How a Centuries-Old Soldier Ration Found a Fanbase in AlaskaHow a Centuries-Old Soldier Ration Found a Fanbase in Alaska
Known as “pilot bread,” hardtack is ubiquitous across the state.
WHEN IT COMES TO HARDTACK, most people today only know the jokes about it. In the American Civil War, soldiers sang songs about the notoriously indestructible biscuit: “’Tis the song, the sigh of the hungry/Hardtack, hardtack, come again no more/Many days you have lingered upon our stomachs sore/O, hardtack, come again no more!” Portable and long-lasting, the little crackers are possibly history’s most essential, least-loved ration for traveling soldiers, sailors, and explorers. They earned all manner of nicknames: sheet iron, teeth dullers, or even insect castles if you had the dubious fortune to find one colonized by various bugs.
People might be surprised to learn then that hardtack is not lost to history in the United States, where it’s taken on a second life in Alaska. There, it’s not known as hardtack, but as “pilot bread,” one of the most ubiquitous Alaskan foods.
“It’s like tap water. We all grew up with it,” says Leif Albertson, a professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Everywhere you go in Alaska, you’re likely to run into Sailor Boy Pilot Bread in its distinctive blue-and-white box. “Every tribal office, every village, right next to the coffee machine, there’s a sleeve of pilot bread,” Albertson says.
The state gets about 98 percent of the pilot bread made by Virginia’s Interbake Foods, which is the chief manufacturer of pilot bread for the United States. Interbake sponsors racers in the Alaskan Iditarod, and some of the dog-sled mushers carry the round, flat crackers with them for the trip. For years in Ketchikan—a city in the state’s southeast—there was an International Pilot Bread Festival. And across the state, Alaskans host cooking competitions to see who can come up with the most innovative ways to eat it, resulting in everything from pilot bread moose burgers to pilot bread sundaes.
As Joshua Hunt recently explained in an article on Eater, Alaskans carry this local preference—and reverence—even when they venture far from home. When they move away, they’re faced with the virtually impossible challenge of finding a distributor elsewhere.
“Many days you have lingered upon our stomachs sore/O, hardtack, come again no more!”
Zona Starks, a food historian who focuses on the Arctic, explains that hardtack first showed up in Alaska during the Gold Rush of the late 1800s. The Anchorage Daily Times was advertising the sale of pilot bread (a name borrowed from New England, where hardtack was modified with ingredients like shortening to become more palatable) as early as 1916. According to Starks, Alaska is the perfect place for hardtack because “it’s a desert up there, so it never gets wet and goes bad.”
Starks says that while it started off as a food popular among Euroamericans, Indigenous Alaskans working on infrastructure for the U.S. military, such as the DEW Line (a series of radar stations to warn about possible attacks), were exposed to pilot bread in the mid-1900s, and it spread throughout the state. Today, “every corporation [Indigenous community organizations] has boxes and boxes of pilot bread” at their community centers, Starks says.
Preserved hardtack from the U.S. Civil War on display at Pensacola's Wentworth Museum.
Pilot bread’s continued survival in Alaska is largely due to the fact that many parts of the state are still remote and rely heavily on shelf-stable foods: 82 percent of the state’s communities don’t have highway access, so most food has to come by boat or by plane. And foods don’t get much more shelf-stable than pilot bread: The individual shelf life of a box is 10 years, but they can easily survive longer than that.
Even now that rural Alaskans have more choices, people still opt for pilot bread. Mary David, a resident of Nome and vice president of Kawerak, Inc. (a nonprofit providing services to Indigenous Alaskans in the Bering Strait area) broke it down this way: “If I go to a grocery store and they have a similar cracker, I’ll choose pilot bread … It’s just a brand many of us grew up on.”
For hikers, hunters, and people going fishing, pilot bread is an easy choice because you can just grab a sleeve of crackers and put it in your backpack. The fact that it’s sold everywhere means it’s an easy thing to grab on your way into the bush. As a survival food, it’s unparalleled. You can stumble across a cache of pilot bread and be completely confident that it will be edible and nourishing. Albertson adds that, from a dietary perspective, it’s a far healthier option than other sugary, preservative-laden Western foods geared toward hunting and other outdoor activities.
Union Captain J. W. Forsyth sits on a crate of hardtack in 1863.
So how does modern pilot bread compare to the hardtack of yore? The modern cracker definitely is easier on the teeth. According to John Billings’s Civil War memoir, The Army of the Potomac, soldiers broke up their hardtack with the butt of a musket or, if desperate, a fist. Billings cautioned that “they could not be soaked soft, but after a time took on the elasticity of gutta-percha [a rubbery product obtained from the gutta-percha tree].”
Pilot bread, on the other hand, doesn’t require soaking or smashing. In almost all cases, it’s a delivery vehicle akin to most other modern crackers or slices of bread. “You know how kids like peanut butter and jam sandwiches?” David asks. “Well, we had peanut butter and jam and pilot bread.” Albertson agrees that peanut butter is a good topping, but adds that butter, salmon spread, roe, or even Crisco are other common options. And even though no one’s soaking their pilot bread until it becomes rubbery, people have been known to dip it in coffee.
