History Eats: Hardtack

Today on History Eats, we take a look at a
dish that has been compared, unfavorably, to the taste of cardboard. It’s been known to break teeth before succumbing
to a bite. It also tends to last for decades, and there
is a piece right now in the Smithsonian that is over 150 years old. Today, we cook up the staple of armies on
the move for the last 1000 years: hardtack. My name is Heath Hamrick, and I love food
and I love history. No one has ever accused me of being a cook,
but I don’t mind trying. Come into the kitchen with me and let’s
see if we can cook up some History Eats. Napoleon Bonaparte once said that an army
travels on its stomach. Today, this is what soldiers eat when they
are on the battlefield – some version of the MRE, the Meal-Ready-to-Eat. Everything in this drab brown bag is meant
to be able to be eaten cold, right out of the package. It’s been made to last for years without
refrigeration. The MRE isn’t exactly my idea of gourmet
eating, but to soldiers and sailors from the past, it would probably be seen as a minor
miracle. That’s because the standard meal for soldiers
and sailors throughout history has been this: hardtack. You hear that clunk? That’s not bad cooking. That’s what it is supposed to do. Hardtack can last for decades. It is super portable and super easy to make. It’s also about as cheap to make as it gets. It doesn’t go bad; it starts that way. Lucky soldiers might have a piece of salt
port, a cured piece of meat so heavily salted you’d have to wash it in a creek before
cooking it. But most throughout time have had to rely
on the good ‘ole ship’s biscuit. Take flour and water and make it into a dough. Salt would be a luxury, but I’d recommend
adding some if you’re trying to make some for a party. Once you have a dough, cut some square pieces. Poke some holes in them with a fork. Don’t worry if it’s not pretty: this is
war, after all. After preheating your oven to 375 degrees,
stick the hardtack dough in. Bake about 30 minutes on each side, then take
them out. If you can hit them with that fork and make
a dent, you need to stick them back in. The more you bake it, the longer it’ll last
in some soldier’s pouch or in a ship’s barrel…and the worse it will taste. There you have it: hardtack. Most soldiers wouldn’t or couldn’t eat
it raw like this. They’d let it soak in coffee or crumble
it up and fry it in bacon grease leftover from the saltpork. If Napoleon’s army was crawling around on
this stuff, I pity them. This has been History Eats, taking the Hardtack
challenge! Until next time.

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