The Food Explorer: : The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats
The trip had been punishing, a rocky overnight voyage over rough seas. Humid air, the kind that clings to one's face, stifled romantic visions of the Mediterranean. Even David Fairchild, a twenty-five-year-old from the prairielands of Kansas, was surprised by the small town of Bastia, Corsica's eastern outpost where the boat docked. "I had been accustomed to a certain degree of dirt but the town of Bastia appeared unbelievably filthy," he wrote of his first impression. Shabby dogs circled him on the dusty street as he stumbled around, disoriented, in the early light of day.
Had he been closer to home, he'd have found the scene easier to stomach. But here, on the French island, Fairchild was as far as anyone in his family had ever ventured. His journey had taken him from Kansas to Washington, across the Atlantic to Italy, north to Germany, and then south again across the Alps to the port where he met the boat. Such distance might have filled him with pride or pleasure if the last leg hadn't stirred a deep ailing in his stomach.
Sometime during the night, it had become December 17, 1894. Fairchild had spent his youth dreaming of traveling overseas, and now, finally, he was on his first assignment. He waited for the post office to open, and when it did, a man handed him an envelope crowded with forwarding addresses, and inside, a short message.
Secretary refuses authorization.
As an agent for the United States government, Fairchild had been cautioned to keep secret his mission in Corsica. This sort of undertaking had rarely been tried, and without a treaty or informal diplomatic agreement, or even the definitive knowledge that such a visit was legal, the best Washington could hope for was that its man could get in and out without causing a scene.
Fairchild had little direction and, as had now become clear, even less money. The order from the secretary of agriculture to go to Corsica had been nullified by the same man, who refused to cable money for his agent to complete the job. Fairchild liked the idea of espionage, but he was as skilled at covert action as he was at ballroom dancing, having done neither. He was a botanist, an agent of plants, and not a good one.
Without money, Fairchild couldn't afford to stay long. But already on the island, he figured he might as well try to complete the objective. He flagged a cab drawn by a single horse that trotted south along the coast. To think clearly, he needed to eat. He also needed a lead. Corsica was hilly, hot, and too big to wander blindly.
He stopped at a roadside restaurant, where he was the only customer. While he waited to eat, he mentioned casually to the restaurant's owner that he was interested in plants. Where, he asked in a mix of English, broken Italian, and arm gestures, could he see some of the island's trees? Perhaps its famous citron?
The man lit with purpose. He took Fairchild behind the restaurant to sample figs he had grown, each one a mouthful of syrup. He suggested that Fairchild see the mayor of Borgo, a town at the top of a nearby mountain in the center of the citron region, and gave Fairchild a note of introduction. "There I was, with an adventure on my hands, and I enjoyed it," Fairchild wrote. He walked outside and hired a donkey to carry him up, observing the view at every switchback up the mountain, oblivious to the fact that Corsicans could be wary of outsiders.
The mayor of Borgo was a red-faced man, skin baggy and sagging, "a bandit of a fellow," Fairchild jotted in his red pocket notebook. The mayor's house sat on wooden stilts atop a pigsty caked in mud. Fairchild had to navigate the snorting beasts to deliver the note from the man who had served him lunch.
As he might have expected, the mayor spoke no English and Fairchild knew almost no French, but the mayor made it understood that he had to leave for a funeral. He poured Fairchild a glass of wine and told his guest to wait. When the mayor left, Fairchild noticed a gray patch of mold floating on the wine and emptied it through a crack in the floorboards onto the pigs. Then he moved to the window, where he looked for a long moment at the deep valleys and orchards filled with fruit. It occurred to him: So long as he was waiting, what difference would it make to wait outside?
Efforts to be inconspicuous were betrayed by his large camera, an Eastman Kodet that folded like an accordion and had a cloth curtain. On the street, a small crowd gathered around him murmuring about the peculiar contraption and the man holding it. He stopped to photograph a group of women in long black skirts. A man urged Fairchild to photograph the view off the side of the mountain. Another woman asked him to take an image of her daughter. He obliged the woman's request but ignored the man, who turned and marched away.
