The Glory Days of the Common Cracker

WERE I not so involved with my worldwide philanthropies I might try to restore the common cracker to enhance the common weal and heighten the joy of hoi polloi. There seems to be a need. From Vermont's Northeast Kingdom there used to come the ``St. Johnsbury Biscuit,'' but we Mainers could get the ``Portland Biscuit,'' which was pretty much identical. We called such ``sea biscuits'' and hardtack and they were staple at sea and in the lumber camps. Also, no home was left without them. In the days when yeast was seldom and ``starter'' was tedious, and hot breads ran to sal'ratus biscuits and ``jean-gateau,'' common crackers had merit and were in good supply everywhere.

It isn't right to use the past tense. Common crackers can be had. My friend Lyman offers them by mail in his Voice of the Mountains catalog, and in an occasional store will be found some made in Rutland, Vermont. Brents, a baker in Milton, Mass., has been making common crackers since 1892 and has no notion of missing the centennial.

Nabisco used to make 'em and they were finally offered in pasteboard packages as ``Kennedy Crackers.'' This alienated the Republican vote and all at once Kennedy Crackers disappeared. No grocer has ever been able to explain that, and I've asked all of them. I saw no common crackers in a store for a long time.

Then, behold! The Westminster Cracker appeared in a box from the Rutland people, and also poly-bags of ``commons'' from Brents. I took four bags, and went back for more in due time. None. The clerk said, ``Oh, they sold right away, but we only have them for the holidays.''

The cracker in context is the basis of our metaphorical cracker barrel of the ancient country store - the symbol of free-speech, right-to-assemble, privilege-of-opinion, and the very basis of wit and wisdom, philosophy and folklore. Common crackers did come in barrels, and the barrel on display was subject to public use. A customer coming into the store was privileged to help himself to a cracker, and to a bit of cheese from the cheese case, and then he could sit in the general witan and listen and spea k as the community gentry solved all things. May we take note that everything has been on the skids since the common cracker declined?

The common cracker split easily into two concave halves, making receptacles for cheese, jelly, caviar. The texture was brittle and a bit tough - it took good pressure with a thumb and finger to crumple one into the soup. It was custom here in Maine, at least, to put several common crackers in the empty soup bowl and then ladle the fish chowder a-top. Finest kind! This was the crackers-and-milk cracker. Pilot crackers and sea biscuits were cousins, but with a bar sinister. In true cracker days, the salti ne was to be invented.

My Uncle Ralph, who kept a general store all his days, liked to tell how he put the run on Amos Tuttle. Amos would come into the store, take a cracker from the barrel, slice himself a generous hunk of cheese from the wheel in the case, and take a seat to compose himself and enjoy his snack. Amos never bought a thing in the store, and he had been sponging like this for over 30 years. So one morning my uncle arranged a bit of yellow laundry soap on the big cheese knife, and told everybody else to leave it for Amos. Amos got it.

In that part of Somerset County they still tell time by poor Amos. Such-and-such a thing happened, they'll say, ``... the year before Amos got the yaller cheese.''

So I was pleased to find the Brents common crackers, and not happy that they sold out and I could get more only at holidays. The clerk told me there was nothing he could do about it - he ``just worked there.'' I dropped a note to Brents, asking what I might do to convince Shop'n-Save to keep their good biscuits on the shelf, and I had a pleasant answer right back suggesting I make overtures to their distributor in Maine, Progressive Distributors of Richmond, 04364. Now I learn that Progressive Distribut ors of Richmond, Maine, 04364, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Shop'n-Save. I tried. Until the holidays, I'll buy mail order.

What I need is a cracker barrel and some friends, so we can sit and discuss things like that. That, and how a computer goes about making an error, and how it used to cost 1 to send a post card.

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