“What kind of cracker is THAT?!”
When I was a kid, my parents went through a fairly extreme health food phase. We’d get in the car maybe once a month and cruise 45 minutes to the nearest natural grocery store. Our fam would get primitive meat replacements (lentil-based veggie burger in a can?!), tofu, bulk grains, wheat germ, almond butter, carob treats, and a couple boxes of ak-mak crackers.
Now, as an adult, I think ak-maks are great. They’re crunchy, kinda wheat-sweet, and covered in sesame seeds. They pair well with cheeses and dips. They’re super nutritious! But, as a kid, I had major problems with them. I craved the buttery flake of a Ritz, the rough elegance of a Triscuit. I wanted to eat crackers shaped like goldfish. Hell, I just wanted crackers that I didn’t have to explain to my friends.
My childhood turmoil aside, ak-maks are a cool cracker with a neat history (and a local connection!) that we should talk about.
The Soojian family founded a bakery in Lowell, MA (woot!) in 1893. There was an Armenian community there, and making traditional baked goods for fellow immigrants was a great way to make a living. The family produced Peda bread, Dernackly bread, Arabic bread, and the very popular Armenian Cracker bread.
I know we’re supposed to be talking about ak-maks, but I need your patience for a quick aside: Armenian Cracker bread blows my mind. It’s a giant cracker that you transform into a soft, rollable flatbread! Just wet both sides under running water, then let it sit in a plastic bag until it’s pliable. You can watch a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-r1rCkzUNc This may be one of my (many) culinary blind spots, but I am enchanted with this product nonetheless, and will be eating it as soon as my order arrives.
Alright, back to the ak-mak origin story! In 1936, the Soojian family bakery moved to California, where there was another Armenian community. They kept baking, stayed true to simple ingredients, and continued to grow. Among their traditional offerings, there were also some experiments, and in 1952 they introduced a brand new cracker: the ak-mak.
The ak-mak was and is simple: whole wheat flour, honey, sesame oil, butter, yeast, and salt. That’s it! It had no fancy flavoring. No preservatives. No artificial colors. No advertising.
In other words…it was revolutionary. This was absolutely NOT what the United States was into at the time. In the 1950s, the market was crowded with crackers like our beloved Ritz, but also “Bacon Thins” and Donald Duck’s “Cheese Quackers.” Folks were not clamoring for whole wheat. The ak-mak zigged where others had zagged.
It paid off. California was a great place to sell healthier foods (even in the 50s) and by the late 60s, there were plenty of hippies to spread the gospel of whole grain. As health food trends have come and gone, the ak-mak has hung on.
Some products distinguish themselves just by staying the same. You won’t find “flavor-blasted” ak-maks. They aren’t suddenly a different shape. They aren’t trying to be cool! They’re crunchy “whole of the wheat” crackers with sesame seeds on them, and that is all they will ever be. There’s a lesson of self-acceptance somewhere in there: about being proud of what you are even when it’s not popular. And whether you are a person or a food, it’s a pretty great example to follow.