Wilson, Bee, New Statesman (1996)
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. …