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.

Coastal Cooking – Finnan Haddie, & Chowder

Sunday at a Farmer’s Market, I discussed smoked vacuum-packed haddock with a vendor. While she extolled the virtues of her process, I merely proclaimed sotto vocce ” finnan haddie.” She caught my reverential whisper. The promise in her look implied that with the tiny vacuum-packed candy bar sized piece of haddock encased in plastic, this sacrament of coastal eating could be mine. I resisted sneering as I turned away. I had been used to servings of smoked haddock cooked slowly in cream, browned nicely, that tested your capability to push the dish away. This tiny piece was not going to do it.

I was not always enamored of things like Finnan Haddie. I grew up in New York City where they made soup – I can no longer refer to it as Chowder- out of clams in a tomatoey base. Being allergic to bivalves ( clams, oysters, scallops – you know), I couldn’t touch the stuff. But I never knew about fish chowder. So, I got a real education when I left “The City” for points north.

I learned rapidly that from an old New Englander that Chowder had initially been the term for the pot in which you cooked the soup. That person, from Sargentville on the Blue Hill peninsula, affirmed that no chowder would be authentic without the head of the fish included in the pot. Getting the eye in your bowl was great luck, and the cheeks and tongue delicacies.
I also learned that the head, eyes, cheeks, and tongues were not universal to everyone’s recipe. To diverge a bit, I learned that tongues and cheeks were a specialty dish of their own. The cod cheeks can be about the size of chicken thighs, but much more tasty, and the best part of the fish. Not everyone gets enthused about tongues; they can be a bit slimy and not to everyone’s taste. I rarely found anyone who had kind words about the eyes.
Now you’ll find me tucked away in someplace like Gordon’s in Portland, or maybe Bob Lobster in Newburyport inhaling a heaping bowl of Chowder. But the first time that dish was put in front of me, I was so impolite as to ask, “what’s the main course?” Of course, the Chowder was the main course, with ample addition of sea biscuit. I was taken aback. In New York, my experience was that a cup of Chowder was an appetizer. Here was a massive bowl with a mountain of fish heaped in the middle.

With regards to finnan haddie, it seems to have originated in the area of Aberdeen, Scotland and spread widely throughout England. With good haddock stocks available offshore in New England, it became a popular dish on the coast. I became familiar with it as a dinner item, but I understand that some in England prefer it as a breakfast food. Like the saying:” You can’t get there from here” you can’t get suitable ingredients for a great finnan Haddie out of a supermarket. That thin stuff they sell has been injected with water and been coated with something called “liquid smoke” rather than being correctly smoked. It’s an abomination.

Search for the real deal. As the saying goes, accept no substitutions. You won’t be sorry.

Coastal Cooking- Cod a la muffler

There we were sailing along on Penobscot Bay. As we passed a local lobster boat, I saw a wad of aluminum foil wired to the upright muffler. Turning to the Captain, I smiled and said, that’s a strange muffler bandage. “No,” he replied, ” It’s Lunch.” then he explained that lobster traps caught more than lobsters. The by-catch included crabs, cusk, cod, and other species. Most of the by-catch got discarded overboard, but the odd cod could end up as lunch.*
If you’ve been snowmobiling, you may have run into the little steel pans that look like old fashioned mess kits. You pop them on your exhaust manifold, and it warms up your hot dogs. Well, hot dogs and beans ( Burnham and Morril or homemade) are too much a New England tradition to ruin them that way. Buried in a beanpot over a slow cooing bed of coals…but, that’s another story. Cod a la muffler was a different sort of meal.
One day I was out with Lowell, and a lovely cod came up in one of the pots. He promptly pulled out the tin foil, gutted the cod, and onto the muffler it went. About a month later, I was out with someone else who prepared the cod with more than salt and pepper; a feast in several courses was prepared by compartmentalizing the cod, veggies, and condiments to cook together. when I asked if he ever tried steaming lobster on the pipe, he looked at me if I were crazy and told me, ” I don’t eat the darn bugs at all.”

*The events described here happened in the early ’70s. Back then, the problems with by-catch were not understood. Since that time it’s become a significant issue in fisheries.

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