Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ration Mini-Review: Fresh Hardtack

Homemade Hardtack

A proper MRE review is coming on Wednesday but, in the meantime, let me give you a taste of the original meal ready to eat: hardtack.

Historically, most hardtack has been made with exactly two ingredients, flour and water. You'll see recipes with salt, baking powder, and even oil, but the soldiers and sailors of yore ate hardtack that was unadulterated by those luxury ingredients. Aiming to approximate their experience, I made the hardtack above by mixing a dough of whole grain flour and water, cutting it into roughly 3"x3"x1/2" squares, poking holes, and baking for 30 minutes per side at 350F. I then allowed the hardtack to cool and baked it 225F for another 30 minutes, to get the last of the moisture out. Some "ship's biscuit" hardtacks were baked a third or even a fourth time, to better survive months at sea, but let's not go overboard here (maritime pun!).

The result is pictured above, broken open to show you the internal texture. Even with my careful attention to detail, it's still not quite historical. I used store-bought flour, which has a finer texture than the grainy, low-grade flour used historically. Also, it's only been sitting around for a day, when real hardtack was typically stored for months in barrels and infested with insects by the time it was consumed. But I've put three more biscuits in a covered but unsealed container, and I'm going to pull them out one by one over the next year. I'll be reporting back with my findings, even if I have to do so from the hospital.

I ate my first ration of hard tack with a hot cup of light roast Sumatran coffee, just like they did in the Civil War. Let's give it a try!

Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Okay, don't bite into it with your front teeth. We've learned that much. It's not quite as hard as a rock, but it's really fucking hard. Kind of like a rubbery plastic. I'm having trouble using even my canines, and find myself using my molars to bite down and anchor it, while I yank with my arm and tear off little chunks. This is not easy to eat.

So what does it taste like? It tastes like raw flour. I don't know what I was expecting, but it tastes like flour, and it sits in the back of your throat, like you just ate flour. Ah but, for a touch of variety, it goes down your esophagus like sandpaper. So, you know, there's that.

Dunking it in coffee helps a lot. Dropping it in coffee and letting it soak helps even more. The coffee overpowers the flour taste, and it softens the outer layer of the biscuit. You might expect it to fall apart in a hot beverage, the way a cracker or piece of bread would, but the crumbles of biscuit maintain their integrity with real gumption. It's really disturbing to think that I'm eating something that just won't die.

Even with the coffee, this stuff still tastes pretty bad. It gives me a new appreciation for MRE wheat snacks. I forgive you, wheat snack! I've been to the wilderness, and now I long for your chewy embrace!

Okay, are you ready for the weird thing? I've finished it now, and I kind of want more. I, uhhh. I can't explain it. It just... I sort of... Uhhh...


That stuff tasted nasty but, once I softened it up in the coffee, I had no trouble getting it down. No trouble at all. Despite disliking the taste, I was even sort of enjoying it. It's disconcerting.

Now, taste doesn't end at the tongue. There are taste receptors in the throat, and chemosensors in the stomach which report back on the nutritional value of swallowed foods. My working hypothesis is that hardtack registers (correctly) as nutrient rich, making me crave more of it despite its awful taste.

Or maybe I was just, like, super-hungry.


If you like this ration review, check out the others!

3-Month-Old Hardtack
Menu 16, Pork Rib
Menu 22, Sloppy Joe
Menu 23, Pasta in Pesto
Menu 14, Ratatouille (Vegetarian)
Menu 15, Southwest Beef and Beans
Menu 8, Marinara Sauce with Meatballs
Menu 20, Spaghetti with Beef and Sauce 
Menu 19, Beef Roast
Menu 13, Tortellini Vegetarian 
Menu 18, Chicken with Noodles
First Strike Ration Menu 2 (Part 1)
First Strike Ration Menu 2 (Part 2)

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