Sea bread. A large kind of large cracker, much used for food by sailors and soldiers. — Webster, 1882
It was a hard tack to gnaw, but it tasted almost like a cracker. – On the Way Home, introduction by Rose Wilder Lane
Hardtack (often written as hard-tack) is an unleavened baked bread made from flour and water. It was more portable than flour or baked breads with leavening and it could be used in recipes or eaten “as is.” It originally provided nourishment on long sea voyages where fresh foods were not available.
In the introduction to On the Way Home, Rose Wilder Lane wrote that her mother baked two dozen hardtacks for the Wilders’ 1894 journey from De Smet, South Dakota, to Mansfield, Missouri. Laura Ingalls Wilder made hardtack that was “as large as a plate, flat and hard. Being so hard and dry, they would not spoil as bread would.” In By the Shores of Silver Lake, Wilder wrote that she (not Ma) baked hardtack for Pa to take with him when he went to work for the railroad in Dakota Territory. Since hardtack is not mentioned in the existing manuscript or fragments for By the Shores of Silver Lake, it’s possible that Rose added it to the Silver Lake story.
To make hardtack. Add one part water to six parts flour in a bowl, or until a sticky dough is obtained. Stir with a spoon. Work in more flour with your fingers until the dough forms a ball. Knead on a board until smooth and leathery, then roll out the dough on a floured surface and cut it into squares or other shapes using a sharp knife. Although Laura was said to make large rounds, the traditional size and shape for hardtack is a three-inch square up to a half-inch thick, with holes similar to those on a common soda cracker. These holes are called docking holes and are added to prevent large pockets of air forming during baking. While the rolled dough could be cut with a knife and holes poked with a nail or knife tip, there are also tin hardtack cutters, like the one shown at right, complete with protrusions that form the docking holes. Hardtack is baked until dry and hard, up to several hours at 300 to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. It hardens even more as it cools, and can keep for months and even years if kept dry. Some recipes call for the addition of salt to the batter, but salt attracts moisture and can cause the hardtack to spoil sooner.
To use, hardtack was usually soaked in water, coffee, or other liquid and then cooked. Civil War soldiers often held softened hardtack in the fire with their bayonets to cook it. It could – as Rose said – simply be gnawed dry. Hardtack was so hard that it was called “tooth dullers” or “iron bread,” among other names. Perhaps Pa ate his as hardtack and pork as described in the recipe below.
Hardtack and Pork. Take a frying-pan, cut three slices of fat pork, fry to a crisp. Take five “hard-tack,” soak them in cold water 10 minutes, place them in the pan with your pork, fry 10 minutes; having done this, your dinner is ready; then sit down upon the ground, take your knife—your fingers will serve as a fork—then eat hearty. This is what may be called a good dinner and a cheap one, and this recipe should be carefully preserved. — Andrew J. Boies, Record of the Thirty-Third Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry from August 1862 to August 1865 (Fitchburg: The Sentinel Printing Company, 1880), 52.
hardtack (SSL 2, OTWH intro)