Nabisco brings back hardtack
under pressure from New Englanders (2/4/97)

By Richard Lorant

Associated Press Writer

BOSTON (AP) - It was hauled across the seven seas, borne into battle by Civil War soldiers and crumbled into an ocean of chowder. Now hardtack, a hard rectangular biscuit about as tasty as a rucksack, has been saved from the corporate cost-cutters at Nabisco.

Nine months after baking its last Crown Pilot Crackers, Nabisco is bringing back the 205-year-old product under pressure from New Englanders.

"We thought we were discontinuing a cracker. It was apparent we were interrupting history for many people,'' Nabisco's marketing director, Mark Hosbein, said in announcing their return Tuesday.

Some 3,500 people wrote or called Nabisco in protest after it stopped making the crackers in May. They were sold only in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, one of 300 "niche'' brands eliminated as part of a corporate restructuring.

On Tuesday, Nabisco invited a few dozen fans to celebrate the cracker's revival aboard a boat on Boston's Long Wharf.

"Our father's a Cape Cod fishermen and we grew up on these. They're very important to us,'' said Nancy Ryder Petrus of Chatham. "Chowder's just not the same without them.''

Her family has been around Chatham even before 1792, when John Pearson baked his first batch of Pearson Pilot Bread in Newburyport. A descendant of that company later helped form the National Biscuit Co., now Nabisco.

An institution along the New England coast for more than two centuries, hardtack, or ship's bread, became a major part of Army and Navy rations.

Packed in crates, the unleavened bread with a long storage life also became a shipboard staple, though one that was not always appreciated by its consumers. Grandparents swore by it as a way of preventing seasickness.

Hardtack looks like large, oversized salted crackers, only without the salt and a tad thicker. The bland, study wafers are often smothered in butter, jam, honey and sugar, or dunked in chowder or stew.

"It's what it represents more than what it tastes like,'' said Donna Miller Damon, who organized a hardtack revival campaign in Chebeague Island, Maine.

The G.H. Bent Co. in Milton makes a similar cracker but had not been able to keep up with demand after Nabisco withdrew.

Crown Pilot Crackers were a small but steady seller for Nabisco, accounting for about $500,000 of its $8.8 billion in annual sales. A box goes for $2.89.

"My grandfather who was on the ocean for 70 years loved them,'' said Edmund Doughty, also of Chebeague Island. "One of the first memories of my life was seeing my granddad at the kitchen table eating pilot crackers.''