BOSTON — It's enough to make New England chowder lovers weep salty tears. The legendary staple known as Crown Pilot Crackers - the best cracker to crumble in a bowl of chowder - has been axed from the product line of the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco).
More than crackers will be disappearing. An important link to culinary history will end. Although sold recently in only three New England states, the first sale of Pilot Crackers can be traced back to 1792, three years after George Washington became president.
"They were one of the original crackers baked by the group of bakers who formed the Nabisco company," says Ann Smith, a spokeswoman for Nabisco. "But our research suggests that people want more savory and spicy products in the cracker category these days."
Donna Miller Damon, a writer for Maine's Inter-Island News and a resident of Chebeague Island, Maine, is upset by the way the Pilot Cracker is crumbling.
"For a lot of people, this is going to be a major setback in their diets because the crackers became more than a Sunday night staple in coastal New England," she says. And she hates to see a regional heritage swallowed by a big corporation looking only at the bottom line.
Mrs. Damon learned about the Pilot Cracker termination when she couldn't find the familiar boxes on the shelves of Doughty's Island Market on Chebeague this summer.
She went to Ed Doughty, who confirmed the demise late in June. "Just about every day someone comes in and asks, 'Where's the Pilot Crackers?'" says Mr. Doughty, who sold the crackers for $3.09 a box. It was not uncommon for vacationing families on the island to leave after summer with several boxes of the crackers under their arms.
Damon, with roots back to 1756 on Chebeague, says Nabisco failed to communicate to customers that 204 years of cracker availability were about to end. "When I called the Nabisco consumer phone," says Damon, "the lady got defensive and said didn't I know over 400 products are being eliminated? I wonder if other regional foods are going, too?" Nabisco and R.J. Reynolds recently merged and announced a major reshuffling of products.
Beth Howe, a former Wisconsin resident and now full-time Chebeague resident with her husband, says, "We used to take Pilot Crackers back to Wisconsin with us. They are just basic, not full of salt and fat, and good with soup or chowder. So much of what is going on these days in cooking is a return to fresh, regional foods. Nabisco is missing the boat. Maybe someone will start a small factory making Pilot Crackers."
Hardtack was the historical antecedent for Pilot Crackers. The hard, wheat based cracker was kept in barrels on sailing ships and then in boxes on shore. While most Pilot Cracker lovers admit the crackers are fairly bland when chomped alone, something wonderful happens when they meet chowder, milk, salt fish, peanut butter, butter, melted cheese, and even jelly.
Some of Damon's relatives used to actually soak the crackers in water and then put them in with hot grease from fried clams. "They told me this with great nostalgia in their eyes," she says. Damon's children called them "bumpy crackers" because of the rough texture.
"My Dad used to eat them straight out of the package," said Doughty, "and they are wonderful to dip in the chowder and then eat. People are buying other kinds of crackers as substitutes, but really, there are no substitutes for Pilots."
Since Nabisco announced their decision to discontinue making the crackers, many people have called the company to object. Although Nabisco won't reveal the number of calls, anyone calling is asked for their zip code, indicating interest in the geography of incoming calls (800-NABISCO).
If more and more customers complain, Nabisco might reconsider as Ms. Smith indicated less than a stale position by the company. "The final determination on which products will be delisted is not completely settled yet," says Smith.
Damon suggests Nabisco reconsider and market Pilot Crackers with a full-fledged Madison Avenue campaign promoting the product. Even the old box proclaimed "The Famous Chowder Cracker."
"With marketing, they could turn this thing around," says Damon. "It's a classic with all kinds of images to be used. It could be a money-maker for them. If they have to make a choice between Oreos and Pilot Crackers, I can understand where they make the cut, but what are we doing to America? Are we homogenizing it so that everything will be the same everywhere?"