Why We Do it: Hard Tack Bread

What is up with Newfoundlanders and hard tack bread: Terri Coles explores where it came from and more.

purity_sweet_hard_breadArticle by Terri Coles

Like so many other things in this province, hard tack owes its ongoing popularity in the province to its usefulness for life at sea. Even the name itself gives away its heritage–it comes from the British slang for food, “tack.”

But the history of hard tack goes much further back than that of the European settlement of Newfoundland, and even further back than the British Empire itself. Egyptian sailors carried a version made of millet, while Romans had their own style of hard tack called buccellum. Hard tack found its way into the Crusades, the Spanish Armada, and the American Civil War. Turns out that bread that never spoils – one museum in Denmark has a sample of hard tack dating back to 1852.

Hard tack isn’t a complicated food – it’s usually nothing more than flour, water, and salt. The lack of fat is what helps it keep for long periods of time, as is the dearth of moisture – hard tack is baked at least twice to get all the moisture out. You can even make your own at home, if Purity is hard to come by where you live.

But of course, Purity is the gold standard in this province. Hard tack was commonly consumed for decades here, up until the middle of the last century, when a wider variety of food became available. It was a source of carbs during the winter, when new flour for bread couldn’t get to the outports until the ice cleared.
The regular hard tack is what we use to make fish and brewis, a dish so ubiquitous here it’s hard to think of one that better defines who we are. And if you’re really serious about eating very hard bread, there’s Purity Sweet Bread – it’s a bit softer because it has more sugar and shortening, and makes a good snack all on its own.

We aren’t the only people to eat hard tack on purpose, beyond when we had to. Otherwise known as ship’s biscuit, it was crumbled or pounded and included in New England seafood chowders as a thickener, starting from the late 1700s. It was eaten by military in Japan and South Korea, well into the last century, and both countries still eat kanpan and geonbbang as snacks. It’s still a part of Russian military rations, and part of a traditional fish and vegetable salad in Genoa.

And apparently there’s some special allure of hard tack to islands, because it’s still a common pantry item in Hawaii. Hard tack made its way to the islands on whaling and merchant ships in the 1800s, and today the Saloon Plot cracker from the Diamond Bakery is as easy to find in the Hawaiian isles as Purity hard bread is here. And nearly all of the hard tack produced by Interbake Foods in Richmond, Virginia is shipped to Alaska, where it’s eaten warmed and covered in butter or with moose stew.

Finally, hard tack enjoys ongoing popularity with survivalists stocking food for whichever version of the end days they’re planning for. So when we’re all left fending for ourselves, make sure you don’t tell just anyone where you’ve hidden your stash of Purity bread.

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3 Comments

  • Terri, I meet and married my wife (now deceased) in St Johns in 1955 while stationed at Pepperell AFB, near St Johns. I ate both sweet bread and hard bread then and would like to do so again. Please send me the address of the Purity company so I can contact them and buy some again. I would be very grateful for your help. (I’m 83 years old and am cherishing some of the things I took for granted…)

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