Every so often when you're looking through a book of old New England recipes, you'll find one that calls for common crackers. Well, there are plenty of common crackers around. Saltines come to mind.
But the common crackers these recipes call for are actually a specific type of common cracker, and these days they're anything but common.
If you dropped back in time, say 30 years, you'd know exactly what the recipe needs, as common crackers in boxes were ubiquitous throughout New England well in to the 1970s.
But to get the full picture, you'd need to step back in time a bit further, to the days when fresh bread was not easy to get and before science took over the business of baking. With preservatives and cellophane and cardboard packaging, today it's common to eat crackers made anywhere in the world.
But in the early 1800s, that wasn't the case. Baking science hadn't evolved so far, and the common cracker was the solution for hungry families that needed a staple that would not go bad for months.
Inventor of Common Cracker
If you want to figure out who invented the first common cracker, you're probably out of luck. They went by many names and many bakers produced them, with small variations in size. The Boston Cracker in Massachusetts, the Portland Cracker in Maine, the Montpelier Cracker in Vermont, etc.
American crackers, themselves, were born in Newburyport, Mass. -- or so the story goes-- in the bakery of Theodore Pearson. There he created pilot biscuits or hard tack.
Sailors, soldiers, explorers and travelers have carried some variation of cracker with them for centuries, as far back as you can imagine. The Newburyport version of this was called hard tack (among other things).
Hard tack is simply an unleavened water and flour cracker that has been baked to within an inch of its life. It will last virtually forever. Hard tack produced for the War of 1812 was stored and then brought out for use in the Civil War, for example, none the worse for wear. Soldiers and sailors preferred it only slightly to starvation.
But hard tack soon gave rise (forgive the pun) to more elegant crackers for domestic use. The addition of yeast, a rising period of 24 hours (and more) and a long period of kneading, followed by baking and drying, resulted in a puffy white cracker with a hard thick outer shell – the common cracker.
The ingenious Yankees had dozens of uses for them, many involved mashing them. They were commonly used as thickeners for soup and chowder or mashed and eaten with milk. Later, they were split, buttered, toasted and given all sorts of toppings. And when potatoes began to take over the chowder, the crackers were shifted to the side, to be crumbled in just before eating.
The folks at The Food Timeline suggest the originator of the common cracker may have been Artemus Kennedy, who was a baker in what is now Arlington, Mass. Kennedy, their research suggests, began baking the crackers at his bakery founded in 1805. He rode around the nearby country on horseback selling them. But it’s not clear where he got the idea for them.
Another early baker who dabbled with the cracker was Josiah Bent who founded the G.H. Bent company in Milton, Mass., in 1801. The company was best known for making water crackers, which Bent prized for their ability to travel well on sea voyages. Bent's water crackers are smaller than the common cracker, but he made other products as well. Bent definitely made a lot of hard tack for the government, as did Pearce, and the company revived that recipe for Civil War reenactors a century after the war itself ended.
Perhaps the best known of the common cracker makers was Charles Cross of Montpelier, Vt., and his tireless horse. Charles and his brother Thomas, originally from New Hampshire, founded the Cross Bakers in 1828, and the business continuously operated for 151 years, becoming C.H. Cross & Sons before going bankrupt in 1979. Then the firm and its Cross Crackers were based in Claremont, N.H.
In the early days, Cross used a horse-powered treadmill to run the machinery for his bakery, and his horse alternated jobs, one day powering the treadmill, the next hauling crackers for delivery. Over time, Cross grew to have a crew of salesmen traveling throughout New England selling his crackers to stores.
But in his earliest days, the crackers were packed and displayed in barrels. And this is probably the use we most associate with common crackers: stored in a barrel that was a centerpiece of the country store where they were sold. Visitors to the store would be invited to pull up a seat, crack open a cracker and put a piece of cheese on it. In this setting, the issues of the day were resolved, news was passed and arguments settled.
As the humorist John Gould wrote, "everything has been on the skids since the common cracker declined."
The common cracker had a new lease on life given to it by Julia Child, who gave them her stamp of approval for use with chowder. She became rather famously obsessed with cracking the recipe, which she eventually did.
Should you need a common cracker today, there are two companies still selling them: the aforementioned G.H. Bent, which has continuously operated since 1801, and Vermont Common Foods, which wholesales them and has a nice collection of recipes for how to cook with them. The company acquired the Cross cracker equipment, which it uses to make them today.
You can order the Vermont Common Cracker from the Vermont Country Store. Click here. This story was updated in 2017.