Benjamin Franklin: An Original Locavore

How does today’s food knowledge stack up to that of the colonists? Our Table host Sheril Kirshenbaum explains.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin really loved food.

He advocated in favor of American produce as a way to limit foreign imports to the colonies.

Taking things a step further, he instructed his wife, Deborah, to ship barrels of apples and cranberries all the way from home to him in Europe — no small task in the 1700s.

For Franklin, food was inherently tied to patriotism and upon encountering negative opinions of the colonial cuisine in London, he took the time to compose a long treatise extolling the virtues of New World food.

In my favorite line of the treatise, he praises Indian corn as “one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world…a delicacy beyond expression.”

His influence on international palates extended to France, where he helped to popularize potatoes – a potential solution to farming challenges – by inspiring a banquet at Les Invalides where tubers were served in every dish – dessert included.

It worked so well that years later, the French extolled potatoes as a “revolutionary food.” While we celebrate Benjamin Franklin as a diplomat, inventor, scientist, musician and political theorist, he should also be recognized as America’s Founding Foodie.

Franklin did his best to understand food during his lifetime, but it was difficult to find reliable information about what to eat. He was keenly interested in where food came from, how it was prepared and the ways it could influence his health.

He tried various diets, becoming a vegetarian for extended periods after reading as a teenager that this “promoted clearness of ideas and quickness of thought.” He also wrote down recipes in detail while offering advice such as “Squeamish stomachs cannot eat without pickles.”

Lacking the Internet and modern medicine to guide them, colonists relied on word of mouth and cultural norms to dictate dietary preferences and habits.

Centuries later, we can sort through endless information about our food online. Cooking shows and competitions abound, and new tools and technologies provide opportunities to explore ingredients in ways even Franklin could not have imagined.

A proliferation of news sources provides ongoing commentary on what we should eat and how we prepare it.

Despite all of this, our 21st century understanding of food may not be much better than American colonists – we are arguably more confused than ever.

Advertisements and books bombard us with so many conflicting recommendations, misinformation and pseudoscience that it’s difficult to figure out whom to trust and where to find clear and accurate guidelines about how to eat.

Diets blink in and out of fashion as our waistlines shrink and more often, expand to accommodate them. In 2017, the American landscape is saturated with information, but it often lacks substance and credibility.

The media alternatively celebrates and demonizes food staples such as butter, coffee and chocolate, flipping fast enough to give anyone paying attention whiplash.

Celebrities regularly tout purported health benefits of sponsored products and eating plans, and our friends have become multi-level marketers on Facebook and Instagram, selling miracle shakes and supplements that claim to boost health and performance.

And then there are labels. So many labels. From breakfast cereal to baby formula, labels tell us if a product is organic, artificially flavored, fair-trade, locally-sourced, free-range, genetically modified, farm-to-table, whole grain or gluten-free.

Meanwhile the list of ingredients frequently reads more like a high school chemistry assignment than something we might recognize on a farm.

On top of that, some of these terms have inconsistent meanings so it’s nearly impossible to parse what we need to know from the noise. By the time a consumer gets to the small print about allergens, he’s exhausted before he even opens the container.

That’s all prior to considering what’s best for our planet.

As the global population continues to soar toward 9 billion by 2050, how will we increase food production to meet demand while decreasing the need for water and fertilizer in the face of a changing world? And with domestic energy challenges in mind, can we cut back on food waste? (We never consume nearly half of the food produced in the United States.)

Identifying solutions feels like a lot to swallow. But back to Benjamin Franklin. This connoisseur of fine cuisine and internationally recognized problem solver once wrote, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

In the case of what we eat, that means working to improve food literacy so each of us will be able to make more informed decisions.

With that in mind, Michigan State University will bring all voices – scientists, farmers, industry experts, chefs and laypeople – to the same table to foster dialogue and mutual understanding.

As Franklin smartly recommended, by investing in shared knowledge – we will be able to promote a real conversation in the best interest of everyone.


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