WHEN BENJAMIN FRANKLIN arrived in Philadelphia in 1723, a youth of sixteen, he sought out employment as a printer and, eventually, prospered as both printer and publisher. On his first day in the city, he entered a bakery and asked for bisket but the baker did not know the meaning of the word. (Biskit in New England was a collective noun like salt: “Please give me some bisket.”) So Franklin was obliged to buy “great puffy rolls,” and he sauntered down Second Street, where he caught a glimpse of his future wife. In this emblematic moment in his Autobiography, Franklin starts his upward climb to success and fame.
Bisket, a staple food in Franklin’s native Boston, was an unleavened bread made from flower, salt, and water, a food known later in American English as hardtack. The contrast between the dry bread of Boston and the yeasty confection of Philadelphia is plain enough, but Franklin had more in mind with this anecdote. Boston and Philadelphia spoke different kinds of English, and they do so to this day. Questioned in the 1960s about names for “bread made with flour,” some New Englanders and some southerners responded with biscuit. Pennsylvanians never gave that answer.