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March 27, 2008

The Crown Pilot Cracker Escapade

11 Years Later

by Sandy Oliver

Keep eating those crackers, folks. Nabisco wishes this product would just go away, and if you like this cracker in your chowder, keep eating them. Teach your young to eat them too.

Chief agitator Donna Damon on Chebeague Island, the epicenter of the famous Crown Pilot Escapade, reminded me recently that we islanders took on Nabisco 11 years ago when the company concluded that our favorite cracker wasn't profitable enough. Mind you, it was a profitable cracker, but under capitalism, products are supposed to sell more and more often to a level specified by someone in a financial planning office who may or may not be pretty clueless about a product's place in our culture. And so it was with the Crown Pilot. The problem was we cracker-eating Mainers could not treble our individual consumption of Crown Pilots, no matter how much we loved them, without highly undesirable consequences.

Nabisco dropped about four hundred products back in 1996, the Crown Pilot among them. The supply in stores gradually dwindled and disappeared while most of us remained unaware. A lucky few had a box or two stashed away. The first hint I could have taken about this gustatory disaster in the making occurred when our local historical society decided to have a chowder night, and turned to me for a recipe and ingredient list. I put the Crown Pilots on the list, but the shoppers came back and said there weren't any. I assumed a temporary scarcity. Not so.

Some months later Donna called me up and said that the cracker was gone, really truly gone. We were stricken. Donna and her neighbors began a letter writing campaign that Maine humorist Tim Sample picked up on. Now, he may make a joke of things, but Tim cares about regional peculiarities and so CBS producers let Tim turn this issue into an episode for Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood.

Camera crews and Tim visited a few of us, assuring us our fifteen minutes of fame for life. When they came to my house, I built them a genuine chowder, using the cracker in the time-honored fashion of layering the cracker in with the fish and potatoes. The crew ate it all up including three of my remaining crackers. The producer called Nabisco from my house to get a comment on the cracker issue, but they didn't call back.

Down on Chebeague, CBS filmed Donna's neighbors and parents. Nabisco got a snoot full of complaints that day from heartbroken former customers.

To its credit, or perhaps embarrassment, Nabisco restarted the cracker factory - it was located in Pennsylvania! The return of the cracker came with a fairly hokey fuss. In Boston, Nabisco heaved a few reproduction wooden cracker crates with boxes of Crown Pilots in them, onto a passenger ferry, for Pete's sake, standing in, we suppose, for a freighter. It putted its way to Portland, where it was brought up along side DeMillo's floating restaurant, and a bunch of skeptical and bemused islanders were treated to a pretty terrible bowl of pasty, super-thick chowder and were given boxes of Crown Pilots to take home. CBS came again and filmed it all.

We learned in this whole flap, that the Crown Pilot was actually Nabisco's oldest recipe, purchased when they bought out a small baker in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where the cracker was made as early as 1792 for seafarers.

When I asked one of the Nabisco regional managers on hand for the Portland Return of the Cracker, how long they would make the product, he shrugged, looking pretty irritated. He said the cracker needed a restaurant outlet - a way to sell it to food service people. Imagine if McDonalds decided to make a McChowder, and bought Crown Pilots all wrapped up in plastic to hand out with each cupful. Well, that would make Nabisco think that the cracker was worth bothering with.

The cracker came back only to New England. Every time CBS aired the episode, which they did quite a few times, I noticed that the cracker would sell out in the store. For a while you could order the cracker by phoning an 800 number, but you had to buy a whole case. Crown Pilot cracker lovers across the country rejoiced; that way they didn't have to ration the supply they bought during their summer trip to Vacationland. You cannot do that any more.

A few months ago, a food writer for a nationally published magazine interviewed me about how to make a traditional chowder, and of course, I told her about the hardtack tradition, about the Crown Pilot. She contacted Nabisco asking how to obtain the cracker. The Nabisco person called back, pleading with the food writer not to mention the cracker saying that they really did not want to promote the cracker at all. The writer called me up, "Those villains at Nabisco want to do that cracker in," she said.

Keep eating Crown Pilots, people.

Crush a cracker into your soup bowl and pour chowder or soup over it.

Crush crackers finely and use them as you would bread crumbs - on top of casseroles, or roll fish in them to fry or bake.

Instead of buying blaze-orange peanut-butter snack crackers in little plastic packages, spread peanut butter on Crown Pilots, add a slice of cheese (or not), and carry it for lunch in a little zip-top bag. Cheaper, too!

Since the Crown Pilot is a fairly low-fat cracker, serve it instead of higher fat crackers with cheese or dips.

If you don't care about fat, spread butter on a Crown Pilot, sprinkle a little salt (optional) and eat it up. q


Sandy Oliver cooks, writes and campaigns on behalf of the Crown Pilot on Islesboro.

And Furthermore...

Chief agitator Damon, of Chebeague, provides some additional details from her end of the archipelago:

I wrote an article that was in the Island News (Working Waterfront's sister publication, in 1996) and then did a follow up - a couple of months later after I received calls from Yankee, the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe etc. It was at that time that I interviewed Sandy as a food historian. I had an op-ed piece in the Globe that September...Tim Sample heard about it from a woman in Southport where Mary Lou Teel, a CBS producer, summers. They contacted me in November and I gave them Sandy's info. Around Christmas CBS Sunday Morning aired their first story, which was the same week Yankee published their story. This 1-2 punch set Nabisco spinning and in January they cried uncle! I had the home phone number of the head of Nabisco's marketing, who was working with a Madison Avenue firm to turn the publicity their way. A few of us traveled to Boston for a news conference and chowder fest. They brought random callers in Limos and rented the Chart House on the waterfront. CBS covered the comeback in Boston and Portland. Nabisco sent a ferry Downeast full of crackers and made stops in several coastal towns including Gloucester and Newburyport and gave out $1000 checks to coastal historical societies. In Portland they had their execs unload the cases of crackers and bring them to the waiting Chebeaguers. Nabisco also paid their ferry fare...

Beverly Johnson [of Chebeague] and her Internet page [www.chebeabue.org] was a big player. We still receive one or two emails per month! It couldn't have happened with out the Island Institute!

click to enlargeNabisco’s Crown Pilot cracker.
Nabisco’s Crown Pilot cracker. product scan

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