Who Invented Crackers?
I never realized that crackers were invented in New England. That is, until I leafed through the 2001 edition of The Old Farmer's Almanac.
According to the Almanac, both crackers and their predecessors were born here in New England. In 1792, John Pearson of Newburyport, Massachusetts, made a cracker-like bread product from just flour and water that he called "pilot bread." An immediate hit with sailors because of its long shelf life, it also became known as hardtack or sea biscuit.
But the real evolutionary moment in the life of the cracker came in 1801 when another Massachusetts baker, Josiah Bent, burnt a batch of biscuits in his brick oven. Oops! The crackling noise that emanated from the singed biscuits inspired the name--crackers--and a bit of Yankee ingenuity, as Bent set out to convince the world of the product's snack food potential. By 1810, his Boston-area business was booming! And, in later years, Bent sold his enterprise to the company we now know as Nabisco. Did you know that name evolved from National Biscuit Company?
Crackers are everywhere these days, of course: There are more than 20 different flavors of Triscuits! But the Almanac's cracker article author, Victoria Doudera, asserts that some New Englanders still enjoy making crackers the old-fashioned way. The Almanac featured tips and recipes from New Hampshire author Joan Harlow, whose book, The Harlow's Bread & Cracker Cookbook, has everything you need if you'd like to hear that crackling sound emanating from your own oven.
Sample Recipe for Ugly Crackers
To make these old-fashioned crackers, you'll need:
- 6 cups of all-purpose flour
- 1 cup of sesame seeds, crushed or toasted
- 1 Tablespoon of salt
- 1 Tablespoon of baking powder
- 3/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
- 2 cups of milk
Stir the dry ingredients together, cut in the blue cheese, then add milk.
Shape dough into a ball, then wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least one hour. Roll the dough out cracker thin (that's super thin!), place sheets of dough onto parchment paper-lined cookie sheets, then cut a grid pattern to make squares. Bake in an oven that has been preheated to 350°F for 8-10 minutes. Watch for the crackers to turn golden around the edges.
Where to Find Historic Crackers
Today, the G.H. Bent Co., founded in 1891 by Josiah Bent's grandson, still sells historic cracker products including pilot crackers, hardtack, water crackers and common crackers. They even sell them through a very modern method: secure online ordering!
So bake up a batch of your own crispy crackers or order some of these old-fashioned New England treats: It's the only proper way to celebrate one of the New England region's most enduring culinary inventions.
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