Roy E. Goodman
Curator of Printed Material, American Philosophical Society
Roy E. Goodman has a B.A. from Pennsylvania State University an M.S. in Library and Information Services from Drexel University and an M.A. in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania. He was a reference librarian at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia for 20 years before becoming Curator of Printed Material at the Society in 1992. He is widely published in scholarly journals and has written and lectured extensively on Benjamin Franklin’s legacy.
Many of Ben Franklin’s writings had to do with food and agriculture. In his autobiography, Franklin recounts his father’s disinterest in culinary habits and how as a child, meals consisted of discourse with friends and neighbors about “what was good, just and prudent in the Conduct of Life…” So little attention was paid to culinary matters that in adulthood, Franklin said he could scarcely tell what he had dined upon “a few Hours after Dinner.”
Yet Franklin developed an interest in food and nutrition. At the age of 16, he adopted vegetarianism after reading Thomas Tryon’s book, The Way to Health, Long Life and Happiness, or a Discourse on Temperance. Franklin expanded his diet to include fish after a voyage from Boston to Philadelphia during which he saw larger fish eating smaller fish. “If you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you,” he reasoned.
Franklin had access to several books on food and health and regularly promoted his views on diet in the pages of Poor Richard’s Almanac which, with a circulation of 10,000, provided health information to a readership which had little other access to it. Poor Richard’s contained numerous references to health and diet including “Rules of Health and Long Life…” and “Rules to find out a fit measure of meat and drink”. Pronouncements on eating recommended that one “eat to live and not live to eat.” Franklin was keenly interested in experiments regarding diet. In his early days as a journeyman printer he is said to have lived for a fortnight on bread and water.
Franklin’s botanical and agricultural interests were nurtured by a host of collectors and scientists — particularly John Bartram, the Royal Botanist in America. In 1743, Franklin and Bartram founded the American Philosophical Society for “Promoting useful knowledge among the British Plantations in America.” Franklin is credited with the introduction to America of Scotch kale, kohlrabi and Swiss barley.
John Ellis, a member of the Royal Society, submitted seeds for Franklin to distribute to gardeners in America. Among the plants recommended for cultivation were olives, pistachios, carob, soybeans, almonds, figs, capers, mangos and lychees as well as a number of spices. Ellis promoted coffee, a subject in which Franklin took great interest. American plants were also introduced abroad, including the Newtown Pippin, an apple that grew popular in Europe. The merits of corn in the diet were brought to the attention of the French through Franklin’s correspondence with Antoine Alexis Cadet de Vaux. Concerning the merits of bread, Franklin designed a special stove at Cadet’s request and sent him bread baked on it. Tofu captured Franklin’s attention around 1770 when he encountered a Jesuit missionary to China who described its texture, composition and the process for making it.
Franklin believed that agriculture is the chief source of wealth, writing that “Agriculture is truly productive of new wealth; manufacturers only change forms and whatever value they give to the materials they work upon, they in the meantime consume an equal value in provisions.” In 1789, at age 83, he wrote to Catharine Ray Greene that he was pleased that his young friend Ray was “smart in the Farming way” and went on to say that “I think Agriculture the most honourable of all the employments, as being the most Independent. The Farmer has no need of popular Favour, nor the Favour of the Great. The Success of his Crops depending only on the Blessing of God upon his honest Industry.”
In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.