While his head was concealed by the curtain, he felt someone grab his arm.
"Vos papiers, s'il vous pla”t."
It was a policeman. Or perhaps a soldier.
Fairchild had no papers to show, nor could he respond in a way the man understood. The minimal French learned in school left his head at the precise moment it might have been useful.
In just a few hours on the island, two hours into his first assignment working in a foreign land on behalf of the American government, Fairchild found himself arrested. If he knew anything about this type of work, he demonstrated the opposite. He had made his mission known to a government official. He had drawn attention to himself in the streets. And worst of all, he would now be interrogated. If he couldn't hold his resolve, the man would compel him to divulge what he had come for, and who had sent him.
The gendarme escorted Fairchild to a small house that doubled as the town's jail. He gestured for Fairchild to empty his pockets. The man picked up Fairchild's red pocket notebook and began to thumb through its pages. He asked in staccato what each word meant. Some of the scratches were in English, others in German and Italian, his attempt to practice languages he didn't know. Fairchild was filled half with fear, half with indignation, neither of which compelled him to cooperate.
In the corner of the room sat a woman in a black robe with a baby perched at her breast. As she rocked, she barked orders in Corsican French to the man. He paid her no attention, his gaze affixed on the notebook.
It struck Fairchild that the man mistook him for a spy, which he technically was, but the kind seeking more serious secrets. How else to explain the notebook with suspicious writings? Why the camera? Owing to the heat, his growing annoyance, and the creeping fear that he could spend his life in a Corsican prison, blood began to rush from Fairchild's face. "On an errand that was not likely to be pleasing if explained to the guard, with no papers in my pocket, with a captor whose very look was enough to terrify anyone, and in a jail that would rival in filthiness any that the Inquisition ever had, I think there are few men who would not have paled," he later wrote.
The policeman was familiar with the game of espionage, with foreigners arriving innocently but looking for political or economic secrets-or worse, to survey the land's value. The island had been war-torn for centuries, a plaything of European empires that fought for the rights to a Mediterranean oasis rich in crops, water, and fertile soil. America wasn't a threat, but the superpower Spain was, as was Italy, France's neighbor, which saw rich promise in a nearby island. A European spy hoping to steal strategic secrets from Corsica would be wise to impersonate a bumbling American who could barely speak French.
If the money had arrived from Washington, Fairchild would have had papers to prove his identity, his employer, and his mission, which, at the very least, was less threatening than looking for military secrets. Instead, all he had remaining in the bottom of his pockets was an old reimbursement check for fifteen dollars for work as a government contractor.
With nothing left to offer, Fairchild tossed the crumpled envelope containing the check onto the desk. But something caught both men's eyes. There on the envelope was the muscular visage of Ulysses S. Grant.
"Oo-lissies Grant," Fairchild said, pointing at the imprint. "Americano!"
The woman with the baby stared.
The man held the envelope up to study it. He seemed more taken by Grant's brawny gaze than by Fairchild's flailing insistence.
Then slowly, he pushed the red notebook back at Fairchild and uttered a string of words that sounded like a warning never to come back.
Fairchild stumbled out of the house, sweating lightly and breathing hard. With his head down he walked past the group of Corsicans watching him, then hoisted himself onto the donkey he had hired and kicked its side. As the animal trotted away, Fairchild peered over his shoulder every few paces, wary of being pursued.
Halfway down the mountain, when he felt confident he wasn't being followed, he dismounted. An orchard of yellow fruit had caught his eye, and he dashed into the grove of citron trees. He checked over both shoulders as he crouched in the dirt. Then he broke off four small bud sticks, the part of the tree where two thin branches merge into one. He tucked them into his breast pocket. These cuttings could later be grown into new trees, the Corsican citron mimicked in American soil. Then he plucked three small fruit from the tree's branches. If the buds didn't survive, the seeds inside these citrons might.
