Alimentary, My Dear
Hardtack for Hard Traveling
By Tamia Nelson
December 17, 2002
Hardtack. If this word conjures up any
images at all today, they're usually not pleasant ones. Polar explorers
huddling around a battered pot on a spluttering Primus while a blizzard
shrieks outside their threadbare tent, threatening to scour the whole
party off the ice, into open water and certain death. Or maybe it's
pigtailed tars, tap-tap-tapping weevil-infested biscuits on a greasy mess
table suspended between two thirty-two pounders in the half-light of a
sailing warship's fetid lower deck.
We've got it easy by comparison. Ultra-light vacuum-molded carbon-fiber
and Kevlar® kayaks, freeze-dried gourmet meals, gossamer nylon and
There's a price to pay for this comfort and convenience, of course.
You've heard it here beforethere's no such thing as a free
lunch. As someone once wrote, dining on freeze-dried food is a little
like eating a salad made from dollar bills. And despite the many advances
in food processing technology, the flavor's often not much better. So I
prefer to cook from scratch when I can, and adapt my menu to the offerings
on the supermarket shelves. But cooking's not always an option. When the
going gets tough and the days stretch from dawn to dusk, it's good to have
some iron rations along. That's where hardtack comes in.
It's not a new idea. Also known as "ship's biscuit," at least when
serving afloat, hardtack's been through the warsliterally. A lot of
wars. John Paul Jones' seamen ate it, as did the contending American
armies under Grant and Lee. It also found its way onto the sledges of
polar explorers and into the rucksacks of mountaineers. As a matter of
fact, I first made its acquaintance in the Cascades, though it was
traveling under an assumed name at the time: pilot biscuit. And what
"biscuits"! Three-inch disks that were as hard as the hockey pucks they
resembled, they tasted of cardboard, if they tasted of anything at all.
Eating them straight was like chewing sun-baked clay. But they filled the
hollow in my belly and fueled my muscles for the snow fields and summits.
That was enough.
I met hardtack again later, broken up in the chewy crust of a
Newfoundland delicacy known as "flipper pie." The name says it all.
Flipper pie's a taste that I never quite managed to acquire. But I don't
blame the hardtack. And I certainly don't blame the seals who gave their
all for the dish. It's a filling, nourishing meal, and close kin to
another historic Newfie staple, fish-and-brewis. This was made by soaking
hardtack overnight and boiling it up with "watered" (soaked) salt cod. As
a final touch, melted lard was poured over the resulting mush. It
certainly took some getting used to, but nothing went down better after a
couple of days of hand-lining in a dory. Sadly, fish-and-brewis has
probably vanished for good, along with the cod, as modern life makes
inroads even on the Rock. But hardtack is still with us.
And it's worth carrying on your trips. Soak it in reconstituted dried
milk to soften it up, mix in chopped dried fruit, sugar, and cinnamon, and
call it breakfast. Or use the same milk-softened goo to line a pie pan,
fill it with blueberries, sprinkle with sugar, and bake. The result?
Blueberry tart. You can also use hardtack in lieu of "proper" biscuits in
soups and stews. If you add a little extra liquid, it'll soften as you
wait for the stew to cool to eating temperature. You can even gnaw it out
Simple? Yes. But there's a problem. Where can you get the stuff? It's
not easy to find, after all. Some specialty shops sell pilot biscuits and
hard crackers, but most of these are pretenders. They lack what the Brits
call "bottom": they're far too delicate for the rough and tumble life of
pack and portage. When all is said and done, there's just no substitute
for the real thing. The answer? Make it yourself. Then, if a latter-day
Shackleton shows up at your door looking for a few good hands for a quick
scramble down to the South Pole and back again, you'll be ready to go.
So, if you want to be able to answer the call of the wild at a moment's
notice, or if you simply fancy a taste of the past, just bake up a batch
of hardtack. Storage is no problem. If kept dry, hardtack only improves
with age. But you'll want to keep the weevils out. Commercial Rumford
baking-powder tins or similar air-tight metal containers do the trick. And
what if you forget, and the weevils set up housekeeping? Just rap your
hardtack on the table, one piece at a time, until all the uninvited guests
Warning Hardtack is, well, hard. It's not hard like
ceramic tile, however. More like boiled rawhide. But if you're tempted to
bite into a piece without softening it first, be sure your teeth are up to
the job. Many years ago, late on a Friday afternoon, Farwell and his
geology prof were driving into the Adirondacks to try to dig up some
eurypterids. They'd missed lunch, and they were both hungry. Farwell
rooted around in his pack and found some Scottish oatcakes (a sort of
Caledonian hardtack). He pulled out a couple and handed one to the prof.
Seconds later the prof handed back half of a molar. 'Nuff said? (A vial of
temporary filling material is a very good thing to take along into the
backcountry, by the way, even on weekend trips. Just ask the prof!)
Still game to experiment? Here goes:
Authentic Hard-as-Nails Hardtack
(makes 4 playing-card-sized pieces)
1 cup all-purpose flour,
plus extra for kneading and rolling
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4-1/2 cup water (or more)
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. While waiting for it to
come to temperature, prepare the dough. It's a tough dough, though, so be
ready to flex your muscles.
Mix the salt and flour thoroughly in a deep bowl. (A fork makes a good
blender.) Now make a "well"or depressionin the center of the
mix and pour in 1/4 cup of water. Stir the water into the mixture with
your fork, adding more water as needed to moisten all of the flour.
Next, knead the ragged mass of dough until it becomes smooth. You can
work right in your mixing bowl, if you want, or you can transfer the mass
to a cutting board or other clean surface. It's your choice. In either
case, pick up one end of the dough in your hands and fold it back on
itself. Then press down with your palm, squeezing the two halves together,
and rotate the resulting blob a quarter turn. (NB You may need to dust
more flour over the dough to prevent it from sticking to your hands, but
don't overdo this. Too much flour will ruin it.) Repeat until the dough is
relatively smooth. Now let the dough "relax" while you catch your breath.
Once you've got your wind back, sprinkle some flour onto the counter or
a cutting board andif you haven't done so alreadyremove the
worked dough from the mixing bowl and place it on the floured surface.
Using a rolling pin, flatten and shape the dough until it forms a
1/4-inch-thick slab a little larger than a VHS cassette. Then cut this
into four more or less rectangular pieces. Don't worry if your rectangles
turn out to be trapezoids. Uniform thickness is more important than shape.
My hardtack almost always has at least one rounded corner.
Finally, separate the pieces and place them on an ungreased baking
sheet. Using a fork, poke holes in each piece, being sure the holes go all
the way through. Each biscuit should have four rows of four holes. Once
that's done, put the baking sheet on the center rack of the oven and bake
for about 30 minutes, turning the pieces over at 15 minutes to ensure that
they heat evenly. When they're done, the edges of the individual pieces
will turn up slightly. Remove them before they begin to brown.
Allow the fresh-baked hardtack to cool on the cookie sheet until you
can pick it up without burning your fingers. Then place the pieces on wire
racks or paper towels to finish cooling. After it's completely cool,
transfer the hardtack to a tin or jar and store in a dry place until
That's all there is to it. If you like the results and want to go into
production, I'd suggest scaling up the recipe gradually. The dough is
very difficult to work, and it doesn't get easier as the amount
gets larger. Also bear in mind that thicker slabs will require a longer
OK. It's not haute cuisine, and it's not likely to make an
appearance on your festive table, but hardtack's still fine fare any time
the going gets tough. That's enough for me.
Good eatingand happy holidays to all! Here's to the return of the
Copyright © 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights