Web Exclusive: Hawaii's Most Famous Cracker

Hawaii’s food and culture are so intertwined as to be inseparable. You can’t eat a dish without encountering an ethnicity, an era, a family or a good story. In his new book, Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands, local author Arnold Hiura dives into our state’s delicious and fascinating cuisines. The book is published by our sister company, Watermark Publishing. Each week in November, we’ll be presenting an exclusive excerpt from the upcoming book (you can order it here at http://www.bookshawaii.net/kau-kau.html).

In this week’s installment, Hiura shows how a beloved Island classic, the Saloon Pilot cracker, had its beginnings onboard whaling and merchant ships of the 1800s.

Photo: Hawaii State Archives

Hawaiian Hardtack: The Saloon Pilot

Saloon Pilot crackers may very well be one of Hawaii’s most beloved nostalgia foods of all time, cutting across ethnic, economic and geographic backgrounds. These hard, nearly tasteless crackers—refugees from 19th-century sailing ships—appear on the surface to be extremely unlikely candidates for the Hawaii Kau Kau Hall of Fame, yet everyone seems to harbor some warm personal memory of them.

The origin of Saloon Pilot crackers dates back to “hardtack”—a simple product made of flour, water and salt. Baked thoroughly—sometimes twice—hardtack was a nearly indestructible food suitable for long sea voyages. Also known as ship’s biscuit, sea biscuit, pilot bread or navy bread, it was barely breakable with the teeth, so sailors preferred to consume their hardtack by first crushing it with a solid object like a rifle butt or rock and then softening the pieces with coffee or bacon grease. Sugar would be added if it were available. Mixing the crushed hardtack with condensed milk created an even greater treat called “milk toast.”

Hardtack made its way to Hawaii aboard the vast and varied armada of whaling and merchant ships that arrived here in the 1800s. In 1851, a Scottish baker with the last name of Love arrived in Honolulu with his wife and three sons. He decided to stay and opened Love’s Bakery in 1853, building his business by catering to the needs of whaling ships, including supplying them with hardtack. Love later developed the Saloon Pilot cracker by adding shortening to the hardtack recipe, making it far easier to chew. Another Love’s outlet opened in Hilo in the 1920s (left).

Those of us who grew up in Hilo were particularly fond of the Saloon Pilot and Sweet Creme crackers baked by Hilo Macaroni Factory, which was founded in 1908 as the Hilo Seimen Gaisha. The recipe for the Hilo Macaroni version of the Saloon Pilot cracker was given to the company’s founder by a baker aboard a World War I German ship that was detained in Hilo Harbor. Hilo Macaroni Factory closed in 2003, however, and today Diamond Bakery (founded in 1921) on Oahu is the only remaining producer of Saloon Pilots.