Skip to content

Benjamin Franklin on Food

A few months ago I finished reading Benjamin Franklin: An American LifeWalter Isaacson’s biography of ‘the most fascinating of America’s founders’. Given that I knew next to nothing about the man, other than of his legendary kite experiment and his invention of bifocals – ‘Double Spectacles’, as he called them – the account of his life, achievements, and character completely won me over.

An engraved depiction of Franklin’s kite experiment from an 1881 textbook. Located via Wikimedia Commons. The featured image for this article is a portrait of Franklin by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, painted around 1785; image uploaded by Flickr user Cliff.

As Isaacson shows, he also took a keen interest in food. Despite his autobiographical claim that a ‘perfect inattention’ to ‘victuals on the table’ was fostered in him from childhood, food certainly does not go unnoticed in his personal writings, which contain a variety of recipes. Several are translated into French, likely from his time as a representative for American freedom in France during his seventies. Enough were found to prompt the 1958 publication of Gilbert Chinard’s Benjamin Franklin on the Art of Eating, which goes into more detail on the subject. It finds that Franklin adapted recipes from Hannah Glasse’s bestselling cookbook, The Art of Cookery, made Plain and EasyConsider the following:

Oyster Sauce for Boiled Turkey

Take one Pint of oysters draw out the Liquor which you will set apart, put them in cold water, wash and clean them well, put them in an earthen dish with their Liquor, in which you will put a shred of Nutmeg with a little butter strewed with flour and a quarter of a Lemon; boil them, then, put in a half Pint of Cream and boil slowly, all together; this done take out the Lemon, the Nutmeg, squeeze the Juice of a Lemon in the Sauce, then serve it in a Sauceboat.

From Benjamin Franklin on the Art of Eating, edited by Gilbert Chinard (1958). As featured in Gary Scharnhorst’s Literary Eats (2014).

Take a look at Glasse’s original recipe, which also calls for a celery sauce accompaniment.

The title page and frontispiece in a copy of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, made Plain and Easy, published around 1777. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Cream, butter, and nutmeg: rather indulgent. For all his insistence on frugality, Franklin relished a good meal – or several, as was the case when in France. Living on the estate of the wealthy merchant Jacques-Donatien Leray de Chaumont, he enjoyed seven-course dinners and amassed a collection of wine containing over a thousand bottles. Such a lifestyle, accompanied by a lack of exercise, was not without its consequences: Franklin ended up suffering from gout. This prompted him to write a dialogue in which his personified malady scolded him for his ways, of which an excerpt:

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.

Benjamin Franklin, ‘Dialogue Between Franklin and the Gout’ (1780).

All this seems quite ironic when compared to the moderation Franklin called for in his youth. Take, for example, his advice in the 1734 edition of his renowned publication, Poor Richard’s Almanack: ‘Be temperate in wine, in eating, girls, & sloth; / Or the Gout will seize you and plague you both.’

‘Dialogue Between Franklin and the Gout’, as published in an 1819 collection by Franklin’s grandson, William Temple Franklin. From the Wellcome Library, London.

Around the age of 16, Franklin came across Thomas Tryon’s The Way to Health, first published in 1683, which sang the virtues of ‘a vegetable diet’. He was inspired to take up this form of vegetarianism, living off the likes of raisins and biscuits, boiled potatoes, and rice. No longer spending money on meat, he had ‘an additional fund for buying books’ and furthered his studies, feeling that his regime gave him ‘greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension’. He eventually changed his mind on a boat trip from Boston to New York; tempted by the smell of freshly-caught cod being rustled up the crew, Franklin caved in! His retelling of the incident paints it as a triumph of rational thinking:

‘Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion I consider’d, with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc’d some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, “If you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.” So I din’d upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.’

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

A draft page from Franklin’s Autobiography. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Later in his life, Franklin became an advocate for American foods. During the growing tension with Great Britain in the 1760s, he wrote in support of local produce:

‘[…] we have oatmeal in plenty, for water gruel or burgoo; as good wheat, rye, and barley as the world affords, to make frumenty; or toast and ale; that there is every where plenty of milk, butter, and cheese; that rice is one of our staple commodities; that for tea, we have sage and bawm in our gardens, the young leaves of the sweet white hickery or walnut, and, above all, the buds of our pine, infinitely preferable to any tea from the Indies; while the islands yield us plenty of coffee and chocolate […]’

Benjamin Franklin, ‘“Homespun”: Second Reply to “Vindex Patriae”’ (2 January, 1766).

A marble bust of Benjamin Franklin, made in 1778 by Jean-Antoine Houdon, now held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

He also kept an eye out for new gastronomical delights, sending seeds of rhubarb and scotch kale to correspondents back home. Most interestingly, one of his letters refers to tofu, which he learnt of in the work of 18th century missionary to China, Domingo Fernandez Navarrete. Franklin sent a sample of soybeans to American botanist John Bartram with ‘Father Navaretta’s account of the universal use of a cheese made of them, in China, which so excited my curiosity’. Prior to doing so, he got in touch with British merchant James Flint, who specialized in Chinese trade, to find out how it was made. Flint’s description of ‘the method the Chinese convert Callivances into Towfu’ may well be the earliest record of the word in English, though this has not been formally recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary as of yet. Franklin’s letter to Bartram spells it as Tau-fu.

‘I send, also, some green dry Pease, highly esteemed here as the best for making pease soup; and also some Chinese Garavances, with Father Navaretta’s account of the universal use of a cheese made of them…’ – from Franklin’s letter to John Bartram. Photo of tofu and peas by Flickr user Luca Nebuloni.

Whether experimenting with vegetarianism, arguing for American produce, or partying in France, Benjamin Franklin maintained a lifelong fascination with what he ate. While often sticking to his frugal practices, he was not one to miss out on the pleasures associated with eating – truly a ‘Founding Foodie’, as many have rightly termed him.