“A Full Belly is the Mother of all Evil,” Benjamin Franklin counseled the readers 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.” 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.
Franklin’s antipathy to a full belly reflected his Puritan upbringing, which stigmatized gustatory pleasures as low or impure. When he was growing up, he recalled in his Autobiography, “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.” Franklin claimed to have thoroughly adopted this legacy of indifference to food, but there is good evidence to the contrary. He abandoned an early commitment to vegetarianism when, on board the ship that carried him away from bondage to his brother in Boston, he succumbed to the temptation 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 pragmatic Franklin “din’d upon Cod very heartily.” The famous portrait of Franklin by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, painted decades later in France, suggests that he gained no better control of his appetites as he matured. Not even a hero worshipper could call the man thin. 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.
Not a total hypocrite, Franklin did include passages in his writing that treat the pleasures of the table more positively. Poor Richard’s advice that “Fools makes Feasts and Wise Men eat them” suggests that frugality, more than distaste, motivated Franklin’s advice be temperate. 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 and champagne.
A proud American, Franklin also sought to introduce his French friends to some of the glories of his native cuisine. He insisted that American corn flour could make a sweeter bread than wheat alone (several of the philosophes 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 his return to Philadelphia, Franklin sent his friends shipments of Pennsylvania hams – remarkable for the sweetness of their fat, which he attributed to the pigs’ subsisting on 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. Franklin’s recipe for roasted pig pays great attention to producing a delicious crackling. His oyster sauce is heavy on the cream. And his puff pastry, recommended for encasing his apple pudding, calls for a pound of butter. Franklin’s apple pudding makes a tempting proposition for a food historian on the eve of Thanksgiving, especially since, like many eighteenth-century recipes, Franklin’s terse instructions offer just enough detail to inspire certainty that the end result would be inedible by twentieth-century standards. What better reason could there be to break out the mixing bowl!
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To make an apple pudding.
Make a good puff-paste, roll it out half an inch thick, pare your apples, and core them, enough to fill the crust, and close it up, tie it in a cloth and boil it. If a small pudding, two hours: if a large one three or four hours. When it is enough turn it into your dish, cut a piece of the crust out of the top, butter and sugar it to your palate; lay on the crust again, and send it to table hot.
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The sense of the unfamiliar has always been what compels me about history, it gives me the feeling of discovery and assures me that I am not just finding my own reflection in the sources. I, for example, do not bring a love of boiling to my reading of dessert recipes. Baking I expect – hours of boiling, not so much. I boil few foods, and those only briefly. I boil pasta 7 to 12 minutes, always anxious to drain the pot while the noodles are still al dente. Sometimes I boil green beans, but just for a couple minutes and often I steam them instead. I boil eggs, but I like the yolks soft so I don’t leave them in for more than six minutes. I never boil dessert pastries. But Benjamin Franklin told me to, so for the sake of historical knowledge I threw all my cooking know-how to the wind and set out to slavishly follow his orders.
Difficulties confronted me long before I arrived at the boiling. To begin, Franklin directed that I make a puff pastry, mixing four pints, or a quarter of a peck, of flour with half a pound of butter. How much did eighteenth-century dry pints weigh? And did they weigh the same in the colonies as they did in England? Today the imperial wet pint is four ounces more than the American wet pint (20 oz vs. 16 oz). One thing is for certain, whatever the exact weight of an eighteenth-century dry pint might be, four of them is a whopping amount. I made the executive decision to weight a pint at 16 oz and cut the recipe in half so that I didn’t completely empty our flour bin. Halving the butter as well, I ended up with a very dry mix:
The next direction was to add cold water until a stiff dough formed. Having spent the past twenty-five years of baking trying to add as little water to my pie dough as possible to prevent it turning tough, I needed to tamp down all my better instincts to pour in the cup and a half of cold water that my dry mix required to come together.
The brick of paste that resulted was so hard that it had to be beat into submission to follow the next directions, which called for the dough to be rolled out, buttered, rolled up, rolled out, and buttered again, nine to ten successive times until another half pound of butter had been added.
After an hour of buttering and rolling, I was left with a lovely, pliable, yellow dough, which I rolled out “half a thumb’s thickness” and set on a cheese cloth.
Franklin’s recipe calls next for chopped cored apples to be placed on the dough. No seasoning is done at this stage: no spices added to the apples, no sugar, no butter, no lemon. Just apples. How big? How many? Over how much of the dough? It doesn’t say.
Nor did the recipe explain how to seal the dough. I went for crimping and ended up with something that looked like a giant Cornish pasty.
At least until I wrapped it up in pastry and began the boiling, whence it commenced to look more like a brain. It was hard to commit willful destruction of this beautiful pasty, rather than pop the parcel into a hot oven where it might grow golden and crisp. What was the purpose of building up 10 layers of lamination only to melt out all the butter in a bubbling pot? Again, Franklin was mute.
The cooking instructions said to boil the pudding from two to four hours depending on its size. Unsure of the standard of measurement, I decided on three hours. There were no further cooking directions and perhaps I should have just let it be, but worried that the pudding wasn’t getting cooked on the top, which bounced above the bubbling water, I flipped the package each hour. Perhaps if I hadn’t, the pudding would have developed more of a crust.
For the final step, Franklin directs that the top of the pudding be removed, sugar and butter be mixed in with the apples, then the top replaced and the whole served immediately. When I cut away the muslin and lifted the soggy lid I found that the apples inside had reduced to a beautiful sauce within the boiled pastry casing. I added some chopped butter and brown sugar, then closed the pudding back up and let the flavors meld. I can’t say the result would win first prize in a pie contest, it wouldn’t even win honorable mention. But I can report that the mess tasted quite nice in a bland, comforting, soft, sort of way. Not a bad match for turkey at all.
Featured image: “The First Thanksgiving,” Jean Leone Gerome Ferris (c. 1912). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.