by Donna Miller Damon

Boston Globe, September 12, 1996

From boat-shoed members of the Prouts Neck Yacht Club to rubber-booted fishermen off the coast of Alaska, New Englanders are in mourning. A good friend has disappeared from their midst. Crown Pilot crackers are no longer being produced by Nabisco.

For generations the people of coastal New England have made culinary fare of this modern-day version of hardtack, an unleavened biscuit famous for nourishing seafarers for months, even years, at sea.

Gary Varney of Chebeague Island, Maine, calls Crown Pilot crackers and milk "the dish to eat when you are hungry and nothing else seems right." These kings of crackers for the cognoscenti have one other upside - no sugar or cholesterol.

Companies across corporate America are downsizing, but rarely does a corporate ax obliterate an important element of the culture of an entire region. Nabisco did just that when it stopped production of Crown Pilot crackers, which date back to the days of sailing ships and the settlement of New England.

When seamen came ashore, they brought along their taste for hardtack. Although not quite as hard as what a sailor would find aboard ship, locally baked sea biscuits served the same purpose. The phenomenon spread to the general community. Babies teethed on them; children spread them with strawberry preserves. Softened in milk, they could be enjoyed by all, including the weak, toothless and infirm. Young and old alike thought a stew or chowder naked if not covered with these crumbled crackers. Coastal folks pickled pieces of cod in a salty brine and hung them on a clothesline to dry, later to be savored with hardtack and milk on a snowy Sabbath night.

At first Crown Pilot cracker devotees thought that their unavailability was temporary. But when their worst fears were confirmed, folks on Chebeague Island began rationing their last few boxes. Ellsworth and Melba Miller, who eat crackers and milk twice a week, are down to their las few. Lewis Ross, who likes salt fish and Crown Pilot crackers every Sunday night, has a couple of meals left because of the generosicy of a neighbor who felt sorry for Lewis' plight.

In an O. Henry twist, the friend was later reminded that he had given Lewis nearly all of his own supply. Another islander reported doling out her last few crackers as if they were pieces of eight. Because Nabisco didn't announce its decision to stop production i advance, islanders never had a chance to hoard the crackers - a missed opportunity for scalpers.

Julie and Ed Doughty, proprietors of the Island Market on Chebeague, have been deluged with requests. The Doughtys report that the crackers had continued to remain popular despite a rise in price to $3.09 a box, which is a far cry from the days when Goudy and Kent made seve-inch round crackers and sold them for $3 a barrel to the crews of passing fishing vessels.

The bosses at Nabisco should consider the marketing possiblilites. If they could talk an exclusive New York restaurant into pushing their lobster stew or clam chowder in combination with their cracker, Nabisco stock might soar.

Will the company reconsider its decision to eliminate Crown Pilot crackers from the face of the earth? Only time will tell.

New England is where America began. So if corporate executives can change what folks in the region have for supper on a Sunday night, it could happen anywhere.

Will grits and collard greens be next?

Donna Miller Damon, a native of Chebeague Island, Maine, is a free-lance writer and local historian.
Illustration by Brian Lies

For more articles by Donna Damon