Back on the trail, Fairchild slowed the donkey. Success was in reach, but only if he could safely leave the island. The smartest thing he could do was to depart Corsica from a different city, where port agents wouldn't recognize him or have reason to inspect his camera and search his pockets.
In Bastia, he hailed another horse-drawn cab to drive him to the west-side city of Ajaccio. There, he asked an old man in an orchard for one of the few French terms he did remember, pommes de terre, potatoes. Fairchild paid for the stolen citron buds with agricultural knowledge: he demonstrated for the man a method he had once read about in a book-he stuck the sticks into the starchy centers of potatoes so that the cuttings would survive the lengthy trip to Washington. The freight bill would be a few cents. And after that, the remaining coins dangling in Fairchild's pocket were just enough to get him back to Naples.
The United States, barely a century old, was still young. The continent may have been green and vibrant, but as a culinary canvas, it was still fresh and white in 1869, the year David Fairchild was born one April day on the thawing plains of Lansing, Michigan.
America at one hundred hadn't developed a culinary identity of its own; there wasn't anything that could reasonably be called "American food." The choice of what to eat was most often confined to the items English colonists had brought over from their native land: meats and cheeses. Only the southern states could farm year-round, and when they did, root vegetables sprouted easiest, cabbage and green beans with a bit of extra work. "The fare of the Puritan farmers was as frugal as it was wholesome," Ben Perley Poore, a newspaper columnist, wrote in 1856 about the food of America's early days. "Porridge for breakfast; bread, cheese, and beer or cider for luncheon; a 'boiled dish,' or 'black broth,' or salt fish, or broiled pork, or baked beans, for dinner; hasty pudding and milk for supper." Slaves tended to get leftovers, and if there were none, they'd subsist on a combination of rice, beans, and potatoes.
Luck was the most critical factor in cultivating wheat. Bread was the product of corn, wheat, or rye, and in the harshest winters, most households could usually rely on bread, butter, and bacon. People preferred pigs to other proteins for the animal's indiscriminate diet, low water needs, and high calorie count. Flavor came in a distant fourth.
Fruits and vegetables were rare, and as a result, all things that sprouted from soil were dubious to medical authorities. "Woody tissue" was harder to process than animal muscle, which more closely resembled human flesh. Besides, the fruits of trees and shrubs were unpredictable, grown on such small scale and rejected by farmers who couldn't afford risks.
Food in every way was bland. Meals had bigger things to accomplish than merely to taste good. The food a person ate had a curious link to every aspect of his behavior, down even to his sexuality. The nineteenth century's avant-garde dieting theory came from Sylvester Graham, a Connecticut culinary reformer who developed a cracker-named after himself-to calm the body's "urges," sexual and otherwise. Women were said to faint at his speeches. Charles ElmŽ Francatelli, the closest thing the era had to a celebrity chef, warned in his popular 1846 cookbook, The Modern Cook, that "excess in the quantity and variety of spices and condiments . . . is especially to be guarded against. Nothing vitiates the palate more than a superabundant use of such stimulants." A generation later in 1875, George Napheys, a Philadelphia doctor, warned that highly seasoned food would stunt a person's development. Cravings of any kind were signs of weakness, he said, omens that a person wasn't properly "brought up."
There were right ways and wrong ways to eat food. Warnings percolated everywhere, in newspapers, in circulars, buzzed about in community centers. Sarah Tyson Rorer, the nineteenth century's Martha Stewart, issued a series of cookbooks that traded polite suggestion for blunt bossiness. In her most famous tome, Good Cooking, she advised:
Eat only the proper amount for necessary nutrition; avoid excessive sweet mixtures, fried foods, complicated pastries, acids, such as pickles or foods covered with vinegar, excessively hot or very cold foods, or ice water, which is the most objectionable of liquids. A frequent cause of indigestion is the mingling of too great a variety of food in the mouth. Take one food, masticate and swallow it; then another. Do not take a mouthful of toast and then a swallow of tea, unless you wish to be a still further sufferer from indigestion.
