I have been reading a book about the experiences of a soldier in the civil war. In it, he describes a lot about their diet which included large amounts of hardtack or pilot bread, sowbelly and beans. Sowbelly is defined as salt pork taken from the belly of the pig. He says that on many occasions they ate sowbelly raw with their hardtack.
Hardtack is a type of cracker, made from flour, water, and sometimes salt. It is inexpensive and long lasting. Hardtack was also know as pilot bread, ship’s biscuit, sea biscuit, cabin bread, or sea bread It has been used for long term food storage for hundreds of years.
Civil war hardtack was used for rations in the Spanish American war. In 1907 when President “Teddy” Roosevelt sent the “Great White Fleet” around the world, surplus hardtack left over from the Civil War was included in their supplies. It was over 50 years old at the time.
Today hardtack is still manufactured and sold as pilot bread in the United States. Alaskans are among the last to eat hardtack as a significant part of their normal diet. Interbake Foods of Richmond, Virginia, produces hardtack under the “Sailor Boy” label. Ninety eight percent of what they produce is sold in Alaska. You can find it for sale on Amazon.
Army Hardtack or Pilot Bread Recipe
- 4 cups flour (preferably whole wheat)
- 4 teaspoons salt or to taste
- Water (about 2 cups)
Pre-heat oven to 375° F
Put the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl and then add the water. Mix the ingredients until the dough will stick together and is easy to work with. If you add too much flour, add slightly more water. Roll the dough out into a rectangle. Cut the dough into squares about 3 x 3 inches and ½ inch thick. This recipe should make about 10 pieces.
After cutting the squares, press a pattern of four rows of four holes into each square, using a fork or other such object. Do not punch through the dough. The appearance you want is similar to that of a modern saltine cracker. Turn each square over and do the same thing to the other side.
Place the squares on an ungreased cookie sheet in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Turn each piece over and bake for another 30 minutes. The crackers should be slightly brown on both sides.
The biggest mistake that you can make is not cooking them long enough. During the time of the civil war, they cooked them in kilns for hours. You can’t leave them in to cook to long unless you burn them. When you first take them out, store them in paper bags for a day or so to give them a chance to breath. Just remember the harder the better for long-term storage. Once they are dried, protect them from moisture and insects.