Before photography, watercolorists documented the succulent variety of fruits and nuts

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The average American had never tasted a blueberry until the 1920s, and it was a woman who brought it to his palate. In 1910, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a report on the commercial potential of a small, wild edible berry native to parts of the country. The report caught the attention of New Jersey cranberry grower Elizabeth Coleman White, who quickly began to selectively grow what she called “swamp blueberries.” After 10 years of experimental breeding, she had produced the sweet, sweet fruit we now know and spawned the current global blueberry market of $ 4.5 billion.

JM Shull, “Lemon” (1910)

This is just one of the origin stories of An Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits and Nuts: The United States Department of Agriculture’s Pomological Watercolor Collection (Editions Workshop, 2021). The main attraction of the book is its hundreds of color illustrations with luscious detail: the reader can almost taste and smell the bright, juicy fruits and nuts through its pages. But the accompanying catalog texts by Adam Leith Goliner, Jaqueline Landey, John McPhee, and Michael Pollan on the history and composition of each fruit – which encompass elements of archeology, anthropology, botany, and arts – are surprisingly enlightening and almost as delicious.

Spread from An illustrated catalog of American fruits and nuts (Editions Workshop)
Spread from An illustrated catalog of American fruits and nuts (Editions Workshop)

Between 1886 and 1942, before the widespread use of photography took hold in science, the USDA assembled a team of professional watercolor painters – including several women – who meticulously documented the fruit and nut varieties emerging. on farms and orchards like White’s in the United States. They also recorded avocados, kiwis, and other exotic fruits and nuts collected by the USDA’s quasi-colonial plant explorers, who scoured the world for profitable foreign fruits to bring back to the United States. They are remembered in the illustrations in the tropical fruit book, many of which remain unknown to Americans (myself included) despite increasingly international travel and food trends. Overall, the catalog piques both curiosity and the senses. With its lavish imagery and thoughtful essays, the book offers insight into what we eat and why.

RC Steadman, “Cashew Nuts” (1916)

An Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits and Nuts: The United States Department of Agriculture’s Pomological Watercolor Collection (Editions Workshop) is now available on Bookstore.

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