he brought dates, pistachios, wasabi and mangoes (Although the most popular fruit, by weight, in the US is bananas, worldwide mangoes are tops. Fairchild brought back 58 varieties of mangoes.)
  • Food was not Fairchild’s only contribution. He also introduced us to Egyptian cotton.
  • He was a food sleuth. He conducted cuisine espionage. He was good at getting propagation secrets out of unwilling farmers. His assistant Frank Meyer smuggled a new lemon out of China.

His contribution to foodies would be more than enough to earn him a place in a Botanical Hall of Fame. But Fairchild was also responsible for the beautification of Washington’s Tidal Basin.

Fairchild was part of a group of scientists who met socially to share ideas and projects. He fell in love at first sight with the daughter of one evening’s host-Alexander Graham Bell.  They married soon after. With the dowry from Marian’s father, Fairfield purchased and shipped cherry trees from Japan. The Japanese nursery owner was so happy to have an American customer that he sold the trees for 10₵ each. Fairchild eventually bought more, which he donated to his city of Chevy Chase. Soon President Taft was persuaded by Fairchild’s tales of travel and adventure to broker a deal for cherry trees from Japan, with whom he was trying to improve relations.

Not only were the trees beautiful, but they were part of a centuries-old Japanese tradition of hanami. The traditional manner in which the arrival of the cherry blossoms is celebrated is to picnic and party beneath the trees each spring.

Food, parties and flowers-all are universal, global ways of celebration. You can’t keep all of this behind a wall.

Written by Margaret Pendleton & published with permission.

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