Pilots, Commons, Warnings & Hardtacks

Photographs by Katie Noble

On Pleasant Street in Milton stands an historic building, along with a little-known morsel of gastronomic history. The impressive three-story clapboard structure is the home of G.H. Bent Company, a bakery that has been selling its own crackers and cookies since 1891. But its history goes back even farther than that, all the way to 1801: founder George Henry Bent's grandfather, Josiah Bent, a retired sea captain, is credited with coining the term "cracker." He'd load his dense, hard flour-and-water sea biscuits into a saddlebag and cart them by horse from Milton to Boston harbor, to sell to ship captains for consumption on long transatlantic voyages. Because they made a cracking sound as they cooled, he named them Bent's Water Crackers.

The Bent Cracker Company quickly became one of the largest biscuit manufacturers of the 19th century. During the Civil War, it was a major supplier of hardtack crackers to the Union Army, whose soldiers dubbed the petrified slabs "tooth-dullers", "molar-breakers", and "dried mummies." The company was purchased by Nabisco in the 1880s; the sale prompted George Bent to found a competing cracker company, the success of which eventually drove the original Bent Cracker Company out of business.

For much of the 20th century, G.H. Bent was one of the largest cookie manufacturers and wholesalers in the United States, supplying such companies as Keebler, Sunshine Biscuits, and the Great Northern Railway Company. It has changed hands several times throughout its history.

In 1944, it was purchased by Arthur Pierotti, who needed someplace to invest his money after sugar rationing forced him to sell off his Natick soda-bottling plant. Not long afterward, Pierotti landed a contract to supply cookies to the U.S. Navy, which continued through the Vietnam War. (It also supplied the Army, which stashed 55-gallon drums of Bent's long-keeping oatmeal raisin cookies along the route of the Alaskan Highway as emergency rations.) It was during that period that Bent's was nicknamed "The Broken Cookie Factory": while the unbroken cookies were shipped to its wholesale customers, the unwanted seconds were (and are still) sold by the pound out of its small retail deli and café on the ground floor.

The company was taken over by Eugene Pierotti after his father's death in 1984. Not long afterward the sales of crackers and cookies slowly dwindled, so at the suggestion of his business-minded son James, they opened a retail café, deli, and catering business on the bakery's first floor, where he sold coffee, breakfast pastries, sandwiches, and salads.

Crackers_Tins
Crackers_Tins

The most recent owner of Bent's is Jim Davis, an affable former general contractor who used to stop by the café for his morning coffee each day. He bought the company and the building in 2008 as an investment, thinking he could get away with bringing in bread and pastries from elsewhere to use in the deli. But the loyal clientele quickly protested.

"I had this vision of not baking at all," says Davis. "I figured I'd get my bread from Iggy's or something, and not do anything but the cookies and make the crackers once in awhile, but as soon as I got my muffins and bread from somewhere else, my customers said, 'This isn't the same. You can't do this.'"

Fortunately for Davis, who had no prior baking experience, Gene Pierotti, now 85, remained as a tenant in the small apartment at the back of the building. He generously spent the first year showing Davis the ropes. Davis received a crash course in baking crackers, cookies, and bread, along with running the machinery, most of which is nearly as historic as the building itself. The rear wall of the cavernous second-floor bakery space still houses its original brick ovens, though they have not been used since World War II. Instead, everything—crackers included—is baked in two revolving-deck gas ovens that were installed around 1940.

The cracker business—most of which comes by mail order and over the internet—is steady, but only accounts for less than 15 percent of the company's overall sales. Bent's makes 4 different crackers: "Pilot", "Common", "Warming", and hardtack. All four varieties have an extremely long shelf life, which lets Davis bake them every month or so, according to demand, which tends to fluctuate seasonally.

