Oyster Crackers are synonymous with New England and Seafood Chowder. No one disputes this. What has been in dispute is the origin of the iconic bite-size cracker. We stay on the original 13-state New England territory for the answer, but it is found in two distinct locations 283 miles apart: Trenton, New Jersey and Westminster, Massachusetts.
In the beginning, there was Adam. Adam Exton that is, and his brother-in-law Richard Aspden. Exton had emigrated to America from England in 1842 and opened and operated the “Exton Cracker Bakery” in Trenton New Jersey, along with Aspden, sometime between 1846. Meanwhile, a bakery in Westminster, MA had been manufacturing a similar cracker since 1828.
Westminster Crackers have become an iconic New England delight and since the company has relocated to Rutland, VT, we have a sense of loyalty and shared history with the brand. To be fair though, what sets Adam Exton apart as an Oyster Cracker artisan is that he also invented a pastry dough rolling and docking (that’s the process that makes small holes in dough to ensure even baking) machine. Not only did this greatly improve the efficiency of production, but it also resolved sanitary issues arising from hand-rolling.
The common cracker was born around the early 1800’s but adding hard bread or biscuits to stews and soups is as ancient as Rome. This practice served an essential purpose. It added bulk to soups and stews thus increasing the sense of fulness. At one time, this may have been pure indulgence on the table of the wealthy, but for the working class and less fortunate it was an economical way to sooth hunger.
Oyster Crackers owe their names to their function. In New England, crackers and hard breads have been added to oyster and seafood chowders for centuries. There’s also the fact of their shell-like roundness. However, they are also commonly called Westminster Crackers, Trenton Crackers or Philadelphia Crackers, this last appellation being somewhat erroneous.
Trenton is a direct derivative of their New Jersey origins in Adam Exton’s bakery. The Philadelphia reference was inspired by the classic Philadelphia cream cheese slathered saltines served as a snack or at dinner parties. And what about “Water Crackers?” you might ask. This version differs in that the recipe contains no oils or fats; only flour and water. By the way, the Oyster Cracker used to be flat as saltines. Presumably, a round shape proved to be a more satisfying complement to soups and stews.
It is said that Oyster Crackers last forever. This may not be far from truth as the “Best by” date on the box or individual-serving restaurant packets is based on how long the crackers are estimated to retain peak texture and flavor qualities. It is not a food safety issue. Oyster Crackers left in sealed packaging can last up to almost a year without losing their integrity.
America’s favorite Oyster Cracker worthy soup remains by far the seafood chowder and any variation thereof. Note that tomato soup and cream of mushroom soup come in at a very close second and third place.