Where Did Kale Come From and How Did it Get on My Plate

By on January 5, 2018

Reprinted from The Smithsonian Magazine
Where did Kale Come From? New Book tells all.

America’s First “Food Spy” Traveled the World Hunting for Exotic Crops
A new book details the life of adventurer-botanist David Fairchild

By Anna Diamond

Where did kale come from?

For practically a century after its founding, the United States still couldn’t lay claim to any distinct cuisine. The emergent nation generally relied on a meat, potatoes and cheese diet, with fruits and vegetables often left off the dinner plate. Moreover, commonly held wisdom said that too many spices or condiments might just ruin one’s moral character; plain, boring graham crackers were the cure for sexual urges. All the better, then, to keep the palate plain and food flavorless.

But starting in the 1870s, America began to shift towards seasoning and cultivating a better understanding of nutrition. There was a willingness to try new foods, including the exotic banana that debuted at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia, and to try new ways of preparing the mainstays.
The timing was ripe for adventurer and botanist David Fairchild, born in East Lansing, Michigan, on the cusp of this expanding gastronomic era. More than a century ago, starting in the 1890s, Fairchild worked for the United States Department of Agriculture, journeying around the world to send back seeds or cuttings of over 200,000 kinds of fruits, vegetable and grains. His department, the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, researched and distributed new crops to farmers around the states.

So the next time you devour an overpriced slice of avocado toast, munch on some kale or serve yourself some quinoa, you’re sampling just a few of the crops that Fairchild introduced to the American public.

A new book, The Food Explorer, offers a look at his journeys around the world and how he changed the American diet. Author Daniel Stone, a writer for National Geographic, spoke with Smithsonian.com.

So who was David Fairchild?

David Fairchild was an adventurer-botanist, which is a title that has rarely existed in history. He was a man who grew up in Kansas, at a time when the United States was very blank. It was in need of a lot of growth. Economic growth, military growth and culinary growth. And he detected an appetite for all of those types of change, which led him to conduct world-wide adventures at a time when not that many people traveled. He went to places that not that many people went, in search of foods and crops that would enrich farmers and very much delight American eaters.

Where did Fairchild’s fascination with plants come from?

He grew up in parts of Michigan and Kansas. His father, George Fairchild, was the first president of Michigan State University, and then the first president of Kansas State University. As a result of living in both places, Fairchild had access to the plains to farms, farmers, and people growing things. He saw up close that there wasn’t a lot of dynamic crops in those days, not a lot of variation.

You had a lot of corn, you had a lot of potatoes. There were some apples, tomatoes. Very much American-centric crops. But when you think of what’s in our supermarkets today, in terms of bananas and mangoes, and pears and pineapples, these are things that all came from abroad. And in large part were brought here by Fairchild, and people who came after him.

Where did he travel? Who was facilitating his journeys?

His first trip was to Naples, Italy, funded by a grant from the Smithsonian. And on that trip, he met a very wealthy underwriter, named Barbour Lathrop. It was literally on the ship from Washington to Italy. He met this fabulously wealthy man, who he ended up partnering with in pursuit of exploration. And this man, Barbour Lathrop, underwrote many of his travels.

For about five years he traveled with Lathrop, on Lathrop’s dime. Eventually this project was sponsored and absorbed by the United States government. So Fairchild went from kind of an independent agent to a government employee and became very much a government food spy in his role. As sanctioned by the Secretary of Agriculture, and the President of the United States [from William McKinley’s administration until Woodrow Wilson’s], his job was to find exotic crops and bring them back.

Sometimes it was diplomatic and friendly. And sometimes it was covert, and he would steal things.

What was so high-stakes about what he was doing?

At that time in America, in the late 19th century, 60-70 percent of the labor force were farmers. Farming was the main industry, the main economic engine of the United States, and of much of the world. It was really the currency that made economies rise or fall.

The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats

The true adventures of David Fairchild, a late-nineteenth-century food explorer who traveled the globe and introduced diverse crops like avocados, mangoes, kale, seedless grapes–and thousands more–to the American plate.

What effect did his missions have?

