A soldier's fast food

WHen Confederate and union soldiers sat down for their evening meal, it wasn't very flavorful. But it sure was durable.

WHen Confederate and union soldiers sat down for their evening meal, it wasn't very flavorful. But it sure was durable.

September 11, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

For soldiers trudging solemnly toward fields of battle, fine dining fell somewhere between pasty instant coffee and perhaps a can of peaches.

Wolfgang Puck? Hardly. Hockey pucks might be more accurate.

Enter hardtack, a nearly indestructible baked wafer in the mold of a saltine, durable as a rifle (and allegedly tasting about as good).

"Gourmet hardtack," Antietam National Battlefield ranger/historian Paul Chiles says, "you can drive a nail with."

Union and Confederate men subsisted on this stuff? Evidently, soldiers ate as much lead as they shot during the war between the states.


Fact is, the flour and water biscuit was THE foodstuff of choice for fighters on the move with precious little space for bulky cooking equipment and food to cook in it.

"If you can imagine a saltine without the salt, only thicker and difficult to chew and that's basically what it is, almost a tasteless cracker," says Ken Anderson. "And it's usefulness in the Civil War is it would last forever. That was something they could pack and take with them and something that would keep them satisfied, if not from complaining about the food."

Anderson, a Millinocket, Maine, resident and Civil War buff, has dedicated a Web page to the glory of hardtack and its various incarnations. The Web page is at


Having grown up on his mother's Swedish hardtack, sweeter than the military version, he knows the 3-inch-square, 3/8-inch-thick wafers don't taste too bad with a spot of butter or jam.

Just eat it early; the longer hardtack - sea biscuits to sailors - sits around, the harder it gets.

"It was literally too hard to chew," says Larry Keener-Farley, director of education at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pa. "Even modern examples of it, when you cook it up, are extremely hard."

Which is why soldiers in the field often resorted to cooking hardtack in coffee, or frying it up in the juice or fat of meat.

Carrying food and cooking supplies in a canvas haversack, hardtack was a soldier's staple but hardly the only item to sate their appetites.

While foraging for food was generally discouraged, Keener-Farley says soldiers benefited from quite a few culinary advances. Canned foods were beginning to pop up, leading to options such as canned pork and beans and canned peaches.

And instant coffee made its debut during the Civil War. According to the Civil War Collector's Encyclopedia, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant may have been the first guinea pig to try the drink, prepared in a paste form also containing milk and sugar.

Provided with raw materials, soldiers on the march were expected to feed themselves. Outfitted with a tin cup and frying pan (sometimes a canteen split in two), supplies were kept at a minimum to avoid carrying a heavier load.

Only in fixed camps would the menu grow, with salted meats available as a respite from the usual ration of hardtack.

Still, as bland as hardtack can be, the wartime 'delicacy' has its upside. Anderson looks back fondly at his mother's version of the cracker, eaten like toast. Predictably, no matter how often he has tried to mimic her recipe it always seems to be subpar.

"They're actually not bad if you eat them shortly after they're cooked," he says. "They're a little easier to chew, if you only wait an hour or so."

Army Hardtack

4 cups flour, preferably whole wheat

4 teaspoons salt

Water, about 2 cups

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix flour and salt together in bowl. Add just enough water for mixture to stick together, producing a dough that will not stick to hands, rolling pin or pan.

Mix dough by hand. Roll out, shaping roughly into a rectangle about 9 inches by 12 inches. Cut dough into 3-inch squares, 1/2-inch thick.

After cutting squares, press a pattern of four rows of holes into each square, using a nail or similar object. Do not punch through dough. Turn squares over and repeat.

Place squares on ungreased cookie sheet and bake 30 minutes at 375 degrees. Turn squares over and bake another 30 minutes until slightly brown on both sides.

Fresh crackers are easily broken but will harden as they dry, assuming consistency of fired brick.

Makes 10 pieces.

Swedish Hardtack

1 cup water

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 tablespoons honey

3 cups rye flour (or 1 1/2 cups rye and 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour)

1 1/2 tablespoons brewer's yeast, optional

1/4 teaspoon salt

Mix liquids together. In a separate bowl, mix dry ingredients. Combine mixtures, stirring to moisten throughout. Form a ball. On a floured surface, flatten dough and roll out thinly. Cut into squares and prick with the tines of a fork a few times.

Transfer squares to a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake at 425 degrees for eight minutes or until lightly browned.

Simple Hardtack

2 cups flour

1/2 tablespoon salt


Mix flour and salt with enough water to make a stiff dough. Roll thin on a cookie sheet. Score dough into 2 inch squares. Poke holes into each square, though not all the way through. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 45 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool in oven.

- Recipes courtesy Ken Anderson

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