Indigestion, otherwise known as dyspepsia, was the era's fashionable disease, which seemed to arrive in America so suddenly that no one could reasonably explain it. Some blamed it on eating hot foods with cold; others faulted the anxiety wives felt when their husbands left home for the workday. Indigestion provided an opening for some people to argue that stomach discomfort was a sure sign the country had degenerated from the greatness of the colonial period. The implied warning was that unless people changed their ways, starting with their diet, America's grand experiment in constitutional democracy would flame out.
When young Fairchild was learning to walk in the early 1870s, the purpose of food had begun to shift from survival and sufficiency to something resembling gastronomic pleasure. The American Home Cook Book proposed cooking eels with a little parsley. Another suggested terrapin turtles boiled with salt. The foot of a calf could be salvaged into a delicious jelly (the culinary ancestor of gelatin). Of thirteen million Americans in the labor force in those years, more than half were farmers, most of them small landholders simply trying to live off the land and, if they were lucky, make a little profit. Peaches could be boiled into preserves. A stew could last for many meals—more if one added flour biscuits. Before comfort food made people nostalgic for mom’s home cooking, the same combination of meat, carbs, and dairy helped keep people full.
Around 1870 new advances started coming led by new companies with names like Pillsbury, Heinz, Quaker Mill, Lipton. A man named Ezra Warner invented a can opener with a handle and a rotating metal blade. Glass milk bottles appeared on doorsteps, along with orange crates. The crown jewel in home cookware was a tightly lidded pot that used pressure to expedite cooking, sometimes cutting the time in half. With new inventions food became less a chore and even, at times, an experiment.
David Fairchild’s mother, Charlotte Pearl Halsted Fairchild, a petite woman just over five feet, was as much drawn to the fads as anyone. She traded tips with neighbors about the ways the kitchen was changing. She asked her husband, George, to fortify their kitchen with gadgets. She had been the first of eight children, and George the last of ten. Now she had five kids of her own, and cooking for an army was more methodical than inspired. Her dishes tended to include dry meats and boiled potatoes, and on special occasions a pie, named after America’s first president, that called for sugar, butter, sweet milk, flour, egg, baking soda, and cream of tartar. “Spread with a nice sauce,” the Washington pie recipe suggested. “It is nice without sauce but the sauce improves it.”
Around the same time, “balanced” nutrition began to creep in as a reasonable factor in overall health. For those who could afford a visit to the sanitarium that John Harvey Kellogg was building in Bat‑ tle Creek, Michigan, food innovation was under way, but primarily with existing ingredients, not new ones. In 1884, Kellogg, a doctor, was clumping together oats for something he’d later call granola. He pureed peanuts into butter, and soy into milk. Visitors to Kellogg’s dining room found potatoes baked, mashed, or boiled. Eggs, for the most elite, came with the deluxe option of being poached, floated, runny, scrambled, made into cream, or drunk as nog. Food companies brought new products that demanded, for the first time, a type of culinary marketing. Chocolate milk and root beer excited young people in the summer of 1872, followed by margarine, its original name “butterine” (a name producers of real butter fought until it was changed). In 1876 at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia, a delicacy called a banana, originally a crop of the Malay Islands, made its public debut in the United States, selling for a dime apiece and wrapped in tinfoil to prevent its phallic shape from offending the crowd’s Victorian sensibilities. How else to eat one but with a fork and knife?
He didn’t know it, but America had a need for David Fairchild. The bare agricultural landscape at the beginning of his life would transform by its end into a colorful portrait: yellows from tropical nectarines and Chinese lemons, reds of blood oranges from Mongolia, greens from Central American avocados and grapes from the Caucasus, even purple from dates, raisins, and eggplants that sprouted first in the Middle East.
