Ben Franklin: Patriot, Foodie

As we prepare to stuff ourselves full with corn dogs this weekend, it’s a good time to look back at an original American patriot’s food predilections

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As we prepare to do our patriotic duty and stuff ourselves with hot dogs and corn on the cob this weekend, it's a good time to look back at an original American patriot, Benjamin Franklin, and his food predilections. One of the drafters of the Declaration of Independence and a signer of the U.S. Constitution, he was also a great proponent of local American produce as a way to avoid dependence on foreign imports. Perhaps you could even call him a proto-locavore.

According to the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary Web site, the bespectacled printer, author and inventor was a fan of such native foods as cranberries, maple syrup and Indian corn, which he called "one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world."

But he was also interested in the foods of other cultures. He learned about tofu while in London, and his 1770 letter to John Bartram in Pennsylvania, accompanied by a few soybeans and a description of a "cheese" made from them in China, is the first documented mention of tofu by an American.

Franklin wished the turkey had been made the national bird, rather than the bald eagle. In a letter to his daughter he wrote, "“For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird and withal a true Native of America … He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

A few years ago there was a patriotic (or at least Francophobic) drive to rename french fries as freedom fries. If he could have looked into the future, Franklin might have been amused by the tuber-related kerfuffle. After all, in his day the French thought potatoes—fried or otherwise—were poisonous, or at the very least unpalatable, and Franklin took part in changing their minds about this New World vegetable.

Representing the newly independent United States, Franklin was a guest of honor at a dinner party thrown by the French pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, where every course was made from potatoes, as part of a campaign to promote potatoes as the answer to wheat-crop failures. A few years later, during France's own revolution, Parmentier was vindicated when potatoes were embraced as "revolutionary food."

Something to ponder as you dig into the potato salad this weekend. Happy Independence Day!

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