Hard tack on hard times

Nabisco kills Pilot Crackers; Sunday night supper will never be the same
by Donna Miller Damon
August 1996

As companies across corporate America downsize and streamline to increase profits, the effects of their decisions are felt by employees who receive reduced benefit packages and frequently find a pink slip on their desks. Consumers may receive reduced services.

Rarely, however, does a corporate decision eliminate an integral element of the culture of an entire region of the country. But National Biscuit Compnay (Nabisco) did just this when it opted to stop production of Pilot Crackers, the Sunday night staple of coastal New England.

Hardtack, as many islanders prefer to call it, dates far back into the days of sail and the settlement of New England. The crackers were kept in barrels and later in boxes, and if properly stored, they would see a crew through its voyage.

Hardtack and salted cod kept many a sailor nourished during a long passage. And when the seamen came ashore, so to did their taste for hardtack or sea biscuit-like crackers. While not quite as hard as what a sailor would find aboard ship, the crackers served the same purpose. Babies teethed on them; children spread them with the preserves of field strawberries. Softened in milk, hard tack could be enjoyed by the weak and the infirm. Young folks and old alike thought a stew or chowder to be naked if it wasn't covered with crumbled crackers! Every island home pickled fish in a salty brine and hung them on the clothesline to dry so they could be enjoyed with hardtack and milk on a snowy Sabbath night.

Until the advent of mass production, communities were served by bakeries which were not too far removed and whose products complemented the cultural cuisine of their customers. Then, slowly but surely, conglomerates such as National Biscuit Company were formed. As they swallowed up small companies, they chose to add or eliminate products to the copanies' offerings. Sometimes other companies which made regional favorites would be forced out of business by these larger companies. Then the bigger company would drop the less profitable items, some of which had been the favorites of local consumers.

At first, folks assumed that the recent unavailability of Pilot Crackers was a temporary situation. Then the word spread that Nabisco had confirmed their worst fears, and folks started rationing their last few crackers. On Chebeague, Ellsworth and Melva Miller, who regularly ate crackers and milk twice a week, are down to their last meal. Lewis Ross, who ate salt fish and Pilot Crackers every sunday night, still has a couple of meals left, thanks to the generosity of a neighbor who felt sorry for him.

In an O. Henry twist the neighbor was reminded by his wife that he had just given Lewis nearly all of his own supply. Another islander reported doling out her last quarter-package as if the crackers were made of gold.

It was a pity that Nabisco failed to Nabisco failed to announce its decision stop production in advance. Islanders never even had a chance to hoard the crackers. (Just think of the missed opportunity for scalpers!) Julie and Ed Doughty, proprietors of the Island Market on Chebeague, have been deluged with requests for the now-extinct cracker. The Doughtys reported that despite rising prices initiated by Nabisco, Chebeaguers continued to buy the crackers for $3.09 a box just as long as they were available, which is a far cry from the days when Goudy and Kent made seven-inch round crackers and sold them for $3.00 a barrel for the crews of fishing vessels.

Pilot Crackers are a comfort food which evokes as many feelings as motherhood and apple pie. An informal survey illustrates just how important Pilot Crackers are to islanders. Gerry Ross shared the story of her trip to visit her brother-in-law in Arizona. What did she take with her? Pilot Crackers. When Joan Robinson's son was stationed in Florida what did she send him? Pilot Crackers. When Peter Passano recently set out to sail across the Pacific Ocean and around the Horn, what did he take with him? Pilot Crackers. When Gerald Colbeth was sent to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to set up a plant for Sexton Can Company he received a cardboard box in the midst of a freight car full of girders. What did the company brass send him to keep him content so far from home? pilot Crackers. The stories go on and on.

What began generations ago is finally coming to fruition in 1996. The competition has been eliminated, and Nabisco has taken an endangered species (in this case the Pilot Cracker) and has caused it to become extinct.

When contacted recently, a Nabisco customer service representative reported that the Pilot Cracker did not produce a profit, because it was distributed in only one region of the country, and was only sold in three states.

Consider the unanswered questions: Has Nabisco thought of creating a national advertising campaign to save the Pilot Cracker? Does it realize that the lobster was once thought of as "trash" or "poverty food" until a New York restaurant promoted its culinary virtues? Could the same thing happen if an exclusive New York restaurant chose to market lobster stew or clam chowder with the cracker that complements them so well? Nabisco should think about this potential in the event it sells the recipe to another baker. What would Nabisco stockholders say then?

Will Nabisco reconsider its decision to eliminate Pilot Crackers from the face of the earth? Will it continue to participate in the homogenization and gentrification of the cultureal cuisine of New England?

If you ever want to experience the crunch of Pilot Crackers again, Nabisco needs to know what they mean to you. Can the islanders of Maine infuence corporate America? If you have friends and neighbors who have moved to other parts of the country and know what it's like not to have acess to Pilot Crackers - solicit their support! Remind them that the coast of Maine is where America began, so if a corporate executive can tetermine what we have for supper on Sunday night it can happen anywhere. Will grits and collard greens be next? CALL 1-800-NABISCO.

Donna Miller Damon's roots on Chebeague extend back to 1756, and she hasn't found an ancestor yet who lived far from the sea. Although the hardtack wasn't quite the same as what her ancestors ate, she spent many Sunday nights eating salt fish with Pilot Crackers and milk