If you were a sailor in the 19th century, an explorer, or a Civil War soldier, you very likely would have consumed hardtack, an immensely hard, bread or cracker that could keep for years, if it didn’t get wet. Of course, this bread, sometimes called “pilot bread” did frequently get infested with weevils, so dunking it in coffee or banging it hard on the table to rid it of insects first, was common practice. A lucky person might get uninfested hardtack soaked in condensed milk, called milk toast.
Hardtack lives up to its name of being very hard, made from only flour and water. It almost always needed to be soaked in some kind of liquid in order to bite into it. Occasionally it was cooked in water or other liquids to make a kind of cereal or pancake. It might feature various spreads, jam or lard, if a person was lucky, or be mixed with fruit.
Josiah Bent of Massachusetts may have made the first hardtack, sometimes called water crackers, in 1801. He initially called his bread water crackers, since it made a crackling sound while cooking. Sailors gave the crackers its more common appellation. Tack was slang for food, and the “hard” scarcely needs an explanation.
When properly kept, this unrelenting cracker really wouldn’t go stale, and a few museums in the US have 100-year-old hardtack on display. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always kept from moisture, which would cause it to degrade, and if improperly wrapped, it quite easily got infested with bugs. This was common and most sailors and soldiers were fairly matter of fact about removing the bugs before eating it.
There are a few places where hardtack became a basic food and remains so. In rural Alaska, it’s not unusual to find it on the shelves, especially as rough winters can mean small supplies of food. In Newfoundland, people eat hardtack, which is called purity hard bread. Campers may take some along on long backpacking trips.
Josiah Bent’s company in Massachusetts still manufactures hardtack. Civil War enthusiasts or those taking place in reenactments of the American Civil War often purchase it. It may occasionally be sold in specialty stores as a novelty food.