Fairchild watched them all come to the United States, because many of them he carried himself or shipped from unexplored corners of the globe, mingling with indigenous people, outrunning police, and flirting with diseases that killed millions. By the time Harry Truman became president, the crops brought to North America to kick‑start the United States’ fledgling farms had helped create the most dominant system of agriculture the world had ever seen. The insistence of his aunt Sue Halsted had pushed David Fairchild to Europe. But it was the influence of his father that had predetermined his life in agriculture. In 1878, the year before Fairchild turned ten, his father, George Fairchild, was named president of the State Agricultural College of Michigan, the recipient of the nation’s first government land grant, provided the school teach the practical aspects of growing food. Nine million people were farmers, and more were needed. The land‑grant system expanded, and a year later, when George was offered the presidency of Kansas State Agricultural College, the only sensible thing was to put his family on a train to Manhattan, Kansas.
The Fairchilds arrived in Kansas in 1879, a “grasshopper year.” The groggy insects emerged from subterranean hibernations to mate with such volume, they darkened the sky. Fairchild was a slender blue‑eyed boy, and having left Michigan’s old‑growth forests, he found new friendship in Kansas’ limitless orchards and cornfields. He wandered through the neighbors’ rows of apples, their names no more difficult to remember than his classmates’. He filled his hat with grapes as he walked, spitting the seeds in deference to the botanical cycle of rebirth.
A series of visiting professors and scientists who stopped in Manhattan to meet George Fairchild shaped his son’s early years. The most important visit occurred by accident, in the sense that it almost didn’t happen at all. One of Fairchild’s friends, a boy named Charles Marlatt who was curiously obsessed with the grasshoppers and other insects, had heard that a white‑bearded British naturalist with thin-rimmed glasses named Alfred Russel Wallace would be visiting Kansas. Marlatt told Fairchild, who then told his father. George Fairchild, the university’s president, with a degree of influence, quickly offered to put up the famous scientist. Wallace accepted, and this chance encounter was enough to spark young Fairchild’s ambition. “When Wallace came he stayed at our house, and charmed us with his simplicity,” Fairchild recalled. Wallace had once competed with another Brit, Charles Darwin, to be the first to publish on the theory of natural selection. Wallace researched how species changed over time in the Amazon River basin, and then later in the Malay Archipelago. Water provides isolation, so each of the archipelago’s twenty‑five thousand islands demonstrated how organisms diverged from their neighbors. Wallace completed his papers before Darwin did his, but Darwin’s opus On the Origin of Species was more extensive and marketed better, thus solidifying his perch as the historical patriarch of evolution.
During that visit, Wallace gave a copy of his new book, bluntly titled The Malay Archipelago, to Fairchild, whose eyes widened at the imagery and wonder of such a faraway place. To an Englishman like Wallace, the islands between Asia and Australia were the least known parts of the world, and were more consistently wet than anyplace else on the planet. Wallace told Fairchild that they teemed with diverse animal species, rich plants, and wild fruits.
Most maps had neglected the region due to incomprehension, but Wallace explained that at least one island, Borneo, was bigger than France. And unlike anywhere in Europe, it was largely untouched by travelers, who considered the area too remote, too dangerous, and too prone to earthquakes. Fairchild found this fascinating, and later observed of his childhood, “When the formative years of one’s life are spent among men such as these, it is little wonder if one becomes ‘agricultural‑minded.’ Personally, I cannot imagine existence in a family where the parents are interested only in a social life, but I feel sure that it would be very boring.”
Wallace’s stories were magical. But to a young boy from Kansas, the Malay Islands may as well have been Jupiter. Fairchild was a boy who had never seen mountains, never heard a riverboat whistle, never listened to music beyond a church choir. He spent his days in a carpenter shop earning pennies and nickels laying shingles and cutting doorframes. Any Kansas boy could find work pulling weeds or raking hay, but never enough to fund a journey to the ocean, let alone across it.
