Saltines

Black and white illustration of an Indestructible Food: Premium Saltines!

“The Swiss Army knife of crackers.”

Modern life comes with a lot of perks, not the least of which is a dazzling array of crackers from which to choose. I could wax poetic about the virtues of Cheddar Cheese Goldfish or the intoxicating appeal of Wheat Thins (and someday, I probably will) but our hero for today is the humble Saltine.

This is truly the Swiss Army knife of crackers. Saltines can be used to stretch a meatloaf recipe, top a casserole, make a pie crust, coat fried chicken, sandwich peanut butter, crumble into soup, or even settle an upset stomach. They are the perfect platform for cheeses and spreads. In a pinch, they can even be used to catch minnows or make catfish bait. There are sexier crackers, sure, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one as serviceable.

The history of the Saltine begins in the late 19th century, when innovations in milling and industrial baking had contributed to a cavalcade of crackers. Bakeries across the country were developing new and tasty crackers at every turn. The F. L. Sommer & Company of St. Joseph, Missouri was one such bakery. In 1876, they created a cracker that used baking soda to help leaven a thin white flour cracker. They were called soda crackers or Saltines. And they were a revelation. Business for the company quadrupled! 

It wasn’t just F. L. Sommer & Company who was having staggering success with crackers. The sheer amount of cracker currency changing hands across the nation caught the attention of entrepreneurs, and a series of mergers began. On the east coast, several bakeries were joined to create the New York Biscuit Company. In the midwest, 40 more bakeries united to form the American Biscuit Company. Then, in 1898 the whole shebang was smashed together into the National Biscuit Company, which would eventually be known as Nabisco. 

This series of mergers allowed for the standardization of the cracker industry. Until then, crackers were a generic product, sold out of barrels in general stores. Folks would often have to take them home and toast them in the oven so they’d be crisp again. Listen, the people wanted crackers, not another chore! The National Biscuit Company solved all that by making big investments in packaging and advertising. These served to protect and promote a cracker’s most important characteristic: TEXTURE! So began decades of ads showing people running sleeves of Saltines under the faucet or dropping them in streams before biting them loudly to demonstrate that they were still crisp. (As someone who isn’t crazy about mouth noises, I find this tactic incredibly annoying.)

Perhaps the best advertisement for Saltines was the Great Depression. Suddenly, people needed a way to stretch their food budgets. They were watering down soups and trying to make one portion of meat feed a family of six. Saltines were the answer. They were a cheap carbohydrate that could stand in for a lot of the average household’s missing ingredients. Those lean years transformed a crunchy snack into a household necessity. 

It turns out that those old ads got it all wrong. The texture of Saltines, as pleasant as it is, was never the most attractive thing about them. Their strength lies in their simplicity–their ability to fill a plethora of culinary roles without ever stealing the spotlight. Saltines are cheap as heck and you can eat them 1,000 different ways and to me, that’s a perfect food.

I’m gonna go make a batch of crackerflitter, but I’ll leave you with a wish for the New Year: May you never run into a problem that Saltines can’t solve.

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