“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.” -Cesar Chavez
I think about food a lot. And not just eating. I contemplate topics like field-to-fork, food safety, and food security. I’m not so much a foodie but a foodist: a follower of food philosophy and food in its global, cultural context. If truth be told, the next best thing to eating food is learning about it.
Then again, there are people who love food so much that they seem to always be thinking outside the icebox. But for them, food is only part of the equation. It’s also about the people who harvest and prepare it. Food is part cultural outreach and part taste adventure. The recently deceased Anthony Bourdain was a notable example of a foodie and a foodist. He sought rare and unusual foods not only to gratify his pallet, but he served as a food emissary around the world.
A latter-day globetrotting foodist was David Fairchild. In fact, he was one of the most important in American agricultural science in the first half of the 20th century. Fairchild was a plant explorer and the founder of the USDA’s Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction. He almost singlehandedly helped transform crop diversity, yields, and quality, dramatically increasing and diversifying American food production. Food savvy, Fairchild recognized that as a new century approached, Americans were developing broader appetites and were increasingly eating for enjoyment, not just subsistence.
Like Bourdain, Fairchild had an unquenchable yearning to explore and experience the world, and thus he set out in search of foods that would enrich the American farmer and captivate the American eater. He traveled the world in search of useful plants to bring back to America. He visited almost every continent and brought back mangos, quinoa, dates, cotton, soybeans, bamboo, and the flowering Japanese cherry trees that blossom all over Washington, D.C., each spring, as well as hundreds of other plants. Fairchild was responsible for the introduction of more than 200,000 exotic plants and varieties of crops into the United States, including certain varieties of wheat, cotton, and rice.
Surprisingly, so many of the foods we enjoy and take for granted today are immigrants, brought here by David Fairchild. We owe our incomparable food and crop diversity to his foodist and foodie sensibilities.