New England Recipes Masthead I New Egnland Recipes Masthead II

Crackers & Real Rhode Island Fish Chowder

In 1920 an inquiry was sent in to the Boston Cooking School Magazine asking for a recipe for Real Rhode Island Fish Chowder.  The recipe was published in the November issue. Among the ingredients was Boston Crackers. Not knowing what a Boston Cracker was, sent the author on a search looking for the answer. As it turned out, New Englanders reinvented crackers. Two different types became common: (1) Pilot or Ship Bread a thin flat cracker and (2) Common Cracker a puffed cracker that was split which went by many different names including the Boston Cracker, Medford Cracker, Montpelier or Vermont Common Cracker.

History of Crackers

Going back a few millenniums, “Egyptian sailors carried a flat brittle loaf of millet bread called dhourra cake, while the Romans had a biscuit called buccellum. King Richard I of England, (aka Richard the Lionheart) left for the Third Crusade (1182-92) with ‘biskit of muslin,’ which is a mixed grain compound of barley, rye and bean flour.” (Hardtack,  Hardtack is a hard, dry cracker.

The earliest American text to make reference to crackers was the Western Minerva, or, American Annals of Knowledge and Literature, vol. I. no.1, Lexington, (KY.) January, 1820. Under the chapter Manufactures is an article On the various Manufactures from Flour. “It may appear strange that in the Western States where wheat is now so cheap, and so unsalable, no other manipulation of it, has been extensively introduced, except making Flour, Bread and Whiskey. Flour is as low as Wheat every where; Bread can only be used for daily consumption, and Whiskey besides being extremely cheap, is a pernicious liquor and manufacture.” The point of the statement was to introduce westerners to the idea of making “Ship-Bread” and “Crackers” which used wheat thus flour and were profitable businesses in the east. Two types of crackers were named: “Common Cracker” and “Butter Cracker” along with “Ship-Bread”. The article does not describe the crackers as it is focused on the profitability aspect. But it can be seen crackers were a big business.

In 1795 – 1895 One Hundred Years of American Commerce, there is a history of The Biscuit Industry.  “Perhaps no other single industry is so far-reaching in its sources of supply, or enters into so many homes with its perfected product, as that under consideration.” This statement indicates crackers were made and sold commercially verses being a homemade product.

“The name ‘biscuit,’ derived through the French from the Latin, means ‘twice baked,’. In Europe all articles of food in the shape of small cakes made from flour, with sweetening or flavoring added, have always been and still are called ‘biscuits’. Goods of this variety, however, were at first unknown in the United States, and the term generally applied to the first crude productions made of plain and unsweetened dough was ‘cracker’. This latter name has ever since retained its significance in this country [United States] in connection with the plain, usually crisp, unflavored grades of goods, which last, …”  (p.446) When America’s crackers were introduced to Europe, the Europeans called them biscuits, their generic name for all small cakes. So the terms biscuits and crackers are sometimes used interchangeably although America’s crackers are rarely sweetened.

“The first cracker bakery in the United States of which we have any trustworthy record was that of Theodore Pearson at Newburyport, Mass. in 1792. His specialty was the pilot or ship bread …” Pilot or ship bread was described as “a large, round, clumsy, crisp affair, which supplied the demand of merchant marine for an article of food that would, unlike ordinary bread, keep for a prolonged period. Subsequently another variety was originated, the cold-water cracker, which differed from the first chiefly in its smaller size, more compact texture, and greater hardness. For a long time these two crackers were the only goods known to the trade. They were both unleavened dough (flour and water and a little salt), mixed and kneaded by hand; and each cracker was rolled out and shaped separately before being placed, one at a time, on a long-handled sheet-iron shovel or peel, and transferred in order to the floor of the oval shaped tile oven then in use. It was not until some time later that raised or fermented dough was used in the manufacture of crackers.” p.446

“At Milton, Mass., in 1801, Joshua Bent erected his first oven, which doubtless was a small affair. As it was carried on no more than three days in the week by himself and family, the product then being loaded into his wagon and sold in the surrounding towns. This was the beginning of the baking of the celebrated ‘Bent’s water-cracker’.” (p.446) He was followed by Artemas Kennedy who started a cracker business in Menotomy [Arlington, MA], later moving to Westford and eventually moving to Milton, MA. Boston, MA got its first cracker bakery about 1830. In New York crackers began being produced in 1825. Connecticut became another cracker producing state in the 1800s.

History of the Town of Medford [Massachusetts] (1855) has a write up on Medford Crackers. Convers Francis was given an opportunity to take over his former employer’s bakery business in 1797. Some time between 1797 and 1805 Mr. Francis began producing crackers. He was so particular about the flour he inspected every barrel before purchasing. “Mr. Francis produced a cracker which was considered as more tasteful and healthy than any heretofore invented. The writer of this [article] was walking in a street of London in 1834, and saw, at a shop-window, the following sign: ‘Medford Crackers’. This bread was called crackers, because one of them would crack [split] into two equal parts.” The Medford Cracker differed from the ship bread and water cracker, in that it was split into two parts suggesting it was a puffed cracker. In the Rhode Fish Chowder recipe the Boston Crackers are “soaked and split” suggesting they were similar to the Medford Cracker.

