The story told by Daniel Stone in his book The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats1 is fascinating, at times riveting, and I found myself staying up late some evenings to read what would happen next. Before reading the book, I didn't know who David Fairchild was. Also, I didn't know who Frank Meyer was, though I am a great fan of the Meyer lemon, named after him; had never read the full story behind the Haas avocado; had no idea how Japanese cherry blossom trees had ended up blooming in Washington D.C. and wondered why a town in Southern California was called Mecca.
These are just a handful of the stories told in the book2, which I recommend to all. In brief, David Fairchild went around the world looking for plants that could be grown in the US, with the stated goal of improving agricultural production in the country. In time, there were also others contributing to that work (Frank Meyer being one of them). The book narrates Fairchild's fascinating life, from his fateful encounter with millionaire Barbour Lathrop, who will finance a lot of his travels, to his marriage with the daughter of inventor Alexander Graham Bell, to his retirement in Southern Florida3 where he helped create a botanical garden which bears his name4.
The book details not only Fairchild's successes, but also the difficulties he surmounted in his quest and the opposition he faced in later years. Such opposition will not surprise us: importing live plants from around the world risks importing live pests with potentially devastating effects. Ironically, the person mainly responsible for stopping Fairchild's activity had been his best man. The two exposed their different point of views in articles published by the National Geographic Magazine. Fairchild's is titled Our Plant Immigrants6.
Of the many stories Stone recounts, one that particularly resonated with me is that of dates7. We spent the early days of this year in the Coachella Valley in Southern California, where date palms are everywhere. We also went through a town called Mecca and I wondered what connection to the famous Arabian city had prompted the naming7,8.
Also, as I was reading the book, I encountered fresh Yellow Barhi dates at the Berkeley farmers market. I had never seen fresh dates up close and personal (the view from the bottom of a palm being the closest I had come to them before) and I had no idea you could eat them before they were completely brown. The sign in the photo from the market says "Traditionally served when half yellow and half soft." Before I purchased the branch in the photo below, I tasted one that was indeed half yellow and half soft: it was a revelation. Sweet, but not as sweet as a fully dried one, the date retained a bit of crunch and had a hint of coconut.
It has taken my dates longer than I expected to reach the half yellow & half soft stage (called partially-rutab, where rutab is the final, soft stage9), but now they have finally started to do so and I appreciate that they are going slowly, so I get a couple a day ready to enjoy.
Fairchild introduced many types of fruit to the US (though his personal favorite, the mangosteen, never took hold here), so it was easy to decide to make a fruit salad (macedonia) for my breakfast (colazione) with fruit we eat because of his and his department's work and that is available now at the farmers market: Asian pear (pera asiatica), watermelon (cocomero), fig (fico), besides dates. Fairchild also tried to introduce the cashew tree, but domestic production never took hold, though consumption of cashew nuts (anacardi) did.
Ingredients (serves 1):
- Half an Asian pear
- A wedge of watermelon (Orchid variety in my case)
- 1 fig (Turkish brown in my case: Fairchild introduced the Calimyrna fig)
- 2 fresh Bahri dates, half yellow and half soft OR two soft dates
- 1 teaspoon cashew butter (Chunky Almond, Cashew & Coconut Nut Butter10 in my case) diluted with 1 teaspoon water OR a drizzle of lime juice
If possible, choose all organic fruit.
Cut the Asian pear and watermelon into bite-sized pieces. Peel the fig and cut it into 6 pieces.
Cut the dates lengthwise, remove the pit and slice crosswise. Place all the fruit in a small bowl.
Drizzle the diluted nut butter (or lime juice) on the fruit and toss gently. Enjoy!
Best post-run breakfast ever, or delicious dessert.
The photo above shows the version with fully ripe dates and lime juice.
1 The book introduction on the author's website
2 Articles talking about the book: on the Smithsonian website, on the NPR website, and an interview with Daniel Stone on CBS
3 This post includes recipes directly connected to the Kampong, the Fairchilds' home in Florida
4 The Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden website
5 From Flying Disc farm in Thermal, CA
6 Fairchild's article Our Plant Immigrants published on the National Geographic Magazine in April 1906
7 This article on the NPR website contains some information on the establishment of date palms in the Coachella Valley of Southern California
8 Mecca, CA on wikipedia
9 This photo of Bahri dates shows the stages
10 The Cashew and You (article on the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden website)
11 I tasted the Chunky Almond, Cashew & Coconut Nut Butter from Ground Up at a farmers' market I visited while in Portland and fell in love with it. (Disclaimer: I have no business relationship with the company, Ground Up)
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the macedonia di frutta con datteri freschi audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]
This is also my second contribution to the 37th edition of Novel Food, the literary/culinary event that Lisa of Champaign Taste and I started 12 years ago and that I continue to host.
FTC disclosure: I have received the table linen free of charge from the manufacturer (la FABBRICA del LINO). I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for presenting it on my blog. The experience shared and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.