If Fairchild hadn’t traveled to expand the American diet, our supermarkets would look a lot different. You certainly wouldn’t have kale (which he picked up in Austria-Hungary) to the extent that you do today. Or food like quinoa from Peru, which was introduced back then, but took off a century later. Anyone who’s eaten an avocado from Central America or citrus from Asia can trace those foods back to his efforts. Those fruits hadn’t permeated American agriculture until Fairchild and the USDA created a system to distribute seeds, cuttings and growing tips. Fairchild went to great lengths, at times risking his life, to find truly novel crops, like Egyptian cotton and dates from Iraq.

He started this tradition of food exploration, with other explorers following his lead. How long did the position stay in place?

This program lasted from about the mid-1890s to the start of World War I in 1917. And the reason for that coincides with that chapter in American history. So you can imagine the era of Teddy Roosevelt coming to Washington at the dawn of the 20th century. The growing aspiration of the United States. And that all coincided with getting things from around the world that could be useful to America.

The U.S. did that with colonies like Puerto Rico and the Philippines. And it did it with crops also. Now, the reason it stopped, is because when World War I started, you also have the dawn of a sort of nationalism. A sort of nativism, that is similar in ways to what we see today, where we don’t want things from other parts of the world, because some of them [seem to] threaten our way of life, our way of existence.

Before it used to be totally legal to do that, which Fairchild benefited from. But after, you could see how that would just slow down the work of importing thousands of exotic plants from around the world.

How did the farmers feel about the new crops Fairchild was sending over? And how were the seeds and cuttings being distributed?

Even Fairchild would say that the process of food introduction was very difficult. It’s a giant question mark, because you don’t know what farmers are going to want to grow. Farmers don’t like taking risks. The business has traditionally very small margins, so people who take risks generally don’t find them to pay off. But some crops farmers liked to grow.

[Imported] cotton in the American Southwest was a good example. But Fairchild would bring some things back, and if you couldn’t create a market for them, farmers wouldn’t want to grow them. And if you couldn’t get farmers to grow them, you couldn’t create a market for them. So, it was a challenge to get some of these items infused in the American agriculture scene, and then in the American diet.

Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/smalltalk_fairchild-180967508/#gxPtesAS45u02bSV.99

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recipe: Kale Pecan Salad with Angel Hair (adapted from epicurious)
makes 6 servings

• 1/2 cup pecans
• ½ cup craisins
• 1 pound angel hair pasta
• 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
• 4 cloves garlic, minced
• 1/2 teaspoon dried chili flakes
• 1/2 pound kale, stems discarded and chopped
• Zest and juice of 1 lemon
• 8 basil leaves, torn
• kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan
1. Toast pecans in a dry nonstick skillet over medium heat for 3 minutes until fragrant. Remove from skillet and chop. Set aside with craisins
2. Add 1 teaspoon of salt to a pot of water and bring to a boil. Cook the pasta for 1 minute less than the package instructs.
3. While the pasta is cooking, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium-high heat in a large nonstick skillet until shimmering. Add the garlic and chili flakes
and stir for 30 seconds until fragrant.
4. Add kale and lemon zest and cook for 2 minutes more. Stir carefully so that the kale will not fall out of the pan.
5. Add the pasta, remaining olive oil, lemon juice, basil, salt, and pepper. Toss until everything is coated.
6. Portion pasta onto plates. Sprinkle with the pecans, craisins and Parmesan cheese.

About Linda Eckhardt

Linda West Eckhardt, is an award winning journalist, food writer, and nutritionist. Her more than 20 cookbooks have garnered prizes including the James Beard prize for the best cookbook for a text she wrote with her daughter, Katherine West DeFoyd, entitled Entertaining 101, Doubleday. Their follow-up book, Stylish One Dish Dinners, Doubleday, was also nominated for a James Beard prize. Their next book, The High Protein Cookbook, Clarkson Potter, remains a best seller after 12 years. That book was designed to accompany low carb diet plans. Her ground-breaking book, Bread in Half The Time, Broadway Books, was named the Best Cookbook in America by the prestigious IACP, The Julia Child award. Her award winning radio work with Jennifer English, for a national show on the Food and Wine radio network, was nominated for a James Beard Prize for a show called, “I Know What You Ate Last Summer.”