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Crown Pilot Crackers Gone Again

Our beloved chowder cracker has been eliminated–again! Eleven years ago or so, Nabisco stopped making Crown Pilots and all heck broke out in Maine, especially Chebeague where Damon Miller Damon was the first to raise perpendicular dickens about it. CBS and Tim Sample came to interview several of us and they featured the dust-up on Sunday Morning. Nabisco saw a promotional opportunity and brought it back.

But now it is gone, yet again, and we feel crumby about it.

What’s the big deal with a cracker? Pilot crackers are a largish cracker, 2 1/2 x 4 3/4 inches, made primarily of flour, a bit of shortening but not much, some molasses, malted barley flour, baking soda. That’s pretty much it. Several decades ago, this kind of cracker was de rigeuer in chowder because it was the closest thing around to seafarer’s hardtack, one of the original ingredients in chowder, predating potatoes which eventually replaced it.

Somewhere along the line, some idiot decided that a chowder had to be thickened with flour, a huge mistake, and crackers were a relegated to the side to be crumbled optionally on top. In recent years, little oyster crackers gained wide acceptance in New England for dumping on chowder, though Mainers knew better than to buy that nonsense. Mainers seized a pilot cracker, crushed it with their fist into their soup bowl, and ladled their chowder on top. Of course, we were making chowder properly–no flour–and a lovely milky broth.

The deep story on this cracker is that when Nabisco, which some of you may or may not know was called National Biscuit Company, began in the late 1800s, they made a large corporation out of buying small bakeries all across the nation, including a Newburyport, Massachusetts, bakery where the Crown Pilot was a product. At the time Nabisco (now itself owned by Kraft) first dropped the cracker, the recipe was the oldest one that the company owned, probably dating to the 1880s or ’90s.

Most of us forget that crackers, hardtack, even some sweet biscuits and cookies were made by professional bakers in large towns and cities. A hardtack–seabiscuit–bakery was one of the first commercial enterprises in early seventeenth century Virginia. Newburyport as a seaport, of course, needed hardtack, and its more refined and expensive first cousin, pilot crackers, a nicer version of hardtack reserved for the officers.

But it is a terrible thing when we come to rely on a necessarily self-interested corporation to supply us with the needful for our cultural identity. Especially when there are not enough of us to buy more in order to help our poor cracker-friend meet his corporate profit goals. Think, for example, what will happen to Thanksgiving Dinners across the country the day that Durkee stops making onions rings for the top of that famous green bean casserole?

Who knows what will happen with the cracker this time. My opinion is that we need to find a Maine bakery to buy, beg, or steal the pilot cracker recipe and make it here where it is loved and wanted.

Sandy Oliver, Food Historian, Author, MF&L columnist: The Way Things Were

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9 Comments

  • 07/15/2008 at 6:16 PM
    Memere

    Add the eastern end of Long Island, NY (not the big city folk but the old timers) to those who miss the pilot crackers. Unfortunately in the “fabulous Hamptons”, they have replaced them with high-tone, fancy crackers.

  • 07/24/2008 at 9:08 AM
    Mirna

    Us youngings in NYC are also big time fans of crown pilots! I am so disappointed with Nabisco, when I sent them an email to express my anger they sent me a generic email stating how when an unpopular product doesn’t sell, etc etc. I urge people to write to them or call them. There’s nothing else out there that’s the same!

  • 08/30/2008 at 10:22 AM
    Bogframe

    I’ve been eating Crown Pilots since I’ve had teeth, and they are the ONLY cracker that goes as well with chowder as it does with peanut butter. Shame on Nabisco/Kraft for putting profit against love! I’m never buying another Nabisco product again until they see the error of their ways.

  • 10/01/2008 at 2:06 PM
    Cynthia Fisher

    Does anyone have just one box from the Crown Pilot Crackers?

    I just need the box for a nostalgic photo shoot.

    I’d gladly return it in pristine condition if it holds fond memories!

    Thanks,

    Cynthia Fisher

  • 10/05/2008 at 8:07 PM
    David Greene

    It is so sad that Nabisco apparently can show no respect for a great product with so may decades of proud history and loyal consumers. Doubtless, their only interest lies in the production and sale of those items that are easily mass-marketed.
    I am a lifelong fan of Crown Pilot Crackers living way out in Western Pennsylvania. Clearly their appeal is not limited solely to New Englanders. They used to be widely sold out here and, without question, in countless other regions as well

  • 11/08/2008 at 8:23 AM
    William Hubert

    Pilot Crackers were always a staple on Grandfathers’ sailboat on the Great South Bay. Sailing from Squasax Landing to the Old Inlet Beach with more than a dozen hungry souls aboard, a box of Pilot Crackers, always referred to as “hard tack” and a few cans of Manhattan chowder (this is eastern Long Island) heated on a gimbled pot stove fed them all. Those experiences over a half a century ago spred the desire for Pilot Crackers around the country and the globe. Boxes of crackers were sent to those who were starved because of the lack of availability.

    Then the aftermath of the great disruption lo and behold, we could buy Pilot Crackers at our local stores in Upstate New York! Right in the Adirondacks. Life could not be better those glory days of the early part of this century. But no matter how many we purchased, despite long talks with the route drivers that supplied the stores, the day came when the great retreat started again. Difficult, but not impossible, because the network of moving boxes of crackers was reinstituted.

    But now we are lost! All sense of reason is overturned by a “bean counters” in the mega corporate world. Why can’t this be resolved? There is no other product which is a substitute and nothing else is remotely similar. If Kraft has no desire to make the product, wouldn’t they at least like to make “free” money by selling off the rights and equipment? Perhaps they would like an ongoing royalty (as if they deserve it)by simply licensing another company to make and market them.
    There must be a way to end this lunacy as the quality of life of many thousands of people is being sadly diminished.

    PS Anybody got any boxes of Pilot Crackers to sell ???

  • 12/05/2008 at 2:51 PM
    Leslie Ostergard

    I can not believe that Pilot Crackers are no longer available. My whole life I have had them to put in chowder, and now they’re gone. Shame on Nabisco!

  • 12/16/2008 at 4:05 PM
    ChristineQ

    I just called Nabisco and lodged my complaint. I suggested that they give the recipe to some small bakery that doesn’t have to meet Big Company sales quotas. The rep I spoke to was very nice but she didn’t think they’d want to do that. On the other hand, I would expect a professional baker to be able to duplicate the recipe without much trouble. Heck, I might even try to do it myself and I’m just a dabbler.

  • 01/09/2009 at 8:30 PM
    heaben

    Still trying to find a copycat recipe for crown pilot, but to no avail. Where are you Todd Wilbur when we need you?
    I’m from Boothbay Harbor, Me., but in the fall, our local grocery store always ordered extra Crown Pilot, so that our summer residents could take them home and enjoy them until they returned in the spring.
    When young, we had a big sunday dinner and on sunday night we would have a “mug up” as dad would say. It usually consisted of crumbled up crown pilot in milk. Dad would have salt cod with his.
    Another family favorite which until the recent demise, I would have often for supper was, crown pilot soaked in hot coffee and then drained off, followed by a poached egg, topped with a little butter salt and pepper. a wonderfully unique flavor, one I miss greatly.
    Why is Kraft being so secretive with their recipe? I think they’re going to sell it for a fortune after everyone has gone through a major withdrawal.