So, out of practicality, the desire to see the Malay Islands would lie dormant in Fairchild’s mind. His parents agreed that it was more sensible for him to spend his teenage years with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey. Uncle Byron had more connections to the grand thinkers along the corridor between New York and Washington, D.C. And Aunt Sue, who kept Beethoven, Chopin, and Dickens at her fingertips, would be his liaison to culture. New Brunswick, New Jersey, was a Dutch‑influenced town with sloped roofs that poured sheets of rain onto the streets. Life there would be a useful shock to a boy from the plains, everything bigger, faster, and flush with high‑ minded attitude that demanded a certain way of doing things.
Fairchild would adapt, at least a little. But the indelibility of his childhood on the plains would steer his curiosities for a lifetime. At nineteen, pushed by his uncle and in letters from his father, Fairchild turned to courses in botany. He spent evenings studying agriculture journals so thoroughly he memorized the names of the researchers. Around the dinner table, he could recite who studied wheats, tubers, and fruits, and, perhaps more important, the elusive question that would vex farmers for a century to come: How could you inoculate an entire field from a pest without contaminating the crops with unhealthful sprays?
The decision to leave Kansas had turned out to be a smart one. A friend of Uncle Byron granted Fairchild the chance to move to Washington for a job as a junior scientist with the Department of Agriculture. The work wasn’t glamorous, and neither was the building, four stories of old brick that reflected Washington’s low regard for matters of food and farms. Agriculture was one of the country’s biggest industries, along with steel and textiles, but the power lay with farmers, not the government.
For the majority of American history, affairs of agriculture had occupied a small office at the Department of State. Only on May 5, 1862, did President Abraham Lincoln create a Department of Agriculture all its own, which, despite its lack of cabinet‑level status, he nicknamed “the people’s department.” Its first goal was to increase the number of calories Americans ate each day. And its first leader was a modest farmer coincidentally named Isaac Newton, a man said to have won the job because he delivered Lincoln’s butter.
Eighty workers, all of them men, filled the headquarters of the Department of Agriculture at the corner of Fourteenth Street and Independence Avenue. The five men working on matters of plant pathology arrived to greet Fairchild on his first day, each presenting his name and the problem vexing farmers he was trying to solve. The reception was formal, particularly for a junior scientist, but the Division of Plant Pathology was small, and any newcomer notable. The men devoted most of their attention to viral diseases, such as one called peach yellows that made fruit ripen too fast while the flesh stayed bitter. One man, Theobald Smith, was investigating the cause of Texas cattle fever that inexplicably killed thousands of cows (it was a bacteria, he would discover, transmitted by a tick). Not long before, the Department had identified an infection responsible for destroying entire orchards of pears and fields of sweet potatoes.
Early agricultural work entailed this type of reactive problem solving, trying to curtail bad things rather than invent good ones. The work of a new scientist involved early‑morning trips to places with more farmland than Washington. Fairchild spent two summers in Geneva, New York, trying to figure out why some young peartrees had prematurely stopped bearing fruit. He tied bags around tree branches to protect them from pollen in the air. It was Fairchild’s discovery that blossoms on pear trees were sterile to their own pollen—a genetic revelation later applicable to other tree fruits.
Fairchild’s flashiest assignment was to man a booth at the 1893 World’s Fair. Chicago had won the honor to host the event, and, not to be outdone by Paris five years prior, opened the fair with a giant 264‑foot wheel designed by George Washington Gale Ferris to rival Gustave Eiffel’s sleek Paris tower on the banks of the Seine. Organizers expected more than fifteen million people to visit the fair. More than double actually came.
On a small stage in front of an even smaller crowd, Fairchild was to explain how plant diseases could decimate a crop.
“It’s knowledge people can use!” his boss, Beverly Galloway, said when Fairchild complained that other presenters would have more exciting demonstrations. A giant wheel in the air was spectacular, Galloway conceded, but when people returned to their farms in Kansas, Iowa, and Illinois, Fairchild’s lesson would prove most useful.