Pilot crackers (more or less identical to Josiah Bent's original sea biscuits), about the size and shape of an index card, are designed to be crumbled into soups and chowders, so Bent's sells them to fish markets throughout New England and beyond. Smaller, disc-shaped common crackers—made from the same yeasted dough as the pilots—are a common component in traditional New England holiday stuffings (They are also often used as a crumb topping for baked seafood.) As a result, demand for these rises sharply around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Warming crackers are made from a simple water-and-flour dough, and—as the name suggests—are meant to be served warm. They are typically split in half, toasted under a broiler, and topped with butter or cheese. Davis has a small but loyal body of customers who order them regularly:

Crackers_Montage
Crackers_Montage

"I've got one woman in Seattle who's 104. She takes 12 boxes every couple of months," he told me. "Her nurses will call up and say 'Mrs. Meyer needs her crackers.' I said, what are you doing with all these crackers? They said, 'We put butter on them, heat them, put butter on them again, do that 3 or 4 times. Mrs. Meyer loves them.' You hope that at 104 she knows what she's eating."

Spring and summer is hardtack season, says Davis, since that's when Civil War re-enactors are most active. Hardtack is also made with nothing more than flour and water, but is far less delectable than the warming crackers. The majority of hardtack customers purchase these "molar-breakers" for historical verisimilitude, rather than gustatory pleasure.

Because of its limited gastronomic appeal, Bent's actually ceased producing hardtack once the U.S. military stopped including them in its rations. It wasn't until the 1980s that they restarted production, when an employee of Old Sturbridge Village told Gene Pierotti about the part Bent's had played in the Civil War.

But it was the advent of the internet that brought Bent's hardtack to the attention of Civil War enthusiasts. In 1999, a re-enactor named Mike Thorson posted a rave (inasmuch as one can rave about a flavorless, rock-hard cracker) review of it on the website for his re-enactment unit, the 33rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. When word spread to the wider Civil War-re-enactment community, sales jumped from a few hundred boxes to upwards of 5,000 boxes per year.

Aside from Civil War buffs in search of an authentic experience, other customers for Bent's crackers include museums, national historic sites, and even the occasional backpacker in search of a lightweight source of calories.

"I've got a bunch of water cracker orders that are going to go to Civil War museums, the U.S.S. Constellation in Baltimore, The Gettysburg Museum, and to the site of the Gettysburg Commissary Camp," said Davis. "Which is really cool, because you are getting into the hands of guys that really appreciate it."

Crackers_Machine
Crackers_Machine

Even Hollywood has come calling: Bent's crackers were featured in such historical films as "Glory," "Into the West," "Hidalgo," and "Master and Commander."

Davis rolls out and stamps all of the crackers on a sheeter-stamper of unknown origin. Pierotti told him that it was one of only two in existence and might in fact date back to the Civil War itself. Aside from needing the occasional replacement belt, the machine still works as good as new. That it was built to last is fortunate, since Davis estimates that having one of its enormous cast-iron dies replaced might cost him upwards of $10,000.

The cookies are made on antique equipment as well. On the day I visited, I watched Davis and two of his assistants churn out something on the order of 4,500 sugar cookies using a Werner wire-cutter-extruder machine in less than a half hour. (That machine too is of uncertain vintage. When Davis inquired to the manufacturer about sourcing replacement parts, they told him it predated their records. Another indication of its age is the quaint safety label that adorns the face of its dough hopper, warning users: "Lower with ease.") The cookies were cut directly onto sheet pans and rolled over to the oven on weathered wooden racks made by Gene Pierotti himself.

"When his father bought this place, he was 16," said Davis. "That was his first assignment. He told me he always wanted to be a carpenter." The irony that Davis, a former carpenter himself, was now running Pierotti's business was not lost on him.

The learning curve for this recently-minted baker has been steep, but he appears to be up to the task. And he's constantly looking to improve his products. It's not the easy gig he might have imagined it would be (he works 6 days a week, 12 hours a day), but it's obviously become a labor of love, in part driven by a sense of responsibility to the company's history:

"It's this or I turn the building into condos. You kind of want to keep it alive as long as you can."

Andrew Janjigian is an Associate Editor at Cook's Illustrated Magazine. When he's not dismantling recipes for hire, he's more often than not baking bread. He tweets regularly as @wordloaf and blogs much less regularly at words.wordloaf.org.

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