Benjamin Franklin – A Founding Foodie

Cropped portrait of Benjamin Franklin by artist David Martin, 1767

On this day in history– January 17, 1706– Benjamin Franklin was born. An American founding father, Franklin helped draft the Declaration of Independence and signed the Constitution of the United States. He was a noted printer, political theorist, musician, inventor, satirist, scientist and diplomat. He invented the lightning rod and bifocals, as well as many other useful gadgets.

And as if that weren’t enough, Benjamin Franklin was one of the original food lovers of America– a “Founding Foodie,” if you will.

As a young adult, Franklin lived as a vegetarian, surviving on a diet of mostly biscuits and raisins. The lifestyle started out of a need to save money (meat was expensive), but evolved into a value system. He began eating meat again while sailing on a ship from Boston to New York. The crew was cooking cod, and the smell of it made Franklin very hungry. He began to question his dedication to vegetarianism. He later wrote about the experience:

“I balanced some time between principal and inclination, until I recollected that when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish being taken out of their stomachs. Then, I thought, ‘If you eat one another, I don’t see why we may not eat you.’ So I dined upon cod very heartily and have since continued to eat as other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet.”

Franklin’s famous food quote, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” was advice he seemed to live by. Franklin would often ask his wife Deborah to ship him barrels of apples while he lived abroad, as evidenced in a letter to her: “Goodeys I now and then get a few; but roasting Apples seldom, I wish you had sent me some… Newton Pippins would have been the most acceptable.”

Franklin helped introduce France to potatoes as a food source. At that time, the French believed potatoes to be poisonous. Franklin took part in a campaign to help the French embrace potatoes as an alternative to wheat after wheat crop failures caused a shortage. He was the guest of honor at a party thrown by French pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, where every course of the meal featured potatoes.

In later life, Franklin supported the idea of cultivating local produce as a way of avoiding dependence on foreign food imports. He brought revolutionary political meaning to “locally sourced” foods. And yet, he appreciated the foods of other countries and cultures. On a visit to London he learned about soybeans and tofu. In 1770, he sent John Bartram some soybeans and wrote, “Father Navarrete’s account of the universal use of a cheese made of them in China, which so excited my curiosity… I have since learned that some runnings of salt (I suppose runnet) is put into water, when the meal is in it, to turn it to curds… These … are what the Tau-fu is made of.”

Franklin gained an affection for Parmesan cheese in Italy, as expressed in a 1769 letter to Bartram:

“And for one I confess that if I could find in any Italian Travels a Receipt for making Parmesan Cheese, it would give me more Satisfaction than a Transcript of any Inscription from any Stone whatever.”

Like most colonists of the time, Franklin was also a fan of wine. In a 1757 piece called “The Antediluvians Were All Very Sober,” Franklin wrote: “There can’t be good living where there is not good drinking.” He also wrote, in a 1779 letter to André Morellet, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”

Happy birthday Benjamin Franklin! We raise a glass to you tonight. Cheers!

About Tori Avey

Tori Avey acts as editor and curator of The History Kitchen, where she shares her own food history writing and seeks out creative contributors from throughout the culinary world. Tori also writes an award-winning kosher food blog, The Shiksa in the Kitchen. She explores the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Read more...
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Category: History

Comments (10)Post a Comment

  1. Ben was way ahead of his time in terms of replacing wheat in the diet. Thanks for the great post.

  2. Amy says:

    As a former History major living in the Philadelphia area, I thought I knew just about everything about ol’ Benjamin Franklin. BAM, I learned many new things here in your post…I love reading your blog, but a special thank you for combining two of my favorite topics (history & food) here!

  3. Lots of research goes into your posts! Great job! My dads birthday is Jan 17-can’t wait to tell him about Ben!

  4. Kim Bee says:

    I really enjoyed reading this one Tori. I always find it fascinated who was a foodie. It is such a common thread that binds us all!

  5. Amy says:

    I am your newest follower after seeing your gorgeous kitchen on thekitchn.com and being instantly enchanted :)
    What a wonderful tribute to a truly inspirational man! I guess I’ll have to read some more about him now that my history tastebuds have been tempted :)

  6. Debra says:

    I enjoyed reading that VERY much, thank you.

  7. What a great new site. I love food history and food stories :)

  8. WPB Joe says:

    nice idea, combining history & food…..

    it’s also a good possibility Ben had a little too much wine & cheese when that rainstorm started….

  9. Beth Minto says:

    Tori I love your website. Love recipes but like the sugarless ones. Americans are so much for sugar. It must date from immigration. Generations have appreciated what they had not had. Thanks from an Aussie

  10. SarahB says:

    It was also rumored that he may have been literally the father of our country. He was well known for being rather randy. He loved women of all ages, particularity the older ones because they were more grateful!

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