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There’s a saying, “no one should ever see how sausages or policy are made.” As a food historian and government employee, it’s too late for me to unlearn how those two things come about. But there’s another food – a historical one – that is just as much of a mystery to most people.

Hardtack and Coffee, published 1888

I’m talking about hardtack: those little square crackers part of the Civil War rations, reviled as one of the most terrible tasting foods ever.

Now, it’s not a very glamorous food, and certainly not likely to send someone off to wax poetically about it (like Proust and the Madeleines). But for all it’s bad characteristics, hardtack was easy to make, easy to carry, and had a long shelf life. It was nothing if not memorable, and made up an essential part of the Civil War diet.

Frying hardtack made it a little less unappetizing

J.J. Scroggs, a Union Soldier, described his visit to a hardtack factory in his diary. The machines kneaded “the dough much in the same manner a mortar machine in a brickyard does its work.”

A hand-held hardtack cutter

It sounds like the comparison between hardtack and cement wasn’t too far off! The only ingredients needed were water, a little salt, and a lot of flour. Some recipes had lard or another fat in them, but all were rolled flat, cut into easy-to-carry pieces, perforated (like the way Saltine crackers are), and baked.

Cheap and portable calories were the main attributes of hardtack. Almost makes MREs seem gourmet!

Posted in Civil War.

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