Each day as the cold wind blew off Lake Michigan, Fairchild, in a baggy shirt with no coat, showed how pear blight fungus killed one pear seedling after another. The fast‑growing fungus would cover the seedlings and starve them of sunshine. Then the plants would lean to the side and droop dead. Hours earlier, he would have contaminated the plants with the fungus so that, at the precise moment the crowd gathered, the plants would begin to visibly die before everyone’s eyes. If he timed it right, the onlookers would gasp. Farmers found it a useful lesson. Everyone else saw a magic trick.
As the wind battered his face and chapped his lips, Fairchild thought incessantly about two things.
One was the Malay Archipelago, and specifically the island of Java. His requests to be sent on assignment to study foreign plant diseases were met with the scoffs of men who saw no need for such irrelevant work and were unwilling to fund it. What insight could Javanese farmers possibly have into American problems? He daydreamed about going to Java on his own—a self‑funded research expedition like those of the great explorers of Portugal and Spain who had once set off amid public doubt only to discover earthchanging things. But the daydreams were nothing more.
The other item occupying Fairchild’s daily thoughts was something Charles Wardell Stiles, a young zoologist, had told Fairchild before he left for Chicago. When Fairchild explained his longing for overseas travel, Stiles suggested that he apply to the Smithsonian, which had received a generous government grant to facilitate scientific exchange with several universities in Europe. One position in Naples was still empty.
As Chicago’s spring turned to summer, after another day of shuttling pear seedlings and fungus to and from the demonstration hall, Fairchild returned to his room to find a cablegram from Stiles. He had secured the Smithsonian job for Fairchild—and with it, the opportunity for him to leave his world and enter a new one. Fairchild spent the final days of the fair writing letters to his parents and his aunt and uncle. He imagined them pleased to see him granted the respect of a scientist.
What made Fairchild himself giddy was the idea of taking a steamship across an ocean. In 1893, an age of glamorous travel reserved solely for the most moneyed, crossing the Atlantic even once qualified as the rarest treat of a person’s life. Fairchild would have his own cabin, and his own seat in the dining room. There might be people on board who had visited exotic locales, and would regale him with illustrious stories of their adventures. He would buy a stack of pocket notebooks and jot every detail.
The anticipation tantalized him during the last weeks of the fair. Yet there was one pesky chore that remained. When he returned to Washington, before he headed for the ocean‑crossing steamship, before he peered over the railing into the blue Atlantic, before he got to unpack his pocket microscope or try to decipher a menu in Italian, Fairchild would have to go into the Department of Agriculture, the agency that had given him the full sum of his opportunity, and quit.
Two months later, as fall’s leaves disappeared under winter snow, the most important conversation David Fairchild ever had occurred on a seven‑thousand‑ton ocean liner named the SS Fulda that would cross the stormy Atlantic and leave Fairchild and his ambitions in Naples.
Sea travel at first proved more cumbersome than the notions of calm luxury he imagined. Relentless wind upturned deck tables. Dishes clattered.
It was a pair of pajamas that first caught Fairchild’s eye. Only rich people wore pajamas—and so was the man wearing them. He stood in the doorway of the second officer’s cabin, a space reserved for the star passenger. The man was tall and handsome, with a perfect mustache outlandish enough to make Fairchild stare in crude astonishment. For a brief moment, the man looked back at Fairchild, and then he was gone.
The next evening, Fairchild recalled the odd encounter to Raphael Pumpelly, a Harvard geologist on board with whom Fairchild dined. When he mentioned in a different breath his longing to go to the Malay Islands, Pumpelly’s eyes lit up. The man in the pajamas was one Mr. Barbour Lathrop, esteemed world traveler. He had been to Java.
