The Food Explorer
According to Daniel Stone, “Apples come from Kazakhstan, bananas come from New Guinea, pineapples from Brazil, and the oranges and lemons that have fueled the economies of Florida and California? They originated in China ... Almost every food we eat is an immigrant.”
That sets the stage for Stone’s book on “food explorer” David Fairchild. In the late 19th century, at age 22, Fairchild created the USDA’s Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, then spent most of the next four decades finding seeds and cuttings to bring back to America. In essence, he was an agricultural spy.
Among his most curious discoveries were avocados, named by the Aztecs, who used their word for testicle. Citrons, pomelos, mandarins and papedas were mixed to produce the modern orange, lemon and grapefruit. He was no fan of quinoa, which he found in Peru in 1898, but he did boost the mangosteen, which he called the queen of fruits. Hard to grow and bearing little fruit, it failed to catch on.
His wealthy patron, Barbour Lathrop, funded most of his travels, since the USDA thought Fairchild would be of more use sorting seeds in Washington, D.C. Lathrop had a brash, Teddy Roosevelt-like demeanor— impatient and restless—whereas Fairchild wanted to take his time at each port of call. But Lathrop was the first to notice that coca leaves were the reason that porters in the Andes had so much energy. He sent samples to a lab stateside, but they were never examined. (Stone adds that the original Coca-Cola contained 2.5 percent cocaine because the formula was concocted by a pharmacist addicted to morphine.)
Fairchild’s greatest moment was his promotion of cherry blossom trees to beautify the capital. The first shipment was burned due to insect infestation. The second was a success, which reinforces the book’s theme: So many staples of American life come from elsewhere, from mangos and avocados to the cherry blossom trees in our nation’s capital.
We are Nigella Lawson fans here at Milk Street. Her food is simple but with a twist, usually a flavor or technique from a cuisine far from her native London. Miso and sesame seeds for butterflied chicken; carrots and fennel with harissa. But she also throws in the classics as well, including apple pork chops, chopped salad and sticky toffee pudding. And she can be refreshingly down to earth. She is no fan of salad snobs; iceberg is just fine (she adds fried chicken skin to iceberg in one intriguing recipe). She thinks hash is a lovely idea for leftovers. And a traybake—the British term for an everything-roasted-on-one-pan dinner—is part of her repertoire. As she often says, “Life is complicated; cooking doesn’t have to be.”
At My Table
These recipes are inspired by the private restaurants of Cuba, from a simple pot of black beans to lobster with creole sauce, pumpkin rice, Cuban polenta and grandmother’s custard (natilla). Most of the recipes seem well suited to the home cook, the full-page color photographs are appealing and the notion is fresh. Though the everyday cooking of Cuba may be limited by the availability of ingredients there, these private restaurants offer a wider range.
For those of us who grew up in New England, rice was either an unadorned side dish or a pudding. The rest of world, however, views rice as a starting point. John Coletta’s new book, “Risotto & Beyond,” delves deep into how the Italians use rice. Whether you want to add leeks and Grana Padano to your risotto, or spinach pesto and Parmigiano-Reggiano, the appeal is the same—a basic stovetop technique (he also offers an oven version) yields countless variations. And he adds plenty of surprises, including a no-bake rice soufflé and a rice frittata.