Benjamin Franklin. Entrepreneur, Statesman, Inventor, Historical Figure, and Foodie!
"An apple a day keeps the doctor away"
- Benjamin Franklin
Yes, this great figure in US History was a devoted food and wine lover.
Joseph-Siffrède Duplessis (French, 1725-1802) | The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Ben Franklin was born in the British colony of Boston, Massachusetts, on January 17, 1706. Even at a very young age, he was a brilliant and enterprising boy. After a tragic drowning of a family that lived in the first lighthouse in Boston, Ben (age 12) wrote a ballad about the events called ' The Lighthouse Tragedy.' He had the song printed on handbills and sold on the streets of Boston, to much success. This was an early glimpse of the man who would own a newspaper, invent bifocal glasses, swim fins, and the Franklin stove, and sail a kite through a thunderstorm to confirm that lightning was a form of electricity. Not to mention being one of the founding fathers of the United States. I could go on and on about the marks he left in history. However, I am a food history blogger, so that I will focus on his contributions to food. And there were many.
At 16, Ben read a book from Tyron that recommended a vegetable diet. At that time, he committed to becoming a vegetarian. However, Ben would prep and cook his meals, which often consisted of potatoes, bread, rice, and hasty pudding. Ben ate so many potatoes that his influence made the vegetable mainstream. Unfortunately, the French deemed this root veggie poisonous (which is ironic, considering that we now call fried potatoes in the US French fries). This prompted him to become an advocate for all foods from the colonies, and he often wrote of the New World’s fantastic edible offerings, which included the quintessential New England classics like cranberries and maple syrup. Ben enjoyed cranberries so much that he would often have his wife, Deborah, ship boxes of the berries to him when he traveled throughout England and France. He sent her a note after one such shipment in 1770, "thanks for the cranberrys. I am as ever Your affectionate Husband B Franklin". Though he would give up being a vegetarian a few years after a boat trip from Boston to Philadelphia, fish was the culprit. He continued to look for non-meat-like alternatives for the rest of his life, and he shared the world foods with Americans.
Parmesan cheese (1769) was a favorite of the statesman. He enjoyed the flavor so much that he would spend the next four years writing to a parmesan cheese maker in Italy to persuade him to provide Ben with directions on making this aged cheese. The cheese caught on very quickly in the colonies. In 1789, Frederick Nutt penned the cookbook ' The Complete Confectioner,' which has a cheese recipe and another equally popular new food, ice cream. Yes, parmesan ice cream was the desired dessert.
Tofu. January 1, 1770. Most claims state that good ol’ Ben was responsible for introducing tofu to the colonies, which he described as a cheese from China called 'Tau-fu.' Franklin sent botanist and the well-respected horticulturist John Bartrum (Philadelphia) soybeans seeds and a letter stating, "I have since learned that some runnings of salt are put into water, when the meal is in it, to turn it to curds. [...] These ... are what the Tau-fu is made of." Bartrum established America's first botanical garden (Philadelphia, PA)
Rhubarb. January 11, 1770. For medicinal purposes, Franklin again penned a note to Bartram and a case of rhubarb root from Scotland. Two years later, Franklin sent Bartram "some of the true rhubarb seed" from London, which Bartram successfully planted in Pennsylvania.
Ginseng. 1738. “We have the Pleasure of acquainting the World that the famous Chinese or Tartarian Plant, called Gin seng, is now discovered in this Province, near Sasquehannah: From whence several whole Plants with a Quantity of the Root, have been lately sent to Town, and it appears to agree almost exactly with the description given of it in Chamber’s Dictionary, and Pere du Halde’s Account of China. The Virtues ascrib’d to this Plant are wonderful.” (Described in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1738.)
Scotch kale - “I send you also … some Seed of the Scotch Cabbage.” (Franklin, in London, to David Colden, New York, March 5, 1773)
When he did eat meat, he enjoyed turkey, so much so that he pushed for this to be the symbol of the United States. Second president Thomas Jefferson overruled him and named the Bald Eagle the national symbol. Ben was so upset about the selection that he used his publication 'The Poor Richard's Almanac' to get out a dig to Jefferson. Ben penned the nickname of the turkey as "Tom Turkey" as a reference to Jefferson. This remains a commonly used nickname in the United States when describing live turkeys. On December 23, 1750, long before the national symbol discussion took place, Ben attempted to electrocute a holiday turkey believing it would make the meat more tender. Instead, he shocked himself. He wrote,” I have lately made an Experiment in Electricity that I desire never to repeat. Two nights ago being about to kill a Turkey by the Shock from two large Glass Jarrs containing as much electrical fire as forty common Phials, I inadvertently took the whole thro' my own Arms and Body.” In hind site, it is a wonder that he continued to support the turkey, but you must appreciate that he stuck to his convictions.
Over the years, Ben would not shy away from endlessly recommending moderation in eating: “Be temperate in Wine, in eating, Girls, and Sloth, or the Gout will seize you and plague you both” (Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1734). Though interesting, it would be Ben who never stopped eating his favorite foods and drinking copious amounts of wine with minimal exercise, all while knowing it would directly cause him pain. Gout would trouble Ben throughout much of his life, starting in 1750, but in pure Ben style, he wrote a humorous little story in 1780 titled Dialogue Between Franklin and the Gout.
FRANKLIN: Eh! oh! eh! What have I done to merit these cruel sufferings? THE GOUT: Many things; you have ate and drank too freely, and too much indulged those legs of yours in their indolence. FRANKLIN: Who is it that accuses me? THE GOUT: It is I, even I, the Gout. FRANKLIN: What! my enemy in person? THE GOUT: [. . .] While the mornings are long, and you have leisure to go abroad, what do you do? Why, instead of gaining an appetite for breakfast, by salutary exercise, you amuse yourself with books, pamphlets, or newspapers, which commonly are not worth the reading. Yet you eat an inordinate breakfast, four dishes of tea, with cream, and one or two buttered toasts, with slices of hung beef, which I fancy are not things the most easily digested. Immediately afterwards you sit down to write at your desk, or converse with persons who apply to you on business. Thus the time passes till one, without any kind of bodily exercise.
I was inspired by Ben's love of potatoes, cranberries, and maple syrup when creating this recipe. I may have also selected cranberries because they can fight off gout. Enjoy.