The Benjamin Franklin Diet

“A Full Belly is the Mother of all Evil,” Benjamin Franklin counselled the readers of his 1743 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack. For some mysterious reason this aphorism hasn’t had the sticking power of some of the inventor’s more famous sayings, like “he who lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas,” or “fish and visitors stink in three days.”  Most of us are more inclined to see a full belly as one of life’s blessings.

The offending epigram, however, can’t be described as an aberration. Franklin’s writings are filled with variations on this advice: “A full Belly makes a dull brain”; “The Muse starves in a Cook’s shop”; and “Three good meals a day makes bad living.” It’s no wonder that one canny writer has taken advantage of the unquenchable American appetite for both the founding fathers and diet books to publish The Benjamin Franklin Diet, a complete guide to slimming down, eighteenth-century style.


I came across Kelly Wright’s book a couple of weeks ago when prepping to lead a seminar on Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Since returning from my  Paris sabbatical in July, teaching and other university responsibilities have eaten severely into my blogging time. But the history of food and sex is never far from my mind.  And as I reread the Autobiography (assigned for my Intro to U.S. History) for the first time in over a decade, Franklin’s gastronomical ruminations really jumped out at me. My notes from reading it the previous time all focused on his pragmatism and skepticism, two qualities that resonated with my interest, at that time, in eighteenth-century ideologies. This time, my pen hit the page whenever Franklin mentioned what he had to eat.

And for all Franklin’s antipathy to a full belly, he had a lot to say on the subject of his meals. Anglo-American culture during the early 1700s, when he was a child, looked with suspicion on the pleasures of the table. Franklin recalled that in his own household “little or no Notice was ever taken of what related to the Victuals on the table, whether it was well or ill dressed, in or out of season, of good or bad flavour, preferable of inferior to this or that other thing of the kind.” This fit within the religious sensibility of the age, which stigmatized gustatory pleasures as low or impure. Franklin claimed to have thoroughly adopted this legacy of indifference, but evidence to the contrary abounds.

At age sixteen, Franklin recalled, he encountered the vegetarian writings of the seventeenth-century reformer Thomas Tryon and made the unusual decision to adopt the diet for himself. This experiment, although not long-lived, persuaded him of the advantages of temperate eating and drinking. Not only did they produce clear-headedness, they saved a lot of money, a particularly attractive proposition to the young runaway trying to make it on his own. In fact, it was during his precipitate escape from bondage to his older brother in Boston, while on board a south-bound ship, that Franklin abandoned strict vegetarianism to indulge in a catch of cod. As he confessed, “I had formerly been a great Lover of fish, & when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smeled admirably well.” Reasoning that fish ate other fish, and thus why shouldn’t he, the runaway succumbed to temptation and “din’d upon Cod very heartily.” Hardly evidence of indifference.

The most famous portraits of Franklin, from his years in France, offer further evidence that his belly frequently got the better of his brain. Not even a hero worshipper could call the man thin. In his most famous portrait, by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, hanging in the Smithsonian, a second chin falls heavy below his jaw line, his belly strains against the buttons of his sumptuous waistcoat, and his arms bear a resemblance to fattened sausages.

Benjamin Franklin

Lest one come away with the impression that Franklin was a terrible moral hypocrite (the reaction of all my undergraduates, for what it’s worth), there are passages in his writing that treat the pleasures of the table more positively. “Fools makes Feasts and Wise Men eat them” (Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1745) suggests that frugality, more than anything, motivated Franklin’s temperance. During his embassy in Paris, when Franklin sought to win France over to the American cause, he ate out six nights a week. And without a doubt he enjoyed many of the nice things he was served, such as îles flottantes (floating islands of meringue in a crème anglaise), champagne, patisseries, and fromage.

A proud American, Franklin sought to introduce his French friends to some of the glories of his native cuisine as well. He insisted that American corn flour could make a bread sweeter than one made with wheat alone (several of his philosophe friends were engaged in pursuit of a more nutritious bread recipe to improve the condition of the peasantry, who derived the majority of their calories from the staff of life). Later, after Franklin’s return to Philadelphia, he sent his French friends shipments of Pennsylvania hams – remarkable for the sweetness of their fat, which he attributed to the pigs’ subsisting on, you guessed it, corn.

If you want to try Benjamin Franklin’s recipe for corn bread you can find it in the appendix to Gilbert Chinard’s wonderful 1958 essay “Benjamin Franklin on the Art of Eating.” This little pamphlet, printed by the American Philosophical Society, contains a number of recipes found among Franklin’s papers, few of which could be described as dietetic, the maize bread aside. Franklin’s recipe for roasted pig – a rarity in an age of boiled meats! – pays great attention to producing a delicious crackling (a word I can’t type without salivating). His oyster sauce is heavy on the cream. And his puff pastry calls for about a pound of butter. Nuff said.

Benjamin Franklin on the Art of Eating

Well almost enough said. Franklin suggests using the puff pastry to make an apple-pudding. I’ve come across this recipe just in time! Saturday we’re invited to a yearly “apple fest” thrown by local friends, who in true colonial style set all their guests to work cranking several tons (no joke) of apples through their old-fashioned wooden mechanical press. It’s a chore, but everyone gets to walk away from the party at day’s end with several gallons of fresh cider, which le rosbif has used in the past to make homemade hard cider, like a good Somerset boy. One more attraction: each year the guests compete in an apple pie contest. Some people (ahem, le rosbif) take this contest very seriously. Knowing myself without a chance at winning the prize, I am going to follow Franklin’s thoroughly un-modern, and probably undigestible, approach. Make puff paste, roll it out half an inch thick, wrap it around pared and cored apples, close it up, wrap it in a cloth and boil it for 2-4 hours. (Like I said, they loved boiling in the eighteenth century). Turn it out onto a dish, remove the top part of the crust, pour in some butter and sugar, then put the crust back, and serve hot. Will do! And I promise to post pictures after the weekend.

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

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