I speak to you today of pilot bread.
Since I don’t believe I have any Alaskan readers, and my Canadian followers seem to be back east, I suspect most of you reading this have no idea what I’m talking about. Allow me to elucidate.
(Image from the Anchorage Daily News)
Looks like a cracker, doesn’t it? Not surprising, as that’s what it is. Pilot bread is a close cousin of the much-better known Saltine cracker; they descend from the ancient “hardtack”. That gives it an ancestry stretching back at least 400 years – and one author links it to a flat bread eaten in the Egyptian navy as far back as 1300 BC. While 3,300 years might be a bit of a stretch, given the evolution of the ingredients over the years, it can certainly be traced back to the British navy in the 1500s in something very similar to its modern form.
It’s immensely shelf-stable – kept dry it can last literally for decades – hence its popularity with survivalists, campers, and others who stock shelters and remote cabins. Which brings us to Alaska, where pilot bread has transcended the label of “emergency food” and become a dietary staple. Interbake Foods, makers of “Sailor Boy” pilot bread is located in Richmond, Virginia, yet 98% of its sales go to Alaska, where the blue box is a cultural icon.
An annual Pilot Bread Recipe Contest is held in conjunction with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s NYO Games in Anchorage. The 2012 winners range from a smoked salmon spread to a hot fudge sundae, but the contestants in the 2013 event came up with a much more interesting assortment: “Sweet Potato Surprise”, a “Breakfast Cracker” (featuring egg and “lunch meat”), and a traditional “Alaskan Harvest” recipe that uses frozen whale meat and seal oil.
Me? I generally eat them plain or with a little butter, but I’ll admit that only a lack of the second most important ingredient is stopping me from trying Sue Hoeldt’s Pilot Bread Moose Burgers. Anyone know where I can source ground moose in California? Somehow doing it with beef or buffalo doesn’t seem quite appropriate.
In 2009, Karen Jenkins, the chair of First Book Anchorage arranged a sponsorship with Interbake Foods under which a portion of the sales of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread were donated to First Book. The campaign proved successful and has since been repeated. According to Ms Jenkins, as of 2013, more than 10,000 books have been distributed to children across Alaska as a result.
The Second International Pilot Bread Festival was held in Ketchikan at the beginning of May. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, as I didn’t find out about it until June. T-shirts are still available, though (I’ve ordered mine.) It sounds like a good time was had, with the obligatory recipe contest, limerick and stacking contests, and a pilot bread skeet shooting event.
The IPBF sounds like great fun. I’ve reached out to the organizers to get some history of the event and try and get some hints about plans for a third festival in 2014. As of press time, I’m playing email tag with the festival founder. Once I hook up with him, I’ll write an update. And if I manage to attend the next IPBF, I promise photos and (network connectivity permitting) a liveblog event.
On the subject of cooking, pilot bread recently made an appearance on the Food Network’s “Chopped” show as a required ingredient for desserts. The chefs’ offerings were a “deconstructed sundae” and a carrot bread pudding. Both were popular, with the carrot bread pudding taking top honors.
Pilot bread is not, unfortunately, easy to come by outside of Alaska. It’s available in bulk at Winco stores in the Western US, but Winco stores themselves aren’t that easily found. You can also order from Span Alaska Sales but that $100 minimum is a bit off-putting. Sorry, I’m not going to share my supply. Perhaps you could consider the chance to try pilot bread an incentive for an Alaskan vacation.
Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a pilot bread, peanut butter, and honey sandwich with my name on it.