Call it what you will: hardtack, sea biscuit, pilot bread, pilot biscuit. It was once was a staple of a sailor’s culinary life. Improvements in refrigeration and seagoing kitchens made soft tack ( leavened bread) available and made old-fashioned hardtack pretty obsolete.
Hardtack had the main advantage of not needing refrigeration. It lasted, but if not kept well it could house weevils. Traditionally sailors broke off a small corner of the bread and tapped it on a dish. 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, it was a primarily empty habit by the time they came along. But still, they did it religiously. It can take a long time for a sailor to change practices.
To my mother’s dismay, it was a pilot biscuit that my father would give me when I was teething. Mom was afraid I choke on them. So you could say that I cut my teeth on them and not exaggerate.
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 authentic New England fish 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, and the first time he saw me do it, I had to explain it. I guess the guys on the bridge got fresher stuff than the seaman and snipes.
The brand that we bought was the Nabisco pilot biscuit. When the company moved 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 ceased production. I was desperate for a new source. 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 fatty that would do.
Then, in desperation, I ordered an Alaskan biscuit that claimed to be the real deal – sorry, little oyster crackers won’t do.
The ones pictured above are what I now eat. I have to order them online. We all have our favorite comfort foods, and for me, this is one.*
*This is an updated post from March 6, 2019. At that point, I hadn’t received my order from Sailor Boy and was anxiously waiting for them after a two-year-long search for hardtack.