In the 19th Century, sailors and soldiers had three things in common: lice, dysentary, and hardtack. The latter was a Civil War staple right up there with tin types and blockade runners. (Is it obvious that most of my historical knowledge is derived from novels and Hollywood movies based on novels?) My newfound interest in this so-dry-as-to-render-it-nonperishable, but also, barely edible foodstuff comes from a book I can’t stop reading, called In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. If you hail from New England, appreciate sea stories and terrible but true recent human history, you will wan’t to run out and get this title by Nathaniel Philbrick poste haste. I’ll wait.
Sailors survived on hardtack by soaking it in water or coffee, so it wouldn’t break their teeth. Essex sailors, shipwrecked by a vengeful sperm whale, whose hardtack was soaked with salt water, came perilously close to death by increasing saline in their already dehydrated bodies (hypernatremia). Rations were reduced to a few hundred paltry calories a day. And this was all the nutrients for men in extreme conditions, combating enormous seas and tempestuous weather, using every ounce of withered muscle and spent energy attempting to make land, by sail or oars; they were not waiting to be rescued. Hardtack sucked, but it was better than nothing.
Hardtack is sort of a bread, or cracker, from what I understand. Flour, water, salt and sometimes shortening is combined and cooked for a long time, typically more than once, so that it becomes unporous and will keep for years. For the men shipwrecked of the Essex, making slow progress toward South America in their whaling boats, their measly quotidien amount of hardtack was only infrequently augmented by flying fish that hit the sails, and meat and blood from giant turtles, which they hunted and kept alive from their sojourn on the Galapagos Islands. They were gaga for that rich stuff, especially the heart and other tortoise organs.
I, as you may know, am from away. But I am also a New Englander. I can’t imagine living anywhere else for any significant stretch of time again. Most whalers in the 17- and 1800s were from Nantucket. They were clannish and disdainful of outsiders. Their stoic Quakerism, which seems incongrous with the gruesome killing they did at sea, provided them with strength and quiet solace. Our new country needed light, and the oil from sperm whales was the source to burn, which made the men and women of that small island rich, though thrifty. It’s good to go to sea, but better to come home. You really can again. Thanks to all who made us feel welcome this first year back in Maine, and here’s some hardtack for those of you who didn’t.
adapted from ehow
- 4 cups flour
- 2 cups water
- 4 teaspoons salt
Combine ingredients to create an unsticky dough, add more flour if necessary. Roll out the dough on a floured work surface so that it is one half inch thick. Use a pizza cutter to make pocket-sized squares. Fork the dough on both sides. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet at 375 for half an hour, flip and cook for another thirty minutes. And you’ve got hardtack, soldier.
Making hardtack is an excellent rainy day project and a cool way to impress your friends (not really). Avast, ye mateys! Land ho!