April 17: Ben Franklin

FranklinToday we celebrate the April 17, 1706 birth of Benjamin Franklin, patriot, inventor, drinker, writer, ladies man and prankster. I’ll let you guess which one of these qualities we’ll be looking at today.

One of Franklin’s earliest pranks came about when he was just a teenager and began sending letters to New-England Courant under the guise of a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood. Franklin wrote the first of these letters on April 2, 1722 while working as an apprentice at his older brother’s print shop. Undercover of night, without his brother’s knowledge, he slipped the first Silence Dogood letter under the shop’s front door. The next day, his brother found the letter and after sharing it with his friends, decided to print it on the front page of the Courant.

Over the next six months, Franklin wrote 14 letters as Dogood, addressing many of the day’s societal ills with tongue planted firmly in cheek. For instance, in one letter, Dogood spoke about her distaste for hoop skirts and the risk they ran to society,  attributing a local militia’s “…irregular Volleys to the formidable Appearance of the Ladies Petticoats.” The letters were quite popular, and many men wrote in asking for Dogood’s contact information, in the hope that they could propose marriage.

After a while, Franklin grew tired of the prank and stopped writing in to the Courant. His brother, still none the wiser placed an ad in the paper asking for information about Dogood’s whereabouts:

If any person or persons will give a true account of Mrs. Silence Dogood, whether dead or alive, married or unmarried, in town or countrey, that so, (if living) she may be spoke with, or letters convey’d to her, they shall have thanks for their pains.

Soon enough, Franklin came clean and revealed what he had done. His brother was not pleased, and told Franklin not to let all the praise for the letters go to his head.

Amongst his many achievements, Franklin came up with over 200 different phrases to describe being drunk (including my favorite, “been too free with Sir John Strawberry”.) Franklin also loved to share drink recipes, including one for milk punch that he sent in a 1763 letter to James Bowdoin II (the namesake of the college in Maine). Ben Wiley, head bartender at José Andrés’s America Eats Tavern in Washington,  D. C. came across that recipe and adapted it as Ben Franklin’s Milk Punch. This recipe makes about 4 quarts; perfect for a large party or when you really want to feel like you’ve “had a Thump over the Head with Sampson’s Jawbone”.

Ben Franklin’s Milk Punch

  • 6 cups Brandy
  • 11 lemon peels
  • 4 cups spring water
  • 1 freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 cups fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 cups whole milk

“In a large airtight lidded container, combine the brandy and lemon peels. Cover and steep for 24 hours. Using a fine-mesh sieve, strain the peels from the brandy and discard them. Add the water, nutmeg, lemon juice, and sugar, and stir until the sugar dissolves.

In a pan set over medium-low heat, bring the milk to a boil. Immediately add the milk to the brandy mixture and stir. Let stand uncovered for 2 hours–the mixture will curdle as it sits. Strain the mixture through a coffee filter, a clean pillowcase, or a jelly bag if you have one (this may take several hours). Before discarding the curds, squeeze them to extract as much liquid as possible. Use a funnel to transfer the punch to bottles. Before serving, lightly whisk the punch and sprinkle each glass with fresh nutmeg.”

Tomorrow: Look, up in the sky…

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