Depression, Saltines, and I

saltine black.jpg

I was fascinated with his “nicotine-stained” fingers — that’s what everyone called them then, even though the chemical is colorless — as he plucked saltines one by one from the box and crumbled them into the soup. Campbell’s Chicken Gumbo, Beef Noodle, or Cream of Anything, made no difference, in they went.

“Thickening,” he said, and of course Dad was right, because after he stirred it, the mingy housewife shortcut became something a man might want, a solid stew, a filling meal. Yet his stained fingers treated the crackers with a delicacy unmatched by the ingredient and unusual for him. As I watched my father perform his soup-bowl ritual, I felt that there must be a story behind it.

At my childhood table, we never knew from croutons; those were French, and even though she was born in the Bordeaux region (she never said exactly where), my mother treated all recipes from her native country — even a sordid ladies-magazine soupe gratinee a l’oignon on which you threw toasted Wonder Bread and rubbery scrapings of Velveeta — as if they had dropped from Mars.


She also disliked her husband’s way with crackers. I can’t recall that I ever saw Mom eat plain saltines. A Ritz cracker, sure, if something had been spread upon it. She set her sights higher.




As dream homes become vacant nightmares, and every month twice the population of Cincinnati joins the nation’s unemployed, in this period of upper- and lower-case depression, I have started to eat saltines again.


It’s not just because they’re affordable. They can be found for about $1.50 to $3 a pound, which is a penny to two cents per cracker. Eating pennies, pennies you find in the street. But if you scout a market and look at prices in a per-pound and not per-item way, you’d be surprised at the cheapness of corporate chicken or factory pork compared to ordinary celery or all-natural potato chips. Saltines on one side of the scale balance pork chops on the other. That’s agribusiness justice.


Oops, I fell into the ever-growing Slow Food hole. It’ll take me a second to crawl out.


The Saltine Paradox


What do saltines mean? I’d like to suggest that they embrace a paradox, simultaneously signifying poverty on the one hand, and succor and comfort on the other. These routine crackers are often given to the queasy, the sick, sometimes paired with inoffensive broth. I don’t find them bland, though. In fact, saltines possess a powerful identity: an assembly-line look, a pick-me-up size, then a slight sandpaper feel on one side — do you eat yours salt up or salt down? — with a crunch that surrenders immediately to saliva.


That is when the actual flavor appears, and also when the saltine promise collapses. What you now taste is the zeroness of “enriched” wheat flour, chemistry-set soda, and mollifying corn syrup. The saltine is a simple, dead thing. In 2004, organic saltines hit the shelves, the very idea of which shoots itself in the culinary foot.


It is claimed that crackers were invented in 1792 by a Massachusetts citizen named John Pearson. He used flour and water only and called the durable result not matzo but “pilot bread.” The shipboard treat was then upped by another Bay Stater when Josiah Bent burnt some biscuits till they “cracked” — invention-myth date 1801 —  and began marketing “water biscuits.” His company sold “hardtack” during the Civil War, and its remnant brand still offers the stuff, plus the “common cracker” and “water cracker,” to fussy battlefield reenactors and those curious souls who wonder what exactly their forebears had to swallow.



Nabisco tin, c.1910, probably for Sugar Wafers


Saltines, originally called soda crackers, came later in the century and are leavened. First sold loose in barrels, they took off when packaged and distributed in decorated tins and paper cartons, becoming at once an early mass-produced unit of consumption and their own symbol or sign. Those perforated squares — so many of them baked by the National Biscuit Company, later Nabisco — were little Model Ts of American food.


Depression Tales


My long-deceased father takes control of my hands in front of a bowl of chili; I resist him over soup. As a boy, I asked him why he did what he did with saltines, and here’s what he said:


You know, in the ’30s, some luncheonettes and diners used to give out free saltines if you ordered something. They weren’t wrapped in packets, they were piled in bowls on the counter.


Were they dirty?


How, dirty? Crackers don’t get dirty. But you had to pay for something in order to take them. So your uncle Jack and I would sit down and ask for one, just one, of the cheapest possible things on the board: pea soup, maybe baked beans. Then we would grab as many saltines as we could and keep crumbling them in, stirring, passing the spoon back and forth and eating, crumbling, sneaking saltines into our pockets as we did. We got caught a few times, but there were always plenty of other places to go.


We had to be careful not to smash our jackets, or there’d be nothing but crumbs when we got home. But we’d dig into the pockets and eat the crumbs.



And then, my brother’s eyes as wide as mine, he told his boys that the other thing he and all his brothers would do was walk in somewhere, order a cup of hot water and lemon for one cent, and grab the Heinz bottle to make … ketchup soup.




We were no doubt imagining how the red clot floated around before it was stirred.


Can we make some now?


At that, our father didn’t say anything, but put on an odd expression, got up from the table, and went outside.



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  1. Maria says

    Thank you for this entry. Strangely, just the other day, I found myself contemplating the rows of boxes of Saltine crackers at the local supermarket. Large boxes of crackers at low cost. I have never bought a box of Saltine crackers before, but was actually considering it for the first time. Growing up, it was one of those “sick” foods that my mom would administer to help get over the flu. Saltines and ginger ale (and, yes, chicken broth). The formula always seemed to work. Could my being drawn to the boxes of Saltines have come from a feeling of nostalgia, for home and its comforts, or from a general unconscious feeling of malaise, in this “period of upper- and lower-case depression” as you point out? Or from a desire for some sort of continuity – the cracker itself and packaging have hardly changed over the years – a comforting constant in these turbulent times.

  2. says

    My god… you’re obsessed!
    I too like saltine crackers.
    I’ve always eaten them when I’m feeling hungry,
    but don’t want to cook something.
    When I just want a snack, I prefer crackers.
    They’re also good with a lot of different things.
    Not only do I not like a lot of sweet food,
    but I also don’t use a lot of salt when cooking.
    That makes crackers perfect for that extra salt
    with anything.
    I didn’t know that there was so much about one of my favorite snacks.
    I’m glad I stumbled onto this.

  3. says

    Looking for boy in Raincoat, thought it was saltines, read your post and appreciated you fathers story. Was he depressed?
    People have some wonderful stories hidden, but revealed if you just observe. Thanks.