In Indigenous communities, pilot bread makes for a good pairing with foods such as muktuk (whale skin and blubber), herring eggs, or reindeer or caribou soup. (For the latter, “you soak it up like biscotti,” Starks adds.) For David, using pilot bread to soak up leftover seal oil at the end of a meal is a special way to enjoy it. For her, the main appeal of pilot bread is its crunchiness.
Another perk of that crunchy texture? As Albertson jokes, “it never goes stale because it starts stale.”
I’ll try any cracker. I thought Amazon would have this product but if it does I can’t find it.
Serious about crackers.
We used to make this for camping when I was a kid, just to see what it was like. If you have good teeth, it is ok.
At one time hard tack and water was the ration for prisoners
CMSGT USAF (Retired)
Chief of Police (Retired)
|I Deal In Lead|
They don't have Sailor Boy, but they have another brand. Note the "expiration date"
Note : This item does not have expiration dates on the product but we get only the fresh inventory with a long shelf life. You can enjoy this for a long time. If there are any concerns about shelf life or expiration please do not hesitate to reach out. This product is packed in a #2.5 Can, net weight is 9.9 oz per can. They are 100% US Procured and Produced. There are 12 crackers per can. Pilot Bread Crackers are the perfect choice for daytime snacking or a crunchy companion to soups or casseroles. These lightweight snacks are used as survival rations in pilot emergency kits since there is no cooking, preparation, or rehydration needed—just open the lid and enjoy! These crackers are known for their 30 year shelf life. Pilot bread is a significant source of food energy in a small, durable, light weight package. We offer our Pilot Bread in the smaller #2.5 can which saves space, especially if you are in a crunch for packing stuff for a trip. Pilot bread tastes great paired with cheese, peanut butter, salami, or dipped in soup or coffee, just to name a few ideas. Here is some history on Sailor Boy Pilot Bread for all those who have never heard of it. Pilot Bread is known by other names such as Ship's Biscuit and Hardtack. The name Hardtack is derived from the British sailor slang for food, "tack". Because it is so hard and dry, pilot's crackers (when properly stored and transported) will survive rough handling and endure extremes of temperature. The more refined Captain's biscuit was made with finer flour. Many early physicians believed that most medicinal problems were associated with digestion. Hence, for both sustenance and avoidance of illness, a daily consumption of a biscuit was considered good for one's health. The bakers of the time made biscuits as hard as possible, as the biscuits would soften as time went on. Pilot Bread was even used during the American Civil War and Spanish-American War.
Remember, you must always choose the lesser of two weevils:
They say that in the Army, the biscuits are mighty fine
One rolled off the table and killed a friend of mine
NRA Life Member, Rifle & Pistol Instructor and Range Safety Officer
“A man’s treatment of a dog is no indication of the man’s nature, but his treatment of a cat is. It is the crucial test. None but the humane treat a cat well.”
-- Mark Twain, 1902
|I can't tell if I'm |
tired, or just lazy
A few years back a friend from Alaska sent me some smoked salmon and some Sailor Pilot Bread....made some mighty tasty snacks with that.
"The problems we face today exist because the people who work for a living are outnumbered by those who vote for a living."
I had always thought that Rooster Cogburn's corn dodgers in True Grit were just a variant on hardtack, but watching these videos it sounds like the modern recipes put enough of a twist on them to make them a different staple.
After this thread now I want to try some hardtack, corn dodgers, corn fritters, and hot water corn bread.
@ 6 minute video
@ 16 minute video (outtakes at the end )
Iv'e eaten it before...no thanks.
.....never marry a woman who is mean to your waitress.
|Eating elephants |
one bite at a time
Years ago I went on a tour of Fort Scott with Mom and Dad. There was a "trading post" gift shop there and my brother and I both got a jaw harp and a piece of hardtack (looked exactly the museum display above).
Well if you use a jaw harp wrong, it is like whacking your front teeth with a spoon so those took a bit of practice. So my career with a jaw harp was short lived, but boy could the guy portraying a soldier at the fort make some great tunes.
The hardtack was incredibly hard (go figure). Biting it wasn't an option. It had to be sucked on until it softened enough to nibble an edge off. It had a very slight saltine taste before switching over to a hard glob of flour flavored yuck. Being smart and breaking off a small piece to swallow resulted in a belly ache as it expanded (or felt like it did) in your belly. The tour guide said soldiers ate it because the had to not because they wanted to. Since I didn't have to, my partial piece was thrown away at the next opportunity.
The new Pizza Hut extra thin crust is slightly similar. Hard and crummy tasting. Hardtack would be great in seedy bars or sketchy restaurants to be used to level tables and prevent wobbles.
Here ya go
Amazon has it listed, as "unavailable". I like the description where it says Flavor: Flavorless.
All your 10mm are belong to us
|Powered by Social Strata|