MILTON — Even before Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863, New Englanders were crushing crackers as a base for turkey stuffing. This tradition can be traced back, at least in part, to the G.H. Bent Co., which still bakes and sells old-fashioned crackers in a three-story clapboard building listed with the National Register of Historic Places.
When Jim Davis and his wife, Melanie, bought the business five years ago, they inherited a line of four historic crackers and the balky equipment for making them. Along with common crackers and hardtack, Bent’s makes index card-size pilot crackers (good for crumbling into chowder), flour-and-water warming crackers (meant to be split, heated in the oven, and topped with cheese or butter), and an array of sandwiches, cupcakes, and cookies. But around Thanksgiving, the demand for the common crackers picks up. The old-fashioned rounds still go into traditional stuffings. Davis estimates that Bent’s sells 300 to 400 bags of these crackers each November.
The company started in 1801 and is credited with coining the term cracker. According to the National Register plaque outside the building, company founder Josiah Bent baked biscuits that made a cracking sound as they cooled. He named them Bent Water Crackers and sold them from his saddlebag to ship merchants in Boston Harbor. Business grew and the product line expanded. During the Civil War, the Bent family made hardtack for Union soldiers, who nicknamed these tough flour-and-water crackers “sheet iron” and “tooth dullers.” The founder’s grandson, George H. Bent, moved the business to its current location on Pleasant Street in 1891.
For customer Charlotte Vayo, a 79-year-old great-grandmother who grew up in Chelmsford and raised her family in Middleborough, there is no substitute. “My mother and grandmother made stuffing with common crackers. The stuffing you grew up with is what you want.”
Vayo’s son picks up the crackers at Bent’s. To make her stuffing, Vayo adds cooked turkey gizzards and their broth, as well as onion, salt, pepper, and poultry seasoning. “It’s really, really good. We also eat it cold on turkey sandwiches the next day,” she says.
One early reference for New Englanders using crackers for stuffing comes from 19th-century Wayland resident Lydia Maria Child, author of the Thanksgiving poem that begins, “Over the river and through the wood . . .” Child also published “The American Frugal Housewife” cookbook in 1829. In her recipe, she directs readers to pound crackers, then mix them with finely chopped salt pork, sage, and pepper, plus “summer-savory, or sweet-marjoram, if you have them in the house, and fancy them.” An egg is optional. Perhaps Child chose crackers because her father, the baker Convers Francis, created what became known as Medford crackers (named after the town).
Before he bought the company from longtime owner Gene Pierotti, Davis worked as a general contractor and went to Bent’s for morning coffee. He had to take a crash course in baking as well as running the machinery. “If you asked me five years ago if I’d be standing in front of an oven, I would have laughed at you,” says Davis. “But I’m a hands-on kind of guy. It’s very physical lifting 50-pound bags of flour and dumping them into the mixer.”
With its wooden floor, brick oven, and door leading to what was once the wood pile, the bakery looks every bit its age. To make common crackers, Davis mixes a yeast dough and lets it rise overnight. He adds extra flour by the handful, then feeds clumps of dough into a sheeter to flatten it. Parchment paper underneath the machine catches dough that falls out. Once it is about ½-inch thick, Davis carries a long strip to a conveyor belt, which flattens it again. A die stamps out seven crackers at a time in a loud one-two rhythm.
Assistant baker Ian Hildred picks up excess dough and slides finished rounds onto a wooden peel. A gas-powered oven with rotating shelves bakes a batch in about 12 minutes. Hildred uses the peel to transfer warm, lightly brown crackers to baskets lined with parchment. The next day, workers hand pack the crackers. Bent’s can only turn out about 3,900 common crackers at a time and though historic crackers only account for about 15 percent of Davis’s business, they have a loyal clientele. Civil War reenactors regularly order hardtack, as do teachers, museums, and gift shops.
People cook with the crackers, too. One customer developed a recipe that calls for layering hardtack with sliced onions, tomatoes, and green peppers, along with liberal sprinklings of oil and vinegar. Others report crushing crackers as a topping for macaroni and cheese and other casseroles.
Davis, who lives near Bent’s and is raising three children, always lets his mother and sister make their own turkey stuffing. “But if I do ever host Thanksgiving, I’m going to make the common cracker stuffing for everyone,” he says.
G.H. Bent Co., 7 Pleasant St., Milton, 617-698-5945, www.bentscookiefactory.com.