Parents across the nation are confronting that familiar, back-to-school question: What to pack the kids for lunch? Some will weigh nutritional value, taste appeal, and convenience and put together a brown-bag ideal that will both nourish growing bodies and convey a little homemade love. They will slap sandwiches together, Tupperware leftovers, or cellophane-wrap cold pizza.
Others, perhaps somewhat guiltily, will send their children off with a collection of snacks—protein bars, yogurt, potato chips, cookies, or that old-fashioned standby, cheese and crackers. Snacks for lunch have become a prepackaged business—most famously via the Lunchables sets—even if parents worry their kids are missing out on the benefits of a proper meal.
If parents feel like they’ve fallen prey to the harried modern way we live now, though, it might be worth adding a little historical context. In fact, snacks, and cheese and crackers in particular, are nothing new when it comes to lunch. They are one of America’s first and most time-honored fast foods.
The meal of crackers and cheese finds its ancestor in the ancient combination of cheese and bread, which, when reinforced with some ale, constituted the traditional “ploughman’s lunch.” But bread is a very perishable food, and when armies, immigrants, and explorers sailed the oceans before refrigeration, the solution to spoilage was hardtack—a thick, square, nearly rock-hard biscuit made of flour and water that lasted years on end. It was the perfect Civil War ration for troops who did not have time to bake ashcakes at campfires while on the march. Instead, they could snack on the so-called bulletproof provision, fry it in bacon grease for dinner, and combine it with cheese to make an ad hoc breakfast or lunch—what more than one clever wit has called a “square meal.” Cheese and hardtack, sometimes flanked by other comestibles fit for travel, was also a common meal among overlanders and mountaineers: Ezra Meeker supplemented his with a bit of dried venison to help fuel his passage on the Oregon Trail, and a mountaineer named Philip Rogers mentioned adding nuts and raisins for a 1915 expedition around Mount Rainier.
Among the first modern crackers, which owe their name to the sound they make when eaten, were those made by a retired sea captain-turned-baker named Josiah Bent of Milton (today, you can visit the historic Milton factory store, which is still turning out crackers). In 1801, Bent started rolling the dough much thinner than hardtack, and by the 1840s and ’50s, bakers were adding shortening and yeast, which lightened the texture and quickly made them popular. Before long, these tastier versions of ship’s bread began appearing on menus alongside cheese as a fashionable after-dessert end to dinner.
At the same time, cheese and crackers became associated with saloons, where they put an edge on drinkers’ thirst. President Grover Cleveland apparently had a weakness for the pairing: “He would go into a beer saloon,” a friend reported, “call for a glass, and then begin on the cheese and crackers.” If his wife had convinced him to lay off on the cheese and crackers, the commentator joked, “he is in love with her sure enough.”
Around the turn of the century, cheese and crackers underwent a transformation by way of the oven. Clever homemakers deviled them, soaking the crackers in milk or dipping them in boiling water, then baking them with cheese and garnishing them with mustard or paprika. Such dishes accompanied soups favorably, but even more so, crackers and cheese became a must when serving salad. For decades, no proper salad course was complete without them.
When it came to party snacks, too, crackers and cheese were the 20th-century hostess’s best friend. No longer able to depend on servants to prepare a multicourse dinner for her guests, the middle-class housewife pioneered a new form of entertaining in the early years of the 20th century: the hors d’oeuvres spread, with crackers and cheese (and later cheese balls and cheese dips) as a standard highlight.
During the Depression, cheese and crackers reappeared at the end of the meal, but this time not following dessert—now it simply was dessert. In light of food shortages and household thrift, one cookbook author claimed, the combination helped “round out an otherwise unsatisfying meal.” With sugar rationing during the war as well as a glut of cheese—that “concentrated food protein”—the duo was not only a frugal way to end the meal, but a patriotic one as well. The Roosevelts set an example from the White House, where, according to The New York Times, “avocados cut in half, served with mayonnaise or plain French dressing and an accompaniment of crackers and cheese [brought] many a meal to a close.”
During the second half of the 20th century, home economists, cookbook authors, and parenting experts endorsed crackers and cheese as a children’s snack, and when the product designers at Oscar Meyer sought to improve dwindling sales of lunch meat in the mid-1980s, they had the idea to capitalize on this classic, child-pleasing duo. With crackers as a bread-slice substitute (bread staled too quickly), and with the addition of some token bologna, Lunchables introduced a new kind of cold-cut-and-cheese sandwich. Effectively, the sets brought cheese and crackers full circle, mirroring the hardtack-and-cheese lunches whalers, soldiers, and overlanders had depended on for centuries.
If you send your children to school this week with cheese and crackers for lunch, you may not be providing the healthiest or most well-rounded of meals, but you will be continuing a longtime classic of basic sustenance for travelers. Your child’s version may be packaged in plastic, and the cheese may be processed—but apart from that, it’s a meal that would make generations of workers and explorers feel right at home.
Abigail Carroll is the author of “Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal.”