Sometimes the telling of a tale from a tour guide can be a mixture of fact, fiction and legend. Ralph Ayers, our local tale spinner freely acknowledges it. My first exposure to the fame of Newburyport’s baked “bread” was when I took the harbor tour and was told that Newburyport was the home of the cracker. Well, I wish it was so, but the true story is rather more convoluted.
Milton, Massachusetts is the birthplace of the ‘cracker’. A Josiah Bent in 1801 found that his bread invention crackled when put to a hot fire, thus he created the cracker. What Newburyport invented was hardtack. The dictionary says the following, ‘Hardtack / ˈhärdˌtak/ • n. hard dry bread or biscuit, esp. as rations for sailors. It is also called pilot biscuit, pilot bread, sea biscuit and ship biscuit. The truth is that some form of hardtack has been around since the days of Alexander the Great and perhaps earlier. Armies would make a bread out of flour and water only, unleavened and unsalted. Since it was very dry, it could be stored and transported without refrigeration. It was inexpensive to make and the bread itself could endure extreme temperature shifts. Over the years, many nations used this form of dry bread as a convenient food for soldiers, explorers and pioneers. The name derives from the British sailor slang for food, “tack” and was coined by American sailors during the War of 1812 and the term spread to soldiers and pioneers later.
In Newburyport, the ships were travelling over the entire planet and the food stores had to be preserved to last what often could be a journey of a year or more. These hard, dry, traveling breads were a Newburyport, Massachusetts cottage industry, made with flour, water, and a little salt, but without yeast; the dough was kneaded and rolled by hand, shaped into individual portions, and baked in a charcoal oven. Part of the Yankee tradition of hardiness produced the magnificent clipper ships but it also produced the lowly ship biscuit that was the sailors’ staple for long sea voyages.
Unfortunately, hardtack has derived multiple names as well as some unflattering terms over the years. known by other names such as pilot bread (as rations for ship pilots), ship’s biscuit, shipbiscuit, sea biscuit, sea bread (as rations for sailors) or on the negative side "dog biscuits," "tooth dullers," "sheet iron" or "molar breakers" also dubbed "digestible leather," and "ammo reserves."
What significantly changed was the commercialization of the common hard bread. In 1792, Theodore Pearson created the hardtack version; Pearson’s Pilot Bread and began to standardize the product line. It now had a particular shape with regular perforated holes. The holes in crackers are called "docking" holes. The holes are placed in the dough to stop air pockets from forming in the cracker while baking.
The cookies were packed in crates so they could be easily transported out to sea. Of course, the recipients weren’t always thrilled to receive them. Some sailors said the sea biscuits could cure sea sickness. Regardless, aboard ships, it may have been the only source of carbohydrates. The chowder was actually invented as a means to soften the hardtack rather than the hardtack was made for the chowder! Potatoes were not originally used in chowders. The hardtack was meant to be the carbohydrate in the concoction. Only later, as potato gained wide acceptance did crackers become a side accessory to the chowder.
Later on, Pearson went on to form with other bakeries the NABISCO company or National Biscuit Company. Pearson’s bread became Crown Pilot Bread and was sold even after Kraft purchased NABISCO many years later. It was renamed Crown Pilot Crackers, lightened and was often used by many a ship’s officers since it was not as unpleasant as regular hardtack. They stopped making the bread back in 1997 but many hardy New Englanders were accustomed to using the bread as part of eating chowder that Kraft resumed the manufacture. Unfortunately, most people use oyster crackers today and the old New Englanders and their ways began to die off and finally, the bread was discontinued in 2007.
Fortunately, the fact that hardtack lasts so long is the reason why you can still purchase it today. The story is convoluted so bear with me.
During the Civil War, 3-inch by 3-inch hardtack was shipped out from Union and Confederate storehouses. Some of this hardtack had been stored from the 1846–8 Mexican-American War. NABISCO’s Newburyport plant simply could not keep up with the demand from the Union Army so contracts were issued to many different bakeries to fill the orders. One of those was Josiah Bent’s company. Remember him? The inventor of the cracker. He received a contract to manufacture hardtack. He was also the inventor of the much more “pleasant” and popular cracker and the G.H. Bent Company was prospering well. The Army and Navy couldn’t get enough because of the tremendous durability of the bread. Stores left over from the Mexican-American War back in 1846 were brought out and successfully used in the Civil War and leftovers from 1865 were used in the Spanish-American War thirty years later!
Regrettably, the NABISCO Crown Pilot Cracker had close ties to eating chowder so it ceased to be. But the G.H. Bent Company was well known by the original term, Hardtack and is selling them off the shelves and can hardly keep up. Why is it so popular? Civil War enactors seeking authentic foods have made the purchase of hardtack a yearly ritual. An employee of Sturbridge Village in 1961 had encouraged the company to start making the hardtack again in response to the demand and they have prospered ever since.
You can actually go to Milton, MA during their hours and receive a tour of their facility and can pickup hardtack right in their company store. Here is their address:
G. H. Bent Company
7 Pleasant Street
Milton, Massachusetts 02186
Phone: (617) 698-5945
Fax: (617) 696-7730
$10.00 a box with $8.00 for shipping.
Monday – Friday: 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Saturday: 7:30 AM to 3:00 PM, Closed on Sundays
Of course, you can order it on line. You can also make it yourself. Here is the recipe:
4 cups flour (preferably whole wheat)
4 teaspoons salt
Water (about 2 cups)
Pre-heat oven to 375° F
Makes about 10 pieces
Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl. Add just enough water (less than two cups) so that the mixture will stick together, producing a dough that won’t stick to hands, rolling pin or pan. Mix the dough by hand. Roll the dough out, shaping it roughly into a rectangle. Cut into the dough into squares about 3 x 3 inches and ½ inch thick. (Crown Pilot Crackers were 2-1/2 x 4-3/4 inches)
After cutting the squares, press a pattern of four rows of four holes into each square, using a nail or other such object. Do not punch through the dough. The appearance you want is similar to that of a modern saltine cracker. Turn each square over and do the same thing to the other side.
Place the squares on an ungreased cookie sheet in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Turn each piece over and bake for another 30 minutes. The crackers should be slightly brown on both sides.
The fresh crackers are easily broken but as they dry, they harden and assume the consistency of fired brick.
It is not kidding about the Fired Brick. A warning should be added about using hardtack. It is an acquired skill. Sailors and soldiers would often smother it in butter, jam, honey and sugar, or dunked in chowder or stew. During the Civil War, soldiers would dunk the hardtack into water, then fry it in pork fat and shape it around sticks to be cooked over the campfire. Hardtack should not be eaten by itself unless you have good dental insurance.
Hardtack is Newburyport’s own. This is another seafaring food that should be available in our downtown to make our place unique. Who will step up to the plate and sell this product?