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February 5, 1997

The Cracker That Wouldn't Die (Put That in Your Chowder)


BOSTON -- Hardly anyone complained when Brown Edge Wafers or the kind of Chips Ahoy cookies that came coated with tiny multicolored sprinkles disappeared from grocery stores last year. In fact, except in the case of one rather bland brand, there was no consumer outcry over the 300 or so other products that Nabisco discontinued in 1996.

But the Crown Pilot cracker has its fans. And because of them, the big, hearty cracker, a staple on New England tables since the late 18th century, has a second lease on life.

Donna Miller Damon, who lives on Chebeague Island, a tiny fishing community in Casco Bay off Maine's southwest coast, became alarmed last June after a shopping trip in Portland. "Could you find any Crown Pilots?" she recalled asking another shopper on the ferry home. The neighbor said no. No one else could find any Crown Pilots, either.

Nabisco had dropped them from its product line in May because they were not making money. It had been selling about 241,000 pounds of Crown Pilots a year, said Ann Smith, a company spokeswoman. By comparison, she said, Ritz crackers, another Nabisco brand, sells more than 150 million pounds a year.

That didn't stop loyalists. The cracker crusade, a textbook example of Down East determination, was under way. In an op-ed piece in the August 1996 issue of Inter-Island News, a newsletter servicing 14 Maine islands, Mrs. Damon asked readers to call Nabisco to object. "If a corporate executive can determine what we have for supper on Sunday night in Maine, it can happen anywhere," she wrote. "Will collard greens and grits be next?"

Tuesday, 3,500 irate calls, letters and e-mail messages later, Nabisco, based in Parsippany, N.J., announced that the crackers have gone back into production and will reappear in stores starting next week.

"We thought we were discontinuing a cracker," Mark Hosbein, the business director of Nabisco's Savory Snacks division, said at a shipboard news conference in Boston Harbor. "It is apparent we were interrupting history for many people."

Chebeague Island (population 325) cheered, with typical Down East understatement. "It's been a great education for my children to see that big companies can be responsive," said Mrs. Damon, who attended the news conference.

Last week, Mrs. Damon, 46, an island historian, substitute teacher and lifelong resident of the island, said the crackers may mean more to her parents than to her. "They are in their 80s, and they were still having them two to three nights a week for supper," she said. "They were crushed when they heard they stopped making them."

For many New Englanders, the Crown Pilot cracker -- 5 by 2 1/2 by 3/16 inches -- is not just a food but a heritage. It was created in 1792 by John Pearson, a baker in Newburyport, Mass., whose business joined with other bakeries a century later to form National Biscuit Co., now known as Nabisco.

Sailors loved the crackers because they kept well on voyages, earning the name "hardtack" or "ship's biscuit." Landlocked cooks crumbled them in soups and stews and used them in place of milk or cream to thicken chowders.

If it is 10 degrees below zero, who wants to venture out for groceries? "When the bread's all gone, you can take out one of these Pilot crackers," said Beverly Johnson, 48, a plumber on the island. "I remember my father in Massachusetts pouring molasses on them."

When Nabisco discontinued the crackers, which retail for $2.89 for a box of 24, it told disgruntled eaters to try the company's squarish Uneeda Biscuits. "They said, 'No, it's not the same,' " Ms. Smith recalled.

Not that the islanders are close-minded. They sampled many substitutes, sent to islanders from sympathetic snackers around the world. One woman in Alaska mailed eight pounds of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread. A group in Hawaii sent a local version.

But most of the alternatives lacked the one ingredient -- malted barley -- that seems to give the Crown Pilot its special flavor. Actually, "bland" is the first word many aficionados use to describe the taste.

Both Mrs. Damon and Nabisco are surprised that the cracker, sold only in New England, has fans across the country. One call to Mrs. Damon came from a man in Alexandria, Va., whose family had emigrated from Trinidad in 1919. He had never been to New England but was devastated by the discontinuation of the cracker.

"In Afro-American Caribbean culture they use a hardtack biscuit, and the closest thing they had here was the Crown Pilot," Mrs. Damon said.

At the Island Market on Chebeague Island, cracker tales are the hot topic of conversation. "I can so easily see the box on my grandfather's table," said Cathy MacNeill, 38, who makes corn, clam and fish chowders at the market. "I remember sitting on his lap as a child. His mug and his cracker would be right beside him. A Wheat Thin wouldn't be quite right in a chowder."

After the news conference, Nabisco held a chowder lunch in Boston and similar events later in Gloucester, Mass., and Portland, giving away 150 cases of crackers to people who had complained. The company also donated $3,000 to three New England historical societies.

For the first time, the crackers will be for sale outside New England, by the case only (12 boxes), by calling (800) NABISCO. They will be baked in Philadelphia, as they had been -- same recipe, same brick-red box. Only their uses will change.

"My daughter likes them with brie and jelly," Mrs. Damon said, "heated in the microwave."

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