Of all the proto-crackers, hardtack is my favorite. Not because I eat it much. It’s not easy to find these days, and the fact is that even though I live in Kentucky now, I hope to keep my natural teeth as long as I can. But what exactly is hardtack? It’s a form of military cracker that’s roughly 3″x 3″ x .5″, and was one of the most common rations during the American Civil War.
The word “hardtack” comes originally from British seaman slang: “tack”, “tuck”, “tucker” (meaning “food”). As for the “hard” part, that much should be obvious by now. You can still order hardtack from the G.H. Bent Company, which is going strong to this day in Massachusetts. But what does hardtack taste like? Having eaten some in my life I can say that it’s bland, crunchy and not half bad. Of course, I ate it fresh. Civil War-era troops rarely consumed hardtack that way. Most of the time, the crackers they were served came from a storage depot where they had been sitting in crates for months, even years. Sometimes outside. That meant one of two things: they were either sodden and moldy or stale to the point of petrification.
Most of the time it was the latter. A common method for dealing with stale hardtack was to break up with a rock or a rifle butt, then soak the crumbs in water, pickle brine or coffee until they softened enough to eat. At that point the hardtack mush could be eaten as-is, used to thicken soup, or fried in a pan with salt pork grease to make what the soldiers called “skillygallee”. Now that’s good eatin’!
One Union soldier recounted chewing through a piece of hardtack one morning when suddenly he bit into something soft: a ten penny nail. Of course that was just the beginning of the hardtack jokes that were common in the ranks during the Civil War, most of them much more disgusting. I’ll get to as many of those as I can.