Daniel Stone and the Adventurous Botanist Who Changed What We Eat

One day, botanical writer Daniel Stone found himself in the living room of the eighty-one-year-old granddaughter of explorer David Fairchild. He was the man who first brought to America many of the fruits we now know today. An insatiably curious traveler, he had once taken long drives with his granddaughter Helene Pancoast from Miami to Nova Scotia.

Stone writes that when he asked Helene whether her grandfather would still have found questions in a world full of answers, she looked him square in the eye: “He used to say, ‘Never be satisfied with what you know, only with what more you can find out’.”

It’s in the spirit of curiosity — the pursuit of finding more questions in a world full of answers — that Stone sets out in his debut, The Food Explorer. And it doesn’t take much more than the author’s note in the introduction to make you salivate for fruit. Stone’s book is a delightful, satisfying read.

As a reviewer, this was an excellent book to follow Deborah Blum’s The Poison Squad with because they are both set around the turn of the twentieth century. The infamous Secretary James Wilson makes an appearance in both, although it could be argued that Stone does not make out Wilson as a villain to the same extent. Still, the secretary is a looming figure.

But Stone focuses more of his attention on Barbour Lathrop, the eccentric millionaire adventurer who funds Fairchild’s expeditions and vexes him to no end. Lathrop adds a comedic side to the story; his strange behavior, whims, and surprising interactions with other characters draw you in as if Stone is writing a novel instead of retelling history. But Lathrop is not the only character that seems to leap from the page: David Fairchild shines in Stone’s writing.

Fairchild’s insatiable passion for botany is tangible as Stone recounts his many adventures around the world in search for new plants to bring back to America’s farmers. Grapes from Italy to grow in California’s Mediterranean-like climate, pumpkins and cucumbers from Egypt, mangoes from Philippines to grow in Florida, and rices from China to grow in the Carolinas. Along the way, he put himself and his companion Lathrop at risk of catching diseases and being beaten, robbed, or killed by unfriendly locals. But despite the risks of traveling during the time period, Fairchild continued to visit remote parts of the world to collect seeds and cuttings from plants that could prove valuable to the United States.

Stone’s writing is not technical — he’s a master storyteller, and The Food Explorer reads like an enchanting historical novel full of adventure, rivalry, and romance. It’s a bit like a mix between Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire and Deborah Blum’s The Poison Squad — and it feels as if Stone was destined to be the one to chronicle Fairchild’s life story.

David Fairchild (right) and Barbour Lathrop. Source

Honestly, the only disappointment I felt while reading this book was finishing the last page. I hope to see another book by Daniel Stone in the future.

Published by Sarah Olson Michel

Science writer, book reviewer, and cat enthusiast.

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