Adventures In Coastal Living: Pilot Biscuits

Call it what you will: hardtack, sea biscuit, pilot bread, pilot biscuit. It was once was a staple of a sailor’s life. Improvements in refrigeration and seagoing kitchens made soft tack ( leavened bread) available to seamen for longer than the time it took for the land to sink below the horizon. Probably a good thing also. My father, uncle, and other seamen I knew reliably always tapped their pilot bread to drive the weevils to the broken open bottom. The nasties would fall out, and you could eat the biscuit without the extra protein. Of course, by the time they came along, it was a mostly empty habit. But still, they did it religiously. It can take a long time for a sailor to change practices.
My father once told me that it was a pilot biscuit that he’d give me when I was teething, to my mother’s dismay. Mom was afraid I choke on them. They, along with Spanish, Hungarian, and German dishes, were what I ate when I was young. Smeared with strawberry preserves, they can’t be beaten.
When I came to New England, the only home like part of the cuisine was those hard four-inch round pucks. Being used to the thin tomatoey stuff we called chowder in New York, the presence of a pilot biscuit was a reassuring element as I transitioned to the real chowder.

When I began sailing on the Cap’ns 34 foot Ketch Psyche the favored lunch of sardines, biscuit, and tea was a home-like element, except that for Carreras’, the beverage was intensely strong and sometimes fortified coffee. The Cap’n was not a tapper.

The brand that we mostly bought was the Nabisco pilot biscuit. When the company made a move in the eighties to do away with the brand, There was a horrible uproar. Widespread outrage forced them to continue baking biscuits for New England. They gradually killed it off by decreasing the amount available, and then quietly ceasing production. For a while, I was buying a brand made in Hawaii, but then they stopped distributing in New England and I gave up hope—just once in a while haunting the cracker aisle in hopes of finding something not too salty, savory, sweet, or fat that would do.

Today, in desperation, I ordered an Alaskan biscuit that claims to be the real deal. Sorry, teeny oyster crackers on chowder won’t do. Soon I’ll be tapping a real biscuit again; I hope.