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The Joy of High Tech


Rodford Edmiston

Being the occasionally interesting ramblings of a major-league technophile.

Our Daily Bread

       I like simple foods... and you can't get much simpler than hardtack. 

       Classic hardtack is wheat and water - sometimes plus a bit of salt - which is baked, then extensively oven dried. (Hence the origin of "biscuit" - it means "twice cooked" from Latin by way of Old French - because of the double baking.) Stored properly - the primary requirement being that it is kept dry - it lasts indefinitely. There are multiple stories of samples of well-stored hardtack over a century old being tasted and found to be just as edible as when fresh-made. 

       Now, you may take that as damning with faint praise, but properly made, properly stored hardtack is actually quite good. Bland, yes, but it wasn't meant to be eaten by itself. However, it can be, much like some people like crackers as a starchy snack.  

       How do I know what hardtack was really like? One of the bakeries which made hardtack for the Civil War is still in business and will sell it to you mail order. The G. H. Bent Company (See: http://www.bentscookiefactory.com/ ) was founded in 1801 and supplied the North with much of its hardtack. They currently make several other products, including "Water Crackers" meant to be used with soup. A warning, here: These are as tough as hardtack is supposed to be. I bought some samples of three of their products, but will focus on the hardtack.

       I not only tried the hardtack myself, but took some to gaming one Saturday night. The others were all pleasantly surprised. A Jewish member of the group noted it reminded him of plain matzoh. Which is - surprise - made from flour and water. It seems that every culture which uses wheat has invented something similar. Hardtack and its cousins are a simple and reliable way to preserve a nutritious food for later use. Sometimes much later. Besides this commercial product, there are recipes (many available online) for making it yourself. Some Civil War reenactors do just that, for themselves and other members of their group.

       A classic piece of hardtack looks like an oversized saltine cracker without the salt grains on top. It is a bit denser than a saltine, and quite crunchy, but not nearly as hard as legend suggests. However, some hardtack was actually double-baked, instead of being baked and oven dried, and even harder than regular hardtack. This treatment was usually reserved for stores intended for long sea voyages and other explorations distant from civilization. Those include Arctic and Antarctic trips.

       The horror stories of weevilly hardtack come from it not being stored properly. It needs to be kept dry and in closed containers. In a classic wooden sailing ship, of course, keeping anything dry was very difficult, and cases and crates often broke open or were distorted enough to spread their seams. There are surviving official reports from the War Between the States of Army hardtack going bad due to improper storage and handling. Sometimes the hardtack was transported in bulk and simply dumped on the ground. (Much of this was still used.) Even the tales of how hard hardtack is generally depend on the quality of storage. Contributing to the problems, contractors often cheated when preparing the hardtack. The wheat might be adulterated (sawdust was popular for this) the water tainted, the baking too short, or some combination. There are surviving reports of this, too, and of contractors being punished. 

       Pilot bread can be thought of as deluxe hardtack. It is made from wheat, water, salt, shortening and a bit of sugar. Because of these extra ingredients, without modern packaging pilot bread will only last months, rather than centuries. 

       Pilot bread is a bit easier than hardtack to acquire (and much easier to chew). You can get it in vacuum-packed #10 cans for long-term storage (there's your centuries of shelf life) or in small bags. Sadly, the number of manufacturers has declined in recent years, as have the areas of the United States where it can be easily found. 

       Pilot bread is popular in several widely scattered areas. In the US, it seems to be most common in some parts of New England, Alaska and Hawaii. 

       You can eat pilot bread by itself. You can butter it and toast it in an oven. You use it to make small sandwiches. You can, in short, use it in just about any way you would ordinary bread. Even when it is decades old.

       A distant descendant of hardtack is the shortbread-like food used in lifeboat rations. This is a much more complex product, the extra ingredients greatly reducing the shelf life (though it is guaranteed to last at least five years under any environmental conditions as long as the package remains sealed). However, it is also much more nutritious. It is made primarily of wheat, with other ingredients and considerable enrichment. It is also designed to be non-thirst provoking, cutting back on the need for water. (Remember, when carbohydrates are metabolized this actually creates water in your body.)

       These food bars are soft, even crumbly. There are several formulations, but most of them taste sweeter than pilot bread, due to a high simple carbohydrate content. They therefore need less accompaniment to make a meal. You couldn't live on just these long term, of course, in large part due to the lack of dietary fiber. However, they'll keep you going for a good while. 

       Actual lifeboat rations are deliberately bland, so folks won't be tempted to snack on them before the emergency. You can also get food bars made to the same standards, but with considerably more flavor. I usually bring some of these to conventions so I can skip an occasional meal. If you are at a con where I also am and are curious, just ask. I'll be glad to show you what I'm talking about, and might even be persuaded to share.

       When I was a pre-teen a friend of my father's gave me an unopened case of US Army C-Rations (actually, the replacement for C-Rations, the Meal, Combat, Individual). I remember that some of those came with a piece of bread - about the size and shape of two biscuits stacked one on top of the other - in a can. This fascinated me then, and I wish I could find something similar now. (There is such a product made in Japan, which is even available from vending machines. However, as far as I have been able to learn this product isn't exported.) The closest I have come in the US is the B&M canned brown bread. It's not bad, but not quite what I am looking for. 

       Bizarrely, there is a company which cans entire cheeseburgers, one per can, complete with bun. I've never even been tempted to try one, and from reviews I've read the only thing I've missed is a really bad cheeseburger. The bread, naturally, is soggy. 

       One of the more interesting ways of processing wheat for later use comes down to us from the ancient Egyptians. Leftover bread was mashed with water and fermented to make beer. The support facilities on the Giza Plateau for the workers (NOT slaves) who built the pyramids, temples and other facilities included both bakeries and breweries. However, I have no information on how - or even whether - this beer was preserved beyond immediate use.

       A more recent development is shelf-stable sandwiches, as well as the pocket bread used in these, which can be purchased separately. They are sealed in a retort pouch, with a dehumidifying packet included. Shelf life is roughly five years. There is even a cinnamon roll. 

       There are, of course, many other shelf-stable wheat products, from ordinary crackers to gourmet items. The next time you pull one out for a meal or a snack, or see it at the grocery, remember the history behind this apparently simple product. Without such things, our ancestors - and even many of us, today - would have had a much harder time. 

       This work is Copyright 2011 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone may link to it without permission, but to repost please contact the author for permission.