Supermarket Guy

Bold on Blandness

Soda crackers are boring. They’re bland and dry, and after a few bites, you’ll need a sip of water (or some other pantulak) to slake your sticky, parched palate. And they all taste the same, no matter what brand: it’s a monotonous baked flour flavor dusted with a bit of salt — probably why, in some parts of the world, they’re called “saltines”.

Nobody really enjoys eating soda crackers on their own. It’s really more of a perfunctory act, a quick way to momentarily stave off your hunger pangs. Maybe you had some at work when you decided to skip lunch while beating a deadline. Maybe you keep one in your car’s glove box in case you got stuck in traffic. Maybe your mom slipped it into your lunchbox as a Plan B merienda at school. Whatever the reason, it was likely that soda crackers wasn’t your first choice. It’s “emergency food” you reached for, something to eat when there’s nothing else handy. As it turns out, this was the exact reason soda crackers were invented in the first place.

In 1792, an American named John Pearson was looking for a way to make a bread substitute for sailors — basically a high-carb ration that wouldn’t spoil during long voyages at sea. Eventually, he baked a mixture of  flour and water and called his invention “pilot bread” (“pilot” being an old word for navigator). Despite being a successful invention, pilot bread was incredibly flavorless and hard (in one account, sailors referred to them as “tooth dullers” and “molar breakers”). Nine years later, another American named Josiah Bent decided he had had enough, and went on to improve on the formula by adding salt and baking soda, for flavor and leavening. The resulting tastier, crispier “soda cracker” was such a success that even non-sailors began to eat them as snacks. Bent’s company eventually became (in a roundabout way) the company we know today as Nabisco.

Today, biscuit companies are still trying hard to improve their boring product even further — usually by dusting them with a savory powder, or stuffing some kind of sweet filling in between. But that, I think, would be missing the point. Emergency food aside, the best way to eat a soda cracker is as an accompaniment to a bowl of chili, or even better, a cheese course. Its crisp texture and consistent blandness provide a respite from the intensity of the flavors, allowing a kind of white space against which a dish (or an appetizer) can be evaluated and enjoyed — without actually enjoying the cracker itself, ironically. 

So with this in mind, let’s see how some of these locally available bland biscuits stack up against each other:

Skyflakes Crackers (Php 52.00 per pack of 10)

In the US, “saltines” was an actual Nabisco brand name before competitors started using it as a generic term for their own products (Nabisco eventually lost their trademark because of this). Similarly, it would be easy to assume that M.Y. San (the maker of Skyflakes Crackers) was the first to use the word “flakes” — a term that their competitors also use. But the fact is, the La Pacita Biscuit company (maker of Supreme Flakes) predates M.Y. San by a good 14 years, so it’s not really clear which company used “flakes” first. It hardly matters now, of course, since Skyflakes is clearly the best-selling local soda cracker, despite its high price point.

To its credit, Skyflakes is everything you’d expect a best-selling soda cracker to be. Each cracker is predictably regular and perfectly formed, with occasional bumps of lightly browned air pockets suggesting an ample amount of leavening. Incidentally, the rows of holes in each cracker are there to allow extra vapor to escape during baking, making sure the cracker stays flat, but not too flat, since you want your cracker to be crunchy. Skyflakes is crumbly to the bite and the taste is slightly more flavorful than the other brands, possibly due to its higher palm oil content. You would think that Skyflakes is as basic as a soda cracker can be, but (as you will find out later) you would be wrong.

Magic Flakes (Php 44.50 per pack of 10)

With four crackers per pack instead of the usual three, Magic Flakes (manufactured by Universal Robina Corp.) is arguably the second most popular brand. It’s also considerably cheaper than Skyflakes, making it appear (at first glance), the most sulit soda cracker in the market. Each cracker, however, is slightly thinner and lighter than Skyflakes’, which suggests a greater amount of leavening. When weighed, a pack of Magic Flakes is only heavier than a pack of Skyflakes by about three grams.

Because of the extra leavening, the air pockets on the face of each Magic Flake cracker are noticeably bigger. And because the four crackers are crushed tightly into a small space, these crispy air pockets are cracked open during packing, which then causes each cracker to have an imperfect, damaged appearance — not the most presentable-looking item in a cheese buffet, if you’re into perfectly plated appetizers.

Despite Magic Flakes’ lower density, the bite is surprisingly similar to Skyflakes. When you snap a cracker in two, you can almost feel the individual microlayers of cracker breaking up in crisp succession. The added leavening also means more total sodium (230 mg versus Skyflakes’ 170 mg), which is evident in the taste — Magic Flakes is the saltiest of the saltines we reviewed, but it’s still pretty bland.

La Pacita Supreme Flakes Crackers (Php 38.75 per pack of 10)

Lastly, we have La Pacita Supreme Flakes, which (as mentioned earlier) may or may not have been the original “flakes” that started it all. What’s sure, though, is that Supreme Flakes are the plainest soda crackers you can buy.

How plain are they? They’re so plain that appearances aren’t important anymore. The crackers are irregularly shaped rectangles, as if the machines they came out of were relics from another time (to be fair, the company was founded in 1921).

They’re so plain that the cracker’s face has a strange, even complexion, with very few air pockets. This means that the product is very lightly leavened, which means a harder soda cracker. If you try to break a La Pacita cracker in two, you can feel the cracker gradually absorb the strain until it suddenly snaps. Taking a bite of one and chewing on it is a similar experience.

They’re so plain that you can almost taste the flour through the blandness and mistake it for the sweetness of a cookie. But that’s just your imagination interpreting the reduced amount of salt, because there’s really no sugar in it at all.

They’re so plain you wonder if pilot bread tasted something like this.

And yet, of all the soda crackers we reviewed, Supreme Flakes has the lowest calories, the lowest fat, and the lowest sodium. It’s the healthiest soda cracker you can buy and, surprisingly (because it’s the healthier option), it’s also the cheapest.

That’s actually a source of comfort if you ever have to eat one these boring things on its own.

Don’t know what to buy? Ask the Supermarket Guy! Send your questions and requests to review grocery items to supermarketguy.mb@gmail.com

About the author

Elias Guerrero, Jr.

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