Gulp fiction

Food

As renaissance men go, Benjamin Franklin (1707-90) takes some beating. Statesman, scientist, printer, journalist, philanthropist, philosopher, diplomat, founding father, civic planner, self-made man and all-round rationalist god of the enlightenment - no wonder his name keeps coming up when we scrabble to choose the man of the millennium. It's scarcely credible that one human being could achieve so much.

You might expect such hefty achievement to require hearty nourishment. But - astonishingly - Franklin would have us believe he reached his greatness on bread and milk and a modicum of fruit. Which makes his achievement even more amazing. Or, rather, it would if Franklin told the truth about what he ate. The thing is, this renaissance man had still more personae at his disposal than those generally mentioned - the personae of furtive binger and weak-willed gourmand, for example. What a man. He left no contradiction unplumbed and no plate unwiped.

I first became puzzled by Franklin's eating when I read his Autobiography, a classic American rags-to-riches tale. It ostensibly tells how Franklin rose from being the youngest son of a Boston soap-maker to fame and fortune, inventing the lightning rod and signing the Declaration of Independence; but the book is oddly fixated on the hero's dietary triumphs. He is for ever boasting about youthful demonstrations of self-restraint, or occasions when the greed of others was exposed by his own modest appetite.

Growing up in Boston, "little or no notice was taken of what related to the victuals of the table, whether it was well or ill dressed, in or out of season, of good or bad flavour". The result, Franklin claims, was that he became so indifferent towards food that he would forget what he'd eaten an hour after dinner. Yet after a space of 60 years, he can still remember the "vegetable diet" he adopted at the age of 16, and the "light repasts" he nibbled of "a handful of raisins" and a glass of water, unlike the stodgy "flesh" meals his brother ate. Franklin also vividly recalls the "three great puffy rolls" he purchased on arrival in Philadelphia, and how he was satisfied with merely one of them before giving the other two to a deserving woman and child. Proudly, he remembers encouraging English print-workers to lunch, like him, on "hot water-gruel" instead of their usual bread and cheese. The picture builds up of an abstemious saint. Cerebral Franklin is hardly touched by vulgar hunger.

But when we turn to Franklin's cover portrait, we see not a gaunt gruel-eater, but a paunchy, gouty, red-cheeked glutton, almost bursting the buttons of his waistcoat. And we realise the truth - that the Autobiography is a fantastic exercise in dietary wishful thinking. Franklin is like those weight-watchers who stuff themselves on secret Snickers bars but protest that they "hardly eat a thing".

The real Franklin was a big man and a colossal diner. When Madame Helvetius once offered him a less than ample breakfast, he wrote a bagatelle in hungry complaint, "Bilked for Breakfast". On diplomatic business in London, he sent to his wife for consignments of ham and pippins, even though he was hardly underfed, dining night after night on rich clubby food and two bottles of claret. He ate so much beef it made his back itch. This was the same man who took his primary virtue as "Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation". Then again, he also extolled "chastity" while enjoying a reputation as one of the world's most notorious skirt-chasers.

Franklin's genius was many-faced and many-bellied. This is the real man of the millennium: a binge-eater who lied about his food - a great, white, fat hypocrite.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again