The average American had never tasted a blueberry until the 1920s, and it was a woman who brought it to their palates. In 1910, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a report investigating the commercial potential of a small, edible, wild berry native to certain areas of the country. The report caught the attention of New Jersey cranberry farmer Elizabeth Coleman White, who soon began selectively cultivating what she called “swamp huckleberries.” After 10 years of experimental propagation, she’d produced the smooth, sweet fruit we now know, and spawned today’s $4.5 billion global blueberry market.
This is just one of the origin stories in An Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits & Nuts: The US Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection (Atelier Éditions, 2021). The book’s main attraction is its hundreds of lusciously detailed, full-color illustrations: the reader can almost taste and smell the bright, juicy fruits and nuts across its pages. But the catalogue’s accompanying texts by Adam Leith Goliner, Jaqueline Landey, John McPhee, and Michael Pollan about each fruit’s history and makeup — which encompass elements of archaeology, anthropology, botany, and the arts — are unexpectedly illuminating, and nearly as delightful.
Between 1886 and 1942, before the widespread use of photography took hold of the sciences, the USDA gathered a team of professional watercolorists — including several women — who meticulously documented the varieties of fruits and nuts emerging in farms and orchards like White’s around the US. They also recorded the avocados, kiwis, and other exotic fruits and nuts collected by the USDA’s quasi-colonial plant explorers, who roamed the globe in search of profitable foreign fruits to take back to the US. They are remembered in the book’s illustrations of tropical fruits, many of which remain unfamiliar to Americans (myself included) despite today’s increasingly international travel and food trends. In all, the catalogue piques curiosity as much as the senses. With its sumptuous imagery and thoughtful essays, the book offers insights into what we eat and why.