The Americana, A Universal Reference Library (1912) repeats what was said in the 1895 book and adds some information. “The interval between 1840 and 1865 represents the most important period in the history of the cracker industry, for it was during this time that the mechanical processes” was introduced. The author of the Medford Cracker history said, “Each cracker was nearly double the size of those now made [1855]”. This suggests the Medford manufacture probably changed to mechanized machines. Today (2011) and for some years now the small Oyster or Chowder Crackers have been sold. They are small puffed crackers that are commonly served with a bowl of chowder. The size shows crackers continued to be reduced in size until they reached our 1” versions seen in the Oyster Cracker and the small cheese flavored snack crackers.

For all their popularity recipes for crackers are scarce. There appears to be two reasons for this.

(1) “Crackers can never be very successfully made in the private family, as it requires to knead them hard enough, and also to roll them out; but if one can not afford to buy crackers, very good ones can be made by following out the recipes here given.

In making crackers, knead in all the flour possible, and knead a long time. A man has better success than a woman, in making crackers, as strength is required to knead thoroughly and roll out the dough thin.” (Guide for Nut Cookery by Mrs. Almeda Lambert, 1899, p 188)

(2) “To this day, corporate descendants of CW [Civil War] era contractors such as Nabisco consider their archival recipes to be ‘proprietary information’: trade secrets.”  Receipt (Recipe) for Army Hard Bread or Hardtack (PDF) from “contemporary research by members of the 3rd Maine Infantry, Third Main Volunteers”

In the first statement, it can be seen crackers took a lot of strength to make. In the second statement, companies making crackers retained the recipes as proprietary information or what is called a trade secret. Albeit the difficulties in getting and making crackers a few recipes were published.

This comes from a woman who was responding to a request for Home-Made Crackers from “A Young Housekeeper” from Springfield, Massachusetts. It was published in Good House Keeping (March 16, 1889, vol. 8 no. 10). “I am not quite sure, O ‘Young Housekeeper,’ that the recipe I am going to give you is the one for which you are in search. If you mean a cracker anything like those that you buy in the stores, then this is not the one you are after; but if you want what we call ‘crackers,’ and some others term wafers, thin biscuit, and Scotch cakes, here is the way to make them.” The lady was from Hillsboro, North Carolina and her recipe was for 1 cup flour, a tablespoon of lard and salt. Although no liquid was mentioned other similar recipes called for sour milk, sweet milk or cold water. The recipe is similar to what was commonly known as Soda Crackers, a type of cracker that was homemade. Soda cracker recipes range from using baking soda, to no baking soda, to using baking soda and cream of tartar which is baking powder when mixed together. This type of cracker was called by numerous different names Maryland Biscuit, Cracker No. 1, Cracker No. 2, Cream Soda Crackers, Good Crackers, Plain Crackers, and Afternoon Tea Crackers. Ironically, no recipe called Soda Cracker was found among them. No recipe for the Common Cracker that is commonly split was found. The soda cracker appears to be a Midwestern cracker which was in use from around 1815 onward. It is not seen in a New England cook book until 1926. New England being the largest manufacturing area of commercial crackers may be why cracker recipes are nearly non-existent. Plus, they had a preference for the Common Cracker. By comparison, the Midwest areas like Wisconsin and Michigan had rural farms far removed from the town centers which may have been the reason their housewives depended upon homemade crackers.

Cracker Recipes

Cracker with Soda

The Michigan Farmer (March 1855, vol. 13, no. 3 pp.84)

We have had excellent crackers for home use made in our own family from the following recipe:
6 oz. [3/4 cup] butter
2 lbs. [8 cups] flour
Rub together until thoroughly mixed
1 teaspoon soda, mixed with
Sweet milk enough to make a stiff dough

Turn out on to a board and “beat with a rolling pin thoroughly” most recipes
say to knead the dough by hand for a long time until elastic; “then roll out
and cut into shapes, bake in quick oven, and then dry.”

Afternoon Tea Cracker

Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1936 Edition)

Sift and mix dry ingredients
 1 cup bread flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
teaspoon salt
Cut butter in with pastry blender or tips of fingers
cup butter
Add milk to make stiff dough
3 Tablespoons milk
“Toss on floured board, and pat and roll inch thick. Shape with round cutter dipped in flour, arrange on buttered cooky sheet, and bake 10 minutes in hot oven (400 degrees). Split while hot, return to oven, and bake until a golden brown. These crackers will keep for weeks without crumbling.”

Tradition Common Crackers are available from:

Fish Chowder Recipe

Rhode Island Fish Chowder

From the Boston Cooking School Magazine (Nov. 1920)

“Query No. 4167. — ‘Will you be so good as to publish, as soon as possible, a recipe for the real Rhode Island Fish Chowder?’

Rhode Island Fish Chowder

In the bottom of an iron kettle fry five or six slices of fat salt pork, cut into small pieces, until it is crisp and brown. Cut up four pounds of either fresh codfish or sea bass into two-inch cubes, put into the kettle and cover with thin-sliced streaky bacon. Over this place a layer of onions, also very thin-sliced, and handful of chopped parsley, and a pinch of summer savory. Next put on a layer of Boston crackers, split and soaked in warm water until soft but not broken.

Proceed by repeating these layers until all the fish is used; the crackers for the top layer should be' thickly buttered. Add cold water to cover, and cook gently for one hour. If the water boils away so that the top crackers get dry, add boiling water. Remove the solid parts of the chowder carefully with a skimmer into the serving dish, and thicken the liquid in the pot with two tablespoonfuls of flour and two of butter, rubbed together. Let boil up once and pour over chowder. Serve with sliced lemons, pickles and stewed tomatoes.”

NOTE: This recipes appears to be an abridged version of a Rhode Island chowder recipe which appeared in the White House Cook (1889) page 54.

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