How exotic fruits, veggies became commonplace

Amanda Harris will discuss her new book, 'Fruits of Eden: America's Plant Hunters,' tonight at 7 p.m at the library.

Amanda Harris will discuss her new book, ‘Fruits of Eden: America’s Plant Hunters,’ tonight at 7 p.m at the library.

Much of what we eat today comes from the sea that surrounds our Island, from the rich land of our own gardens, farms as nearby as the North Fork or shipped fresh from Florida or the West Coast.

Until the end of the 19th century though, American menus were quite limited — standard seasonal farm fare, fresh or preserved through salting, smoking or “canning.” David Fairchild and a small group of other dedicated botanists changed all that. Now we can enjoy a cornucopia of tasty, colorful fruits and vegetables grown from seeds collected from around the world.

Islander Amanda Harris comes to the library’s Friday Night Dialogues tonight, August 14 at 7 p.m. on  to discuss her new book, “Fruits of Eden: America’s Plant Hunters,” and to tell how Fairchild and his fellow explorers, who loved eating, traveling and swapping adventure stories, helped transform American food.

Mangoes, for instance, came to Fairchild’s attention while touring Southeast Asia with a Chicago investor who financed his work. He started saving their seeds after his first taste of the exotic fruit and eventually gave one to his boss, the Secretary of Agriculture and a former Iowa hog farmer with a much less adventurous palate. He passed it along to a friend, who wouldn’t eat it either; he palmed it off on his gardener, who in turn fed it to his chickens.

Even they wouldn’t eat Fairchild’s mango, which had a peculiar smell, a taste like turpentine and a bad reputation. However, Fairchild was not one to give up. After collecting mango seeds from all over the world, he sent them to experimental gardens across America. Slowly and carefully, plant breeders and farmers concocted domestic varieties that tasted good and could be shipped safely. Today’s popular varieties are the direct descendants of Fairchild’s first taste of that mango.

The avocado, lemon, nectarines, dates and a host of other no-longer-exotic fruits would follow, among some 200,000 species and varieties of non-native plants that have come to the U.S. since 1898.
Soon after his initial exploratory trip, Fairchild went to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and became “Agricultural Explorer in Charge of Seed and Plant Exploration for the United States Department of Agriculture” —  a long-winded title that he loved. He served off and on for 37 years, through the terms of six presidents from Benjamin Harrison to Calvin Coolidge.

Fairchild’s many other achievements include bringing the flowering Japanese cherry tree to Washington and the introduction of tropical fruits to Florida, as well as being the driving force behind the establishment of the Everglades National Park.

Ms. Harris writes from a distinguished personal and professional perspective. She is a descendant of the renowned botanist whom she profiles in “Fruits of Eden,” her first non-fiction book. She is the granddaughter of Alice Barton Harris and the daughter of Robin Franklin Harris, who was the godson of David Fairchild’s wife, Marian, the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell.

Ms. Harris was a reporter and editor at Newsday for many years. She writes fiction with a focus on short stories, has written two plays and published two volumes of poetry. When not at home on the Island, she lives in Manhattan and Montcabrier, France, with her husband, Drew Featherstone.

Admission to Friday Night Dialogues at the Library is free; donations are gratefully accepted.

Coming up: “Rainforest Remedies of Ecuador” with Island herbalist Sarah Shepherd on August 21; author Talla Carner talks about her novel, “Hotel Mosow,” on August 28.