In fact, Barbour Lathrop had been around the world forty‑three times. Perhaps more, perhaps less—the number changed each time someone asked, because Lathrop enjoyed demonstrating that he couldn’t be bothered to keep track. On the long voyages when bored travelers would count days with scratch marks in journals, Lathrop would find any pair of ears with even the smallest interest in hearing stories of his globe‑trotting and death‑defying adventures. “That reminds me of a time in Japan . . .” he would occasionally say, before describing how, amid great danger, he crossed Japan’s widest latitude on foot. Because of his status as a frequent traveler with deep pockets, Lathrop received the type of onboard treatment even the most regal dignitaries would envy.
In the smoking room aboard the Fulda, Fairchild met the man who would direct his destiny. Lathrop was wearing his formal tailcoat for an evening on board, and sat with a novel in one hand and a cigarette in the other. A forty‑seven‑year‑old millionaire who financed his pleasure for travel on his father’s real estate fortune, Lathrop was a man of intellect, some real, some imagined, whose ego fueled an impetuousness to speak his mind—and, just as often, to ignore the dull. He couldn’t be moved to steal away from his book as Fairchild explained his yearning for Java. The older man nodded, half listening. Fairchild mentioned his meeting with Alfred Russel Wallace, and then his work studying plant fungus. Lacking prestigious credentials of his own, he described his father’s agricultural pedigree.
Lathrop waved him quiet. He had already been to Java two times—or was it three?—and recalled between puffs of smoke the time he hunted rhinoceros on the western part of the island. As he talked, he would pause, empty his Turkish cigarette holder, and fill it with a new Egyptian cigarette.
“Why study microscopic stuff instead of plants that man can use?” Lathrop asked. His speech was impatient, as though his solution were obvious, and yet, only the revelation of a genius. “If you’re a botanist, why don’t you collect plant specimens for the Smithsonian Institution and pay for your trip that way?”
Fairchild stuttered. He wasn’t that kind of botanist, he explained. He wanted to study plants and their diseases, not collect them. For him Java would be a laboratory, not a bazaar filled with goods to be chosen.
Lathrop was a man accustomed to holding court. His usual position was seated, leaning back, regaling curious commoners or anyone nearby with his stories of danger and drama, each one mounting to a punch line demonstrating that he had been omniscient all along. He wasn’t interested in people who didn’t share his brilliant view of himself. And so with a wave of his hand, he ended the encounter.
Lathrop’s attention drifted back to his novel.
Fairchild showed himself out.
Behavior that anyone else would have thought rude made Fairchild feel something different entirely. He found Lathrop’s disinterest to be the mark of a true cavalier, a man who had seen and experienced so much that he couldn’t be distracted by minutiae. “I left quite awed, feeling that I had met one of the most widely traveled men in the world,” he wrote.
An encounter so brief hardly qualified the men as acquaintances. Nor did their eyes meet again for the rest of the voyage. Fairchild saw him one more time, at the customary onboard banquet, as the Fulda passed the Azores. Lathrop played emcee to a room of tuxedos and high‑necked gowns. Lacking formal clothes, Fairchild hid behind a pillar in the dining room long enough to hear Lathrop’s witty introduction of every performer, writing down every uttered name in his notebook.
Before he even stepped onto foreign soil, ocean travel had become more exciting than Fairchild’s greatest fantasy. The boy from the Midwest fancied the globe‑trotting playboy Lathrop the “most fascinating man” he’d ever meet. Boys dreamed about travel, but gentlemen had the cunning to make such fantasies reality.
Lathrop, too, had been piqued by Fairchild. The young man was one of hundreds of cursory companions Lathrop encountered on the ocean. But there was something about his awkwardness, his inquisitiveness, the way he asked questions with naïve amazement. Lathrop had developed a penchant for people like Fairchild, young men who came to him with submissive awe.
When the ship docked at Gibraltar, the passengers learned that a group of mountain tribespeople in northern Morocco had staged a rebellion against their Spanish colonizers. The Foreign Legion had offered to help quell the violence. Lathrop rushed off to see the action, drawn to the dramatics and prestige of battle. But not before writing down the name of the young man from the steamer to remind himself, on another day, to find him again.