Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hard tack-- redux

As you may all know, one of my big beeves is that often when people go about recreating some bit of food from the Mormon pioneers, they start with a recipe that isn't anywhere close to reflecting what the pioneers actually ate. Further, they don't think to question where the recipe came from ("provenance" as the antiques folks say). If something is printed in a Church publication, it must be True, they think. And as our last post revealed, this is not always the case. So here are just a few thoughts regarding the errors in the previous post.

First, as Sherm noted, hard tack was not ever intended to be "delicious." Its main requirement was that it keep long term. These are mutually exclusive ideas. For it to keep long term, it had to be dry as a bone, and contain nothing that would spoil. Fats, oils and milk-based ingredients spoil or go rancid. Likewise, rolling the dough out thin also means it will not last long. Thin crackers break into tiny little crumbs.

If the cracker is not thin, it will take some time to dry thoroughly. If it is not completely void of moisture it will spoil. To facilitate drying, pierce each cracker with a toothpick on a half-inch grid. Because it needs to dry thoroughly, we can't bake it at 400 degrees F. Instead, it needs to bake very slowly at a lower temperature (perhaps 200-250) for a long time (at least a couple of hours).

" will stay fresh as long as it is kept dry." Hmmm... actually, its not supposed to stay fresh. It's supposed to be dry. And truth be told, sailors often said that a cracker has to ripen at sea. The ripening references crackers that have gotten slightly soggy from ocean humidity, and then become infested with weevils. As the weevils tunneled through the cracker (note the implication of a thick cracker), it weakened the cracker so that it could be broken up more readily. In Melville's Moby Dick, Ishmael talks about sailors throwing such crackers into the rendering pot to fry in whale oil, making a tasty meal.

On the other hand, Melville doesn't mention "...jam, peanut butter, cheese, meat spreads, or whatever you like. Try seasoning the crackers by adding onion powder, cheese, barbecue sauce, bacon bits, herbs, or spices to the dough." The utter poppycock of this notion should be apparent on the face of things.

If you make hard tack, it should break a tooth and choke a camel. On the other hand if you want to make something tasty, why not find a credible recipe for a pioneer-era cookie? It just seems silly to try to make a sea biscuit into a cookie.


Cafe Johnsonia said...

I loved this post, Brock. We talk about hard tack all the time.

As an aside, my father-in-law brought up an interesting point when we were talking about the kinds of foods the pioneers brought along the trail. We're foodies that love to talk about that. He likened it to preparing for a voyage across the sea. And a lot of the pioneers would have just done that before climbing into wagons. Anyway, I never thought about it that way--like a ship voyage over land.

He mentioned cheese and a few other things. I knew about hard tack, of course, but not cheese. Have you found that to be true?

Brock said...

I haven't seen anything about cheese making on the trail, and cheese doesn't show up on the list of recommended provisions published in the Nauvoo Neighbor in 1845. The list does include milk cows, and I have read about pioneers who used milk as a mainstay of their trail diet. Cheese making takes a more stationary kitchen than most trail experiences allowed.

On the other hand, pioneers resupplied from farmsteads in Iowa and Nebraska, and forts along the trail. Their access to purchased food items continued all the way to SLC. It is feasable that some pioneers purchased cheese along the trail. Just because I haven't found an instance of such doesn't mean it didn't happen.

What I do know for certain is that carbohydrates and animal fats were the main fuel for pioneers on the trail. Although cheese is a lovely thing, it doesn't do the same thing as a biscuit. The bulk of the load on a handcart was 500 pounds of flour.

Jana said...

1 gal. milk
1/4 C. vinegar
Salt. Salt. Salt. Salt.

Heat the milk to 185 degrees. Dump in 1/4 C. vinegar and stir. The acid separates the proteins from the whey. Strain through a tea towel. Salt the bejeebers out of it.

Also, when our 3 year old hardtack got near moisture, it developed the most amazing mold, it looked like candy sprinkles!

Jana said...

Any objections to a "real hard tack vs. whatever this business is" experiment on my blog?