By DAVE KIFFER
June 18, 2012
Ketchikan, Alaska - Pilot Bread, which is also known as hardtack or seabiscuit, may be one of the staples of village life in Alaska, but its history – or the history of a hard baked, long lasting biscuit made mostly of flour and water – goes back thousands of years.
The first written reference to a type of hardtack is from during the reign of Ramesses II during the Egyptian campaigns against what where known as the Sea Peoples. During this period, some 1300 years before the time of Christ, sailors in the Egyptian navy carried with them a flat, hard loaf of millet bread called dhourra cake.
Since the Chinese had been using millet to make a similar cake for at least a thousand years prior to this, it is entirely possible that early Chinese navies or armies had also been eating a form of millet cake, but there is no historical record of it.
A millennium after the Egyptians, the Romans were known to carry a biscuit called “buccellum” on their marches to expand their empire.
The next time that “hardtack” shows up in the historical record is during the Crusades, when famed English King Richard I, or Richard the Lionhearted, was reported by contemporary accounts to favor "biskit of muslin," which was a mixed grain compound of barley, rye and bean flour, and took it with him on the Third Crusades (1189-1192) according to the Official History of the British Navy.
Ketchikan's First Annual International Pilot Bread Festival
The name hardtack itself comes from the British Navy which began outfitting its ships with rations of hardtack in the 1500s. Tack was the sailor term for food.
By 1588, the ration was one pound of hardtack a day for each sailor, who often dipped it hot liquid before eating, both to soften it and to drive out any bugs.
In addition to eating the hardtack, the sailors used them for other purposes, including a form of IOU in which the sailor would write on the biscuit like a check. They were also used as gambling chips in the card games that took place below decks.
Hardtack continued to be a part of British sailor rations until the mid 1850s when canned goods were developed.
In 1801, there were two famous events in hardtack “history.”
First G. H. Bent of Milton, Massachusetts began manufacturing hardtack and continues to do so to this day.
That same year, a Newburyport , Massachusetts baker, Thomas Quincy, experimenting with different types of hardtack began developing what would eventually become the saltine cracker a century later.
Hardtack was also a staple of the “Conestoga Wagon” voyages across North America in the mid 1800s. The average family carried 30 pounds of it, according to the Oregon Trail Historical Society. Another wave of immigrants, 49ers rushing to the California Gold Rush of 1849 also carried the biscuit in their kits.
Hardtack became more well known in the United States during the Civil War, 1861-1865, when both Union and Confederate armies relied heavily on it. Soldiers on both sides had a daily ration of one pound of the biscuit. Numerous accounts of the war feature stories about the tasteless, indestructible wafers. There are several, probably apocryphal, tales of how the hardtack actually stopped bullets.
The 154th New York infantry regiment even named itself the “hardtack” regiment in order to emphasize its “toughness.”
To show how long lasting hardtack was, early Civil War soldiers were given rations that were left over from the Mexican-American War of 1848.
Both sides had signature “dishes” made out of the biscuit.
Union soldiers enjoyed “skillygally” which featured salt pork and hardtack. The Confederates ate “coosh” which was made of bacon, corn meal and hardtack.
Some of that Civil War hardtack lives on in the Minnesota Historical Society which has some 1861 bread on display.
Another long lasting bit of hardtack is on display a museum in Denmark. Allegedly, the 160 year old hardtack was given by a local sailor to his girlfriend with a promise they would eat it at their wedding. He never returned.
Hardtack was naturally well-known to the soldiers that were sent West to fight the Native Americans in the latter part of the 19th Century. It was also familiar to the Natives themselves. During a speech not long before he died, Sitting Bull was recorded as telling Natives that chose to assimilate they were making a mistake.
“You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hard tack, and a little sugar and coffee!”
During the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, Canadian authorities required the stampeders to have 25 pounds of hardtack amongst the one ton of provisions required to cross the Chilkoot Pass and survive in the Yukon for a year.
Also, during the subsequent Spanish-American War, US sailors and soldiers were given hardtack that was stamped with the phrase, “Remember the Maine.”
Pilot Bread or hardtack came to Alaska with the sailing ships in the mid 1800s and quickly became popular because of its long shelf life. It remains a staple in many villages today and just about everyone has a favorite recipe that uses pilot bread.
In 2011, there was a Sailor Boy Pilot Bread recipe contest at the Native Youth Olympics in Anchorage. The winner was Sue Hoeldt of Aniak who came up with Pilot Bread Moose Burgers. She won 52 boxes of Pilot Bread.
One of the most famous American race horses of the 1930s was named “Seabiscuit. The bay colt was named after its father “Hard Tack” who was a son of the legendary “Man O’War.”
Seabiscuit retired as the all-time money winning horse and has inspired two movies and a bestselling “biography.”
In 1942, one of the most spectacular shipwreck survival stories involved hard tack. Chinese sailor Poon Lim used sea biscuits to survive on a life raft for 133 days after his ship was torpedoed.
In writing his “Middle Earth” novels, JRR Tolkein paid tribute to hardtack by creating a similar biscuit called “cram.”
The 1950s, Pilot Bread had a minor boost in popularity as a long lasting staple for bomb shelters. The name “Operation Hardtack” was given to a series of South Pacific nuclear tests in the late 1950s.
Pilot Bread has also been prominently featured in episodes of two television shows, Stargate SG-1 and MacGyver.
Alaska currently consumes 98 percent of the pilot bread made by Interbake Foods, a company also known for creating Girl Scout Cookies. Interbake started making Pilot Bread in 1919.
More than 300,000 boxes of pilot bread are shipped to Alaska every year. Individual boxes have a shelf life of 10 years, but Pilot Bread is known to last much.much longer if property stored.
Besides various festivals and cooking contests, Pilot Bread has also occasionally become part of the Alaska political discourse, such as in 2009 when political blogger Andrew Halcro used it take a dig at then Governor Sarah Palin for her alleged lack of concern over a food crisis in Western Alaska when a salmon run collapsed.
Halcro said that Palin’s attitude amounted to “Qu’ils magent de la Pilot Bread" or “Let them eat Pilot Bread,” a reference to infamous “let them eat cake” statement attributed to Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution.
Besides Alaska, Hawaii is one of the largest consumers of modern pilot bread and hardtack. Canada and Japan also have significant pilot bread/hardtack markets and the Russian Navy still provides hardtack to its sailors.
Civil War re-enactors also represent one of the largest current markets.
Re-enactors are known to grumble that hardtack tastes “just as good as it ever did.”
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