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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 polyester tents.

There's a price to pay for this comfort and convenience, of course. You've heard it here before—there'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 wars—literally. 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 of hand.

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 move on.

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 depression—in 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 and—if you haven't done so already—remove 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 needed.

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 baking time.

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 eating—and happy holidays to all! Here's to the return of the light.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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