3. Making Hard Tack

"Hard tack" was slang for "hard bread" or "crackers": A hard unsalted cracker which resisted spoiling, used for centuries on land and sea. This was factory made. Hard tack was part of the reduced field ration issued in mobile situations. Despite Southern issues of corn meal, there is documentary evidence that the Confederates issued hard tack, including a complaint in 1864 that troops in Virginia had only four hard crackers a day. The size of hard tack crackers appears to have varied by bakery, from the usual square slightly larger than a saltine cracker to a rectangle larger than a man's hand.

It's not just the ingredients - it's how you make it that makes hard tack last unrefrigerated. I've been eating this for years now. This hardtack recipe works - adapted from instructions in the Dixie Gun Works catalog, by my wife, Donna, with minor help from me:

w Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

w Measure out about two cups of flour and have a cup of water handy. (If you wish, you may put a little salt in the water. That was how they salted hard bread. But it appears to have often been unsalted.)

w Put the flour in a mixing bowl, and mix in the water a little at a time until you've got a dough. You may use more or less water - you mix until it's a dough, NOT until you put in all the water.

w Next roll your dough out, about 1/4 inch thick. (Thicker, up to 1/2 inch if you want to be more historical but harder on the teeth). It helps to do the rolling on a floured surface.

w Next cut the dough into squares - BIGGER than modern saltine crackers. Use a fork to prick holes in the tops of the squares: three rows of four tine holes looks about right. (I think the holes let steam escape.) Put the squares on a cookie sheet or pizza pan.

w Bake at 350 degrees for the first 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 250 and continue to bake another 30 minutes, then down to 200 and watch for another 30 minutes. Flip them with a spatula during this process. Bake until it's hard, and either still white or just begins to turn color from white NOT burned (in other words, watch your hardtack, don't just set the timer).

w NOW here's the secret to baking hard bread which I gleaned from C.S. Forrester:
The next day, give your hardtack a second baking at a lower temperature, about 225 degrees for 30-45 minutes. Reason: the second baking finishes drying it out. One baking is not enough, short of burning the food. After the first baking, or if you package it up too soon, the bread will "sweat" as it cools, making it possible to mold. This "sweating" probably explains why some modern people talk about not packaging it in plastic. Rest assured: if you bake twice and let it cool first, you can package hardtack in gallon baggies and it will keep at least six months. Some baked in Sept. '95 was good in March '96, and I had it in a baggie.

Also note - there's no sense badmouthing hardtack. I understand "tack" was a period slang expression for any bad food. But my kids (2 and 3 when this was originally written), approaching it with no preconceptions, like hard bread. Think of it as wheat chips - without the oil and salt which make potato chips junk food. I suspect a lot of those 19th century farm boys just weren't prepared to like anything which wasn't Mama's home baked bread. In other words, recruits were not much different from their great great grandchildren in this century. Of course, some hard bread was evidently either not baked twice (to defraud the government), or wetted in shipment, and molded or was infested with weevils. But if you think about it, the weevils' eggs can't have survived the baking process, so it was a packaging problem.

Ian L. Straus
Originally written in 1998 as 2nd SGT, Co. K, 6th Texas Infantry

 

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