For love of a cracker: Tradition, culture behind Chebeaguer's campaign

Country-wide Crown Pilot lobby originated with island lament

By J.T. Leonard, Reprinted from The Forecaster, January 23, 1997

CHEBEAGUE ISLAND - For those who believe big business has neither conscience nor concern for consumers' cries, here's a pleasant thought; lovers of Crown Pilot chowder crackers have spoken, and the megacorporation that used to bake the biscuits appears to be tuning in.

A granite-and-saltwater citizens' movement beseeching the Nabisco Biscuit Co. in East Hanover, N.J., to resume production of the traditional chowder-and-milk crackers seems to have accomplished its goal, says ringleader-by-default Donna Damon.

She and her fellow islanders have led the lobby to reverse the company's May 1996 decision to halt production of the hardtack-derived crackers that have been a constant in New Englanders' diets and cupboards for more than 200 years.

Despite the media blitzkrieg that has gathered around the campaign to "Save the Cracker," the citzens' movement started innocently enough, Damon said. She was helping her father do his grocery-shopping and listening to him grumble about not being able to find the Crown Pilot crackers for the longest time. Since they both figured the familiar box's shelf location had merely been changed, Damon asked the manager for assistance.

She later learned, to her dismay, that Nabisco had ceased making or distributing the big, bumpy biscuit because of a financial concern.

First she got upset; then she got busy generating support for the crackers' return. But even Damon was amazed at the depth of attention given the issue from the mass media - which turned out to be a kind of blessing in disguise.

"It didn't actually become a 'campaign' until the press got involved," Damon quipped. "We really haven't tried to gain this much publicity."

Saunders Photo

The media deluge started after she published her report in the InterIsland News, a newsletter serving Casco Bay's outer ledges. Then she penned an editorial for The Boston Globe, lamenting the New Jersey company's decision to stop production of what it referred to as a "niche-marketing product" without consideration of the rectangular wafer's long New England history.

A Christian Science Monitor interview soon followed, as well as features in Yankee Magazine and on National Public Radio, in addition to a segment pairing her with Downeast humorist Tim Sample on CBS Sunday Morning.

Support for the movement soon flowed into Nabisco's public relations headquarters in Parsippany, N.J., as phone calls and letters from all over the country - and a ton from the Atlantic northeast - coaxed the company to resume production.

"The calls and enthusiasm for the crackers has spread from all over the country, not just New England, which is very warming to us," confirmed Ann Smith at Nabisco's public relations office. "Nothing has been decided yet, but Nabisco plans to make the decision very soon."

Damon's concern runs deeper than simply finding a substitute cracker to crush into chowders and stews, submerge in milk or cover with peanut butter. To her and Chebeague's other residents, many of whom boast lengthy ties to the island and Maine's coast, it meant the loss of another Downeast tradition and one more hit to Yankee life.

"We're really talking about the culture here," she said. "I don't think that what Nabisco was trying to do was homogenize the New England culture, but ultimately, that's one result. [Corporate spokespeople] never really told us that [the product] was losing money; they told us that it was a marginal product with a very limited appeal, so what they're really concerned about is the bottom line of dollars."

Crown Pilot's appeal is hardly regional. When they were still plentiful here, Damon said, it was not uncommon for tourists, snobirds and other visitors to pack away boxes and cases of the crackers for transport back to wherever "home" happened to be, because, before the Maine supply dried up, Nabisco had stopped shipping them to other states such as Connecticut, California, Utah and Vermont.

To keep momentum and morale high, Chebeague Islander Beverly Johnson has created a World Wide Web home page to provide updates as well as a forum for the sympathetic. Johnson even included Nabisco's own Web home page address for anyone so inclined to directly e-mail the cracker company.

"My original tack was that big companies really control what we eat, wear and do these days," Damon said. "One of the things that I think makes this country special is diversity. This is one way to keep from homogenizing it."