In Search of New Foods, David Fairchild Changed the Way America Ate.

By Amy Bennett Williams

By rights, David Fairchild should be the patron saint of foodies. Especially because sainthood suits Fairchild so much better than many of the other monikers tossed at him, like “food spy” or “swashbuckling botanist.” Those make him sound like a botanical brigand—a rapacious stalker of growing things, a thief of edible treasures. But not the supremely kindly, public-spirited scientist he was.

So let’s stick with saint, because at its heart, Fairchild’s work was motivated by love—love of the great green world, love of his fellow humans, love of discovery. As for religiosity, the man’s writings indicate he found his raptures in the church of nature: “Is it not probable that we cling so dearly to the idea of our own existence as individuals that we forget we are only a fraction of that vague living something spread out over the earth, moving in millions of places at once which we call a living species?”

It’s hard to overstate how profoundly this horticultural visionary, who died six decades ago in Coconut Grove, influenced what we eat. Mangoes, avocados, quinoa, kale, nectarines, garbanzos, dates, wasabi, clementines, soybeans and seedless grapes—Fairchild traveled the earth to bring them and many thousands of other discoveries to our tables.

Before Fairchild, the young nation’s diet was unimaginably bland. “The menu of an average American dinner includes the product of scarcely a dozen plants,” he noted in 1898, “and yet the number which could be grown for the table would reach into the hundreds. There are several reasons why the number of plants upon which we depend for subsistence remains small…but the most potent one lies in a persistent conservatism of taste.”

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Amy Bennett Williams is an environmentally focused writer for the USA Today Network, based at the Fort Myers News-Press. Her pictorial history book, Along the Caloosahatchee River was released by Arcadia publishing in 2011; her second, Fort Myers, City of Palms— A Contemporary Portrait, came out in 2017. She wrote “One Beautiful Blink” in the Spring 2021 issue of FORUM.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.