The March of Empire: Mangos, Avocados, and the Politics of Transfer | Robert R. Alvarez

from Gastronomica 7:3

According to the truism, we are what we eat. These days, most of us delight in eating plenty of guacamole and mango chutney. But where did those avocados and mangos originate? When did they shift from being exotic intruders to part of our daily diets? What were the politics of their transfer? Most of us haven’t a clue.

In fact, deliberate plant transfer into the United States dates back to the late nineteenth century, to the period when Darwinism spurred scientific interest in new typologies and in the recording of new species. This seemingly innocent and objective process evolved into a dynamic global strategy of plant exploration and collection that transformed landscapes and yielded new hybrid vegetable and fruit varieties. In the United States, plant transfer had a clear economic base: the us Department of Agriculture (USDA) wanted to provide American farmers with seeds and plants for the creation of new markets. As a result of USDA policy, farming and the national landscape changed dramatically, if gradually. New hybrids that were developed in this country became staples in regional and national markets and ultimately engendered a transformation in global agriculture.

The pioneers who sought out nonindigenous plants were by and large men of creative vision and imagination. The collection of plants and their transfer initially belonged to a burgeoning botanical science in which new plants were added to growing and impressive typologies. But economic reasoning, no less than scientific curiosity, shaped the plant hunters’ activity. The significant funding involved in organizing their travels and disseminating their work required administration by government agencies that imposed a variety of regulations and controls. Today’s network of food regulations reflects a hierarchy tied not only to health and safety but also to economics and control.

In the late nineteenth century, the USDA sent agents throughout the world to find new fruit and vegetable varieties suitable for hybrid adaptation and eventual export in the world market. These agents, largely unknown to most of us today, formed a cadre of remarkable explorers who pushed at the frontiers of botanical science and changed forever what we buy at our markets, plant in our gardens, and cook for our meals.

The Plant Hunters

David Fairchild (1869–1954). David Fairchild, a botanist and bureaucrat, grew up in Kansas in the 1870s as a member of America’s intellectual elite. He studied at the Kansas State College of Agriculture, where his father was president, and then at Iowa State and at Rutgers, where his uncle, a distinguished biologist, taught. He eventually married one of Alexander Graham Bell’s daughters. Fairchild came to Washington in the early 1890s, where he joined the Department of Agriculture and made several explorative forays abroad. Indeed, while working for the USDA, Fairchild himself introduced more than twenty thousand exotic plants into the United States, among them mangos, alfalfa, nectarines, dates, horseradish, bamboos, and after a trip to Japan, the first flowering cherries of Washington, D.C. In 1889 he convinced the us Congress to allocate twenty thousand dollars to create the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction (OFSPI) and subsequently became its first director. Fairchild’s intention, like that of the USDA in general, was to support an applied botanical science to provide American farmers with what they called “economic plants” for market development. To achieve that goal, he sent USDA agricultural explorers, known as “plant hunters,” to collect thousands upon thousands of seeds and plants suitable for America’s farms, home gardens, and city landscapes.

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Possessing the Past | Darra Goldstein

For a few years now I’ve been teaching a course in Russian culture and cuisine that ends with an extravagant feast. It’s always fun, but this semester the class ended with a question, in the form of an object. A student called not long before the party to say he had something to show me—could he come to my office right away? Almost immediately he appeared, toting a huge box and puffing from the effort of carrying it across campus and up three steep flights of stairs. He could hardly contain his excitement as he opened the box to reveal a gleaming brass samovar, perfect for his feast dish of Suvorov cookies served with Russian tea and homemade raspberry jam. I gasped. This was no Soviet-era, factory-produced samovar, but an elegant vase-shaped model, its interior grate and elongated chimney extension still intact, a genuine antique worthy of The Cherry Orchard.

He had bought it on eBay for two hundred dollars.

Initially thrilled by my student’s purchase, I later found myself wondering. What did it mean that this emblem of Russian hospitality had become a commodity to be bought and sold on the Internet? Of course there was nothing new here: in desperate times people the world over sell their family keepsakes, and the Internet is just the latest flea market. In my own era, Muscovites had eagerly swapped these tsarist heirlooms—or white elephants—for much-prized American Levis. So why did this purchase make me uncomfortable? The sale of jewelry wouldn’t have bothered me in the same way. But a samovar!

The samovar is an object closely identified with leisurely afternoons on Chekhovian estates, equally necessary for the regalement of guests during summer picnics or winter blizzards. It’s as iconically Russian as apple pie is American. The samovar represents a certain ideal for Russians, a national identity now in danger of being lost as Russia transforms itself into a place more like the rest of the Western world. My student had purchased not only a tea urn, but a way of life that had been packed up and sold to the highest bidder. How unfair!

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Spring 2001, Volume 1, Number 2

from the editor
The Spoon, Not the Scepter | Darra Goldstein

Rumblings from the World of Food

orts and scantlings
“Corruption” | Mark Morton

feast for the eye
Janine Antoni’s Gnawing Idea | Laura Heon

Food for Thought | Eamon Grennan

Rehabilitating the “Stinking Herbe”: A Case Study of Culinary Prejudice | Helen Leach

watched pot
The Egg Beater | Meryle Evans

Mangled Menus | Arthur Schwartz

The Bengali Bonti | Chitrita Banerji

working on the food chain
Farmland, Farms, Farming, and Farmers: The Four F’s of Food Production | Michael Hamm

Food Chain | Catherine Chalmers

Christopher Columbus, Gonzalo Pizarro, and the Search for Cinnamon | Andrew Dalby
William Alexis Jarrin: An Italian Confectioner in London | Laura Mason
Professor Blot and the First French Cooking School in New York, Part I | Jan Longone

Emile Zola’s Portrait of Les Halles | Alexandra Leaf

eating out
“Let’s Eat Chinese!”: Reflections on Cultural Food Colonialism | Lisa Heldke

Chinese Spring Green Tea | Mary Lou Heiss

chef’s page
La Locanda del Coccio, Providence, Rhode Island | Walter Potenza

Iceland | Steingrímur Sigurgeirsson

spilled beans
Baumkuchen | Sylvia M. Henderson

review essay
The Other French Revolution: Explorations of Culinary and Prandial Inventiveness | Beatrice Fink

the bookshelf
Books in Review

An Edible Map | David Jouris

Cover: David Shterenberg. “Zavtrak” (“Breakfast”), 1916. Owned by the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.