The Food Explorer: Modern Recipes Made Possible by Globe-Trotting Botanist David Fairchild
With the holidays around the corner, it’s difficult to get the sumptuous meals we are about to consume in a few weeks off our minds. But, have you ever stopped to consider where the food on your table comes from? Unlike the bounty of food that adorns our tables during the holiday season, American meals in the nineteenth century were made for subsistence, not enjoyment. That was until David Fairchild, a young botanist with an insatiable hunger to explore and experience the world, set out in search of foods that would enrich the American farmer and enchant the American eater.
Fairchild’s adventures are described in great detail by National Geographic writer Daniel Stone in his book, The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats.
Fairchild visited every continent, shipping back the seeds of an estimated one thousand plants, including foods, shrubs, and trees.
He was lauded by many for transforming the United States’ agricultural industry. In 1904, he received an invitation from Gilbert Grosvenor to speak to the National Geographic Society at the coveted parlor of the Cosmos Club. It was there where he met famed inventor and the Society’s second president Alexander Graham Bell—whose daughter he would marry years later.
On Nov. 13, we hosted an intimate tasting event titled The Food Explorer during which a small group of diners experienced a unique multicourse dinner featuring some of the many foods that Fairchild brought to the United States more than 100 years ago. Daniel Stone guided the evening providing an inside look into Fairchild’s adventures and signed copies of his book were distributed when the evening concluded. The meal was prepared by National Geographic’s executive chef, Gregory Payne, who was kind enough to share some of the evening’s recipes with us. Many of the ingredients in these recipes wouldn’t have been available without Fairchild’s contributions to our country’s culinary palate. If you’ve been searching for a dish to bring to your holiday celebration, look no further.
Crab Avocado Napoleon (4 servings):
Green Goddess dressing:
Mayonnaise (2 cups)
Yogurt (½ cup)
Lemon juice (2 tbsp.)
Chopped cilantro (2 tbsp.)
Garlic clove (1 clove)
Anchovies (2 oz.)
Avocado pulp (1 avocado)
Hot sauce - Texas Pete (¼ tsp.)
Salt and pepper to taste
Filling for Napoleon:
Mango (1 cup diced)
Papaya (1 cup diced)
Nectarine (1 cup diced)
Watermelon (½ cup diced)
Red onions (2 tbsp. finely diced)
Green onion (2 tbsp. diced)
Jalapeno (2 tbsp. diced)
Orange juice (2 tbsp. fresh squeezed)
Lemon juice (1 tbsp.)
Sugar cane vinegar (1 tsp.)
Honey (1 tsp.)
Creole mustard (1 tsp.)
Extra virgin olive oil (3 tbsp.)
Egg roll wrappers (4)
Martini glasses (4)
Combine Green Goddess dressing ingredients and process until smooth.
In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except liquid ingredients; in a separate bowl, add juices, vinegar, honey, and mustard. While whisking the liquid ingredients, drizzle in olive oil until emulsion forms. Add mixture to filling and stir to combine. Cover and chill.
In a mixing bowl, add avocado pulp and the lemon juice. Toss to combine. In another mixing bowl, add the crab meat. Place ring molds on a clean platter. Add a portion of avocado pulp and then a layer of crab meat in the ring molds. Repeat, then cover and chill.
Fry egg roll wrappers until golden brown. In the martini glasses, fill each glass halfway with the filling and top them with an egg roll wrapper. Remove the ring molds and place crab and avocado on top of the crispy egg roll wrapper. Add Green Goddess dressing on top of the crab and garnish with cilantro.
Fairchild’s contribution of bringing the avocado to the United States was mentioned in his obituary as his highest achievement. He first tasted an avocado while in Santiago, Chile, and discovered that the crop could withstand a mild frost—the ability to grow in such a climatic range meant it would be a perfect crop for America. He sent a shipment of avocados to Washington, D.C., in 1899 which was then sent to the west coast, awakening a massive industry in California.
A quarter century after Fairchild’s discovery of the Chilean avocado, a mail carrier in California managed to collect seeds from every available avocado variety. He kept a garden behind his house and in 1926 one of the seeds sprouted an impressive walnut-sized fruit at a rapid rate. In 1935, he patented the fruit and it came to be the world’s most popular avocado, accounting for 80 percent of the global market. He named the avocado after himself, Rudolph Hass.
Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette (to serve atop a salad):
Lemon zest (½ tsp. finely grated)
Lemon juice (2 tbsp.)
Sugar (1 tsp.)
Dijon mustard (½ tsp.)
Sea salt (¼ tsp.)
Olive oil (4 tbsp.)
Ground black pepper (to taste)
Whisk all ingredients together.
After marrying Marian Bell, Alexander Graham Bell’s daughter, Fairchild lessened his travel due to the demands of his growing family. However, he was increasingly fascinated with China, a land full of hidden treasure that was yet to be fully explored. He sent Frank Meyer, a Dutchman working in the Department of Agriculture’s greenhouses, to explore this uncharted and at the time dangerous country. Like Fairchild, Meyer yearned for adventure—he even knew at the age of 12 that he wanted to travel the world studying plants. The Washington Post dubbed him “the agricultural department’s Christopher Columbus.”
One of the greatest successes of his life occurred on his first expedition in Peking, China. Meyer visited a village and noticed a small bush with yellow fruit, a lemon but smaller and rounder with a sweeter flavor than any lemon he had tried before. He shipped the lemon back to Washington, D.C., and it made its way to Chico, California, where it began a new lemon industry. The lemon became known as the Meyer lemon, which lends its sweet taste to lemon tarts, lemon pies, and lemonade.
Vegetable broth (4 cups)
Chives (2 tbsp. chopped)
Garlic paste (4 cloves)
Vegetable oil (3 tbsp.)
Butter (1 tbsp.)
Shallots (1 clove finely chopped)
Arborio rice (1.5 cups)
White wine (¼ cup)
Cooked quinoa (½ cup)
Half and half (¼ cup)
Asiago cheese (¼ cup)
Kale chiffonade (1 cup)
Olive oil (¼ cup)
Salt and pepper (to taste)
Bring broth and garlic paste to a boil. Heat vegetable oil and butter in a sauté pan. Stir in shallots and garlic in oil mixture. Add rice and stir until fragrant. Add wine until absorbed.
Stir hot broth into rice mixture and cook until rice becomes tender. Add quinoa, half and half and asiago cheese to rice. Sauté kale in olive oil and season to taste.
In 1898, Fairchild was traveling through the Andes Mountains in Peru. During his travels he stumbled upon quinoa, a crop of dramatic versatility. Quinoa was popular among the Inca on the shores of Lake Titicaca, so much so that they built their entire diet around the crop. Found to be a powerful protein, quinoa has the rare quality of containing all nine amino acids that the human body can’t produce on its own and it does not contain gluten. For these reasons, the protein is highly popular in both gluten-free and vegetarian diets. Quinoa has come far from since its founding a century or so ago. In 2005, it was granted the highest honor in agriculture—the title of superfood.
When sitting down to or preparing a meal, think about all of the trailblazers, like David Fairchild, that are responsible for introducing all the delicious ingredients on your plate. Our hope is that when you gather around the dinner table this holiday season, not only will you have a delicious dish to share, but you will also be able to regale your family with historical anecdotes of the plate’s origin!