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
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
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.
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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