Friday, March 4, 2022

Plants to Food - Proud Colonial writes & fights about Food from America's Gardens & Fields

Benjamin Franklin by David Martin (1736-1798)

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) began writing about the food being produced in the gardens & fields of colonial British America in his early 30s.

Ginseng

"We have the Pleasure of acquainting the World, that the famous Chinese or Tartarian Plant, called Gin seng, is now discovered in this Province, near Sasquehannah:  From whence several whole Plants with a Quantity of the Root, have been lately sent to Town, & it appears to agree most exactly with the Description given of it in Chamber’s Dictionary, & Pere du Halde’s Account of China.  The Virtues ascrib’d to this Plant are wonderful.” (Described in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1738.)

Franklin was outraged by the negative English opinions concerning American food that he encountered during his long stay in London from 1757-17.  He took a patriotic pride in using “our own Produce at home” rather than being dependent on foreign imports.  

He published a long treatise as “Homespun” extolling the virtues of American cooking & foodstuffs: “Pray let me, an American, inform the gentleman, who seems ignorant of the matter, that Indian corn, take it for all in all, is one of the most agreeable & wholesome grains in the world; that its green leaves roasted are a delicacy beyond expression; that samp, hominy, succotash, & nokehock, made of it, are so many pleasing varieties; & that johny or hoecake, hot from the fire, is better than a Yorkshire muffin – But if Indian corn were so disagreeable & indigestible as the Stamp Act, does he imagine that we can get nothing else for breakfast? – 

Did he never hear that we have oatmeal in plenty, for water gruel or burgoo; as good wheat, rye & barley as the world affords, to make frumenty; or toast & ale; that there is every where plenty of milk, butter, & cheese; that rice is one of our staple commodities; that for tea, we have sage & bawm in our gardens, the young leaves of the sweet hickery or walnut, & above all, the buds of our pine, infinitely preferably to any tea from the Indies … Let the gentleman do us the honor of a visit in America, & I will engage to breakfast him every day in the month with a fresh variety.” (January 2nd, 1766, Benjamin Franklin)

Rice

“Rice is known to be one of the best Sorts of Food we have.  Some whole Provinces & even Kingdoms are nourished by it …” (B. Franklin, Poor Richard Improved, 1765)

Honey

“We have an Infinity of Flowers, from which, by the voluntary Labour of Bees, Honey is extracted, for our Advantage. … Bread & Honey is pleasant & wholesome Eating. ‘Tis a Sweet that does not hurt the Teeth.  How many fine Setts might be saved; & what an infinite Quantity of Tooth Ach avoided!" (B. Franklin, Poor Richard Improved, 1765)

Maple Syrup

“And from the Sugar Maple great Quantities may be made.  In the frontiers of Connecticut they are now much in the Practices of it.  A Friend, who has lately traveled in that Way, assures me, that … they make more than they can consume, & sell it at Eight Dollars & One Third per Hundred Weight” (B. Franklin, Poor Richard Improved, 1765)

Maize

“the Ears boil’d in their Leaves, & eaten with Butter are also good & agreeable Food.  The green tender Grains dried, may be kept all the Year, & mix’d with green Haricots also dried, make at any time a pleasing Dish.  … Ground into a finer Meal, they make of it by Boiling a Hasty pudding or Bouilli, to be eaten with Milk, or with Butter & Sugar; this resembles what the Indians call Polenta.” (B. Franklin, On Mayz, ca. April 1785, unpublished)

Franklin also introduced some British & European foods to the British American colonies. 

Rhubarb

Franklin sent seeds to John Bartram in the US in 1772 after seeing plants in Scotland. Bartram wrote Franklin that he had planted some seeds in a bright sunny place, others in the shade, & surprisingly it was the latter that produced.  Franklin had earlier sent a case of rhubarb root to Bartram (1770), with instructions on its use as a medicine.

Scotch Kale

“I send you also … some Seed of the Scotch Cabbage.” (Franklin, in London, to David Colden, New York, March 5, 1773)

The Mount Vernon Digital Encyclopedia published a great review of Franklin's life in London.  It probably does not belong in a blog about Early American gardens & plants and about the food & medicines that those gardens produced; but I am going to include part of it here. It was written by George Goodwin, Author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father (Yale University Press 2016).  An American patriot Franklin was a fiercely loyal British citizen for most of his life - until forces he had sought & failed to control finally made him a reluctant revolutionary at the age of 69. 

Franklin lived in a "small merchant’s house, near the River Thames & not far from the Houses of Parliament,... between 1757 & 1775...was at the very centre of Franklin’s domestic life from the 1st week he arrived in London in 1757 to the day he left in March 1775. 

In that time, Franklin boarded with widowed landlady, Margaret Stevenson, & was like a father to her daughter Polly. They rapidly became his 2nd family, with their home becoming his own household & with Mrs Stevenson managing it for him.  

Franklin had 1st visited London as a teenage printer in the mid-1720s & stayed for 18 months. He returned in 1757...to Britain as the representative of the Assembly of Pennsylvania, but his prestige was founded on something else entirely. Franklin was a famous scientist in the Atlantic World, a Fellow of the Royal Society & friends with many of the leading intellectuals of the day, including Joseph Priestley, David Hume, & Erasmus Darwin.1  Moreover, his groundbreaking electrical experiments gave him greater political access at a time when the dominant British aristocracy, men & women, were gripped by a scientific craze...

In 1757 Franklin’s ostensible role was to persuade the absentee Proprietors of Pennsylvania, the sons of William Penn, to provide funds to the colonial Assembly on a permanent basis, rather than to govern the colony through discretionary grants. This proved impossible, & by 1760 Franklin was convinced that the only solution was for the Proprietors to lose power & for Pennsylvania to become a British Royal colony...”2  

It was after 1763, when the extent & expense of Britain’s military triumph in the Seven Years’ War had begun to destabilize the relationship between Britain & its colonies, that Franklin’s optimism began to come under pressure. Prime Minister George Grenville believed that the Americans themselves should contribute to the cost of the ongoing presence of the British Army on American soil, around £40,000 per year...Grenville...approved a Stamp Act in 1765.  

The Stamp Act caused uproar in the colonies. The imposition of an internal tax by the British government was unconstitutional according to the colonies’ charters. There was mass protest & outraged citizens burned the houses of stamp collectors...when a new government under Prime Minister Rockingham established a committee of the whole House of Commons to consider repeal of the Act. Franklin was the committee’s star witness & the act was duly repealed.3

...Yet Franklin was now also troubled by fears for the future relationship of Britain & America. Just a year after the repeal of the Stamp Act, Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, sparked further uproar in the colonies by introducing duties on glass, paint, paper & tea. By February 1769, Franklin was already writing “Things daily wear a worse Aspect, & tend more to a breach & final separation.”4

...The British government’s denunciation of Franklin before the Privy Council, in the wake of the Boston Tea Party...made Franklin take a ship for America – shortly before a warrant was issued for his arrest. It was only then that Franklin became an enemy to Britain & one of the fiercest American patriots of all."  

Notes

1. In 1753 the Royal Society awarded Franklin the Copley Medal, the 18th century equivalent of the Nobel Prize. 

2. Benjamin Franklin to William Shirley, December 22, 1754, in Leonard W. Labree, et. al., eds, Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 5 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 450-451. 

3.  "Examination before the Committee of the Whole House of Commons," February 13, 1766, Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 13, 129-159.

4. Benjamin Franklin to Lord Kames, February 21, 1769, Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol 16, 48.