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Eating The Past

June 2024
1min read


Few things are more evocative of the past than bad food. As proof, consider the London restaurant School Dinners, which for 20 years has drawn hordes of enthusiastic customers (including the noted epicure Prince Andrew) who pay good money ” to eat the exact same dreary fare they were subjected to at boarding school. Nothing that bizarre could ever happen in America, if only because most of us can duplicate our high school lunchroom experience by simply visiting the company cafeteria. On the other hand, we do have Civil War re-enactors who enthusiastically pay eight dollars for a box of 10 hardtack crackers—the same crackers that, according to one genuine Union soldier, “required a very strong blow of the fist to break.” The crackers’ manufacturer, the G. H. Bent Company of Milton, Massachusetts ( ), was the biggest supplier of hardtack to the Union Army during the Civil War. Around the turn of the century, the company stopped making them, only to revive production a few years ago at the request of re-enactors.

To experience hardtack at its best, the crackers should be soaked in water and fried in pork fat. Soldiers called this delicacy “skillygalee.” The crackers also worked well as naval rations because they were, like linoleum flooring, so durable. This made them useful when ships were equipped for long sea voyages. To complete the naval experience, purists can wash them down with grog, or rum diluted with water, which was a part of sailors’ daily allotment on British warships as late as 1970 (though the U.S. Navy abolished its grog ration in 1862). Now an Austin, Texas, company named Great Spirits ( ) is selling surplus British naval rum in demijohns, each of which contains one imperial gallon (4.54 liters). Since 1970 the rum has been served only on special occasions, most recently at the wedding of the ubiquitous Prince Andrew (who is not known ever to have eaten a hardtack cracker).

The price? A mere $6,000 per demijohn. At that rate, one shot glass—an amount for which the Royal Navy paid less than a dime in the late 1960s—will set you back $60. So you might want to use cheaper stuff if you’re mixing it with Coke. Still, at 108 proof, British Royal Navy Imperial Rum certainly packs a wallop. As one member of our tasting panel (see below) exclaimed, “It makes me want to lead a boarding party onto the quarterdeck of a French three-decker.”

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