I have a deep affinity for crackers. Not gourmet varieties, or even homemade, but good old plain Jane everyday crackers, be it Captain’s wafers, or saltines, and especially any kind that comes two-to-a-pack.
I don’t think anyone needs a reason to like crackers but my fondness, I am certain, begins with my childhood memory of inexpensive family restaurants and sit down pizza joints that bring cracker baskets to the table instead of bread. I love the cracker basket and who in their right mind doesn’t? They hold something for everyone after all. Remember those crunchy breadsticky thingys, the sesame rounds, or the oblong townhouse crackers shaped like flattened capsules all wrapped up, by twos, in cellophane.
Wandering along my merry way as we do in life, I eat crackers. I eat crackers without much thought. I eat Club crackers wrapped in thinly sliced bacon and then baked, I learn it is okay to drink a martini with saltines topped with pickled bologna and American cheese because they are a match made in heaven, I will never forget having Georgia cracker salad and realizing it is nothing more than a tomato, mayo, whitebread sandwich on steroids, and my favorite, I use all kinds of crushed crackers as croutons for my salad. To this day every time I walk past a stick of butter I can’t help but want to drag a saltine down the length of the stick before popping it into my mouth, the perforations at the edges of the cracker leaving the soft butter to look like a perfectly raked zen garden.
It’s at culinary school though that I recognize fully the cracker’s utilitarianism, that they are more than appetizers but in turn they are the mother of necessity used for so many creations. In a pinch I have used saltines to bind force meat, used ground crackers for breading fish instead of panko bread crumbs, or as a binder in green tomato casserole, and for that matter in meatloaf and crab cakes too. I never would have imagined polenta made from matzo but the Union Square Cafe did and even published the recipe in their cookbook. I have even used them in a recipe for a Sardinian type of lasagna, which calls for crackers in place of traditional noodles.
I have always underestimated the power of the cracker because for the most part I always think of them as nothing more than a tasteless foil for other flavors, which is not true. They are more than that. The cracker can add creaminess when combined with wet ingredients or a needed crunch when exposed to dry heat and they absorb the flavor and aroma of anything they touch.
Crackers are friendly even if they live a life of the nondescript and even though we don’t always know why we like them we do. The next time I buy a box of saltines I am going to remember there is so much more to the box than simply crushing a handful over my bowl of chicken noodle soup.
New England Clam Chowder