If there’s one thing that we as New Englanders can agree on, it’s that when it comes to common crackers, there is no substitute. Hearty and crunchy, yet subtle in flavor, the common cracker is a true Yankee workhorse. Crumbled into chowder, crushed into crumbs, or split, buttered, and toasted, this humble cracker did it all…and if you look for it in the right places, still can.
The term “common cracker” first appeared in print in 1939 but by then the large (about the size of a Ritz cracker today), puffed cracker was already a New England mainstay, sold since the early 1800s from barrels (yes, “cracker barrels” were a real thing before they were a restaurant chain) in general stores. The cracker barrel was its generation’s water cooler — a place to gather and catch up on local news while recouping your cracker supply, but unfortunately, good common crackers can be difficult to find today, lost in a sea of flat, square saltines and small, crisp oyster crackers. All three are members of the soda cracker family, but nothing comes close in heft and bite to the robust common cracker.
Perhaps the best example of “authentic” common crackers for sale today are Vermont Common Crackers, made and sold using an adaptation of an 1828 recipe by Vermont Common Foods and the Orton family the of the Vermont Country Store. The crackers are sold in the store and online, but you may also be in luck at the co-op or supermarket. I picked up this box at my local Hannaford’s.
So just why were common crackers so beloved in New England? With their subtle flavor the crackers could be used in countless ways.
Crumbled into a bowl of milk or chowder they served as the perfect thickening agent, and by working with a liquid, the cracker, like sailor’s hardtack, could last longer on the pantry shelf without losing its value. You might be used to sprinkling a few oyster crackers onto your cup of chowder today, but try crumbling a whole fistful of hearty common crackers over your next bowl and see if you don’t love the enhanced texture.
Another popular way of eating common crackers was to split them (the puffed crackers, like English muffins, have a natural “split line” that’s easy to separate by hand or with the help of a butter knife), butter the halves, and broil them until golden. Having never eaten common crackers like this I couldn’t resist trying it out.
After splitting the crackers and spreading the halves with a little butter, I decided to take things to the next “Vermont” level and top the buttered halves with a thin shower of grated Cabot Seriously Sharp Cheddar. After just 45 seconds under the broiler the crackers were hot and golden and, well…delicious. To be honest, next time I think I’ll add even more cheese.
Another popular way to use common crackers was to crush them up like breadcrumbs for meatloaf or stuffing, and still a fourth way, the simplest of all, was (and is) to snack on them straight from the barrel (or box).
Just be sure to have a thirst-quenching beverage nearby. These things will leave you parched!
Common cracker love was a deep and loyal love that sometimes refused to be denied. In 1927 the Miami News reported that a woman from Maine that had moved to California missed her common crackers so much that “she ordered 34 cents worth of old-fashioned common crackers for her chowder and is having it shipped air mail, special delivery, at a cost of $15. 76.” How’s that for looking the other way when it comes to Yankee thrift?
For a cracker so beloved to New Englanders (even Julia Child loved them, saying “As any New Englander knows, you can’t enjoy a real New England chowder without toasted common crackers”), isn’t it time we put the common cracker back on top?
What’s your favorite way to eat common crackers?