Simple Living: The Parable of Pilot Bread

By , January 7, 2016

I’ve stated a couple times in the recent essays on frugality (see Homestead Core Values: Frugality) that one of our advantages in keeping costs low is our love of simple food. I don’t think there’s a much simpler food anywhere than pilot bread.

For some unknown reason, Alaskans and Hawaiians eat a lot of pilot bread. The State of Alaska put out an Alaskan food pyramid some time ago, which actually includes pilot bread!

I have enjoyed a long and disparate relationship with this dry, somewhat bland flat cracker. I remember it in our pantry soon after Mom and Dad moved us back to Alaska when I was a child.

About the time we returned to Alaska, my brother and I began taking more responsibility for making our own after school snacks under Mom’s suggestions and/or direction. Mostly, we hoped for something sweet, like cookies. Often, she suggested we spread peanut butter and jam on a piece of pilot bread. We began to resent pilot bread, as it represented a “sensible” snack rather than something we really craved.

By the time I moved back to Alaska as an adult, I’d warmed to pilot bread considerably. As soon as I saw it in the stores, I tried it again; it has virtually disappeared in most grocery stores down south. I found I liked it so much that I often eat it plain, rather than spreading it with something like butter, peanut butter and jam (which now seems a special treat to me) marmite, or Nutella®.

At work, I generally kept a box of pilot bread in my desk, for lunch or an afternoon snack of plain crackers and a cup of coffee or water. I liked spreading something on it, but to this day I’ll happily munch them plain, just as most people would eat soda crackers.

This led to a humorous moment at a church service we attended in Juneau. The pastor preached on hunger, and illustrated his point with a personal anecdote. He said, “Have you ever been really hungry? I got lost in the woods once, and spent most of the day trying to get back to the road.” He went on to describe the ordeal, ending with the comment, “…and the whole time, all I had to eat was a couple of lousy rounds of pilot bread covered in peanut butter!”

He lost me completely. Instead of meditating on his real point, all I could think was: “You had peanut butter?

Ironically, pilot bread seems to be on its way out. Even in Alaskan grocery stores, it’s harder to find. When it is available, it’s often surprisingly expensive. We generally buy it only from Costco. If we can’t do that, we usually do without. I’m kind of okay with that, because my favorite topping, marmite, is even more rare here. Generally, we have to go to Whitehorse in Canada to get it.

I’ve found recipes for making our own pilot bread, which led me to learning the factoid with which I opened this essay. I haven’t tried it yet. If we’re going to make crackers, we have many other, far more nutritious recipes to choose from.

However, my craving for even a plain pilot bread indicates that my tastes in food are quite simple. If I can get excited over one of these slabs of hard cracker, I can be happy with a lot less complicated or expensive foods than many people. It also indicates that when I do eat something fancier, I may appreciate it more than some others might.

8 Responses to “Simple Living: The Parable of Pilot Bread”

  1. John and Mary Helfrich says:

    Please !!!!! When you get the recipe for the “pilot bread”, please pass it on here. We will make it and think of our wonderful trips to the homestead a few years back.
    All the best and Happy New Year!
    John and Mary

  2. Jessie says:

    I have never heard of pilot bread, but I just looked it up online. I wonder if it’s more expensive now because it appeals to the “prepper” crowd. Looks like it has a very long shelf life.

  3. Mark Zeiger says:

    Interesting, Jessie! I don’t know that other preppers would be very interested in pilot bread, because, as a white flour cracker, it has little or no actual food value. For me, it’s mostly a comfort food. But, just the fact that you had to search it indicates that it’s becoming less well known. Which is not to say the higher price would be justified….

  4. Mark Zeiger says:

    John, I can’t wait to send that to you, because you’ll find it very funny–almost all the recipes I found are hard tack recipes, mostly from re-enactment groups striving for authentic inedibility! I’ll pull my notes together and send it to you via private email.

    But, it makes me wonder: we didn’t actually feed you pilot bread when you visited, did we? Hopefully, we stuck to healthier fare–except for my homemade wine, of course!

  5. Angie says:

    The closest product to Pilot Bread that we had in the east when I was growing up was Uneeda Biscuits, which are basically an obese saltine without the salt, which is also how I think of Pilot Bread. As you say, no nutritional value whatsoever, but comforting as only pure carbohydrates can be. I don’t even know if they still make Uneeda Biscuits, for that matter, bu you can aways describe Pilot Bread to an Eastener of a certain age as “It’s like a Uneeda Biscuit, only more so.”

  6. Mark Zeiger says:

    Angie, I’ve seen those! I remember wondering, as a kid, if the name was an intentional promotional pun, or just a coincidence. “An obese saltine” says so much about these crackers, does it not?

  7. Angie says:

    Mark, it was an intentional pun. The product is (or was?) over a hundred years old, and I THINK it was the first packaged biscuits on the market, predating Saltines.

    The 1950’s musical “The Music Man” (a gentle love-letter to small-town America, circa 1910) opens with a song called “Rock Island,” where traveling salesmen on a train lament modernity and the vanishing 19th century. “The Uneeda Company put the Uneeda Biscuit in an air-tight sanitary package, made the cracker barrel obsolete, obsolete, obsolete!” (Take THAT, Saltines!)

    FYI, There is no “Uneeda Company”: It was a product of the National Biscuit Company, aka Nabisco.

    And if there’s a more-fitting description than “obese saltine,” I’ll start using it.

  8. Mark Zeiger says:

    I knew I’d heard the name somewhere before! Heaven knows, I’ve seen The Music Man often enough!

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