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What did the manufacturer do to my Pilot Bread?

Seth Kantner

I'm allergic to a lot of things. So allergic, the FDA should hire me to test food additives. The last time my daughter bought sour cream I scratched all night -- something new they put in, I guess. I'm not alone; food allergies are on the rise in America. That's one of the reasons I'm a strong proponent of food from the land -- what people now are calling subsistence food.

Fortunately, I've never been allergic to salmon or moose, or picking blueberries, or skinning caribou or wolves, or anything like that. For decades now, there's been one store-bought food I never doubted -- Sailor Boy Pilot Bread crackers. Most people I know have been eating those crackers for so long we practically think of them as a subsistence food too.

The first wolf my friend Alvin Williams and I ever got was in the mountains north of the Redstone River. I spotted it, which was rare for me with Alvin around, and we both shot at the same instant. I've only shot one more wolf since, but Alvin has gone on to harvest many.

We skinned it in our tent that night, eating fried lynx and Pilot crackers with chunks of frozen butter and jam. Later, I dried and scraped and tanned the skin with sourdough, the way I like to tan skins. We both wanted ruffs from the wolf. I took the skin to Clara Lee in Ambler for advice on where to cut.

Clara measured the long silver guard hairs in her fingers. It was a beautiful hide. She started explaining, this part for sunshine ruff, this for men's ruff, the head for mittens, the leggings for mukluks -- if I had another matching wolf with four more leggings to accompany it, of course.

It was cool to watch her hands, amazing to think about all the things she saw in that wolf skin.

She flipped the hide fur-down, and poked in her clutter until she found a pattern. Lo! -- the pattern was the blue side of a Sailor Boy Pilot Bread box. It made sense; the box is pretty much four inches wide and the sides perfectly straight.

I wish now I could remember all Clara explained, and I wish I had that old Sailor Boy box to read the label.

This week my family was out of town, which means simple meals here for me -- mostly dried caribou and cooked caribou, muktuk and bear fat. I did have some jelly from a friend. It was fabulous jelly and I ate all the bread in the house.

I still had jelly left, so I went to the AC store and bought a box of Pilot Bread crackers.

That was all I bought. I didn't eat out.

That night hives showed up all over my body. I lay awake scratching, wondering, what could it be? I was positive I hadn't eaten anything out of the ordinary, nothing that I'm allergic to. I hadn't gone to anyone's house to eat.

In the morning on the counter, there was the ubiquitous blue box. Out of curiosity, I flipped it over, read the ingredients. Artificial Flavor! TBHQ! Since when is that in Pilot Bread? Since when is it NEEDED?

TBHQ is short for tertiary butylhydroquinone -- a form of butane, basically lighter fluid. Lighter fluid is one thing I haven't drunk before, so I wasn't aware I was allergic to it.

Last I knew TBHQ was against the law and food companies were spraying it on the inside of potato chip bags -- to get around it being considered an ingredient. I did know TBHQ was definitely not a subsistence food. Here are a couple of quotes I found about it:

"Ingesting a single gram of the chemical can cause nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse. Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can kill you."

And: "Although TBHQ might be safe in small doses, that doesn't mean it's healthy for you. And since it's used to preserve processed foods that are naturally oily or fatty, avoiding these foods would certainly be a healthy choice."

Hmm. I'm pretty sure Interbake Foods, LLC -- the manufacturer of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread -- doesn't want us to make that particular healthy choice. Unfortunately, avoidance is exactly what I've been doing -- the box hasn't moved on the counter. It's sad, and unsettling, but I'm uneasy about eating another one of those big round tasty crackers. I don't want the hives.

Here's the good part, though. That blue box is still perfect for a ruff pattern. Also, upriver in my cache I have a couple of boxes of vintage pilot bread -- pre-artificial flavor and TBHQ. Alvin's dad, Don, split a case of Sailor Boy crackers with me a dozen years or more ago. I've been eating on them ever since. They are still good, of course.

The curious thing is I've never had a bad pilot cracker in my life -- until last week. Somehow for all those years, no fridge and living in tents and sod houses, not one rancid cracker, ever.

That's part of the reason pilot bread has always been so great. Somehow for the past century or more, Alaskans have enjoyed the heck out of millions and millions of those big round crackers, keeping fine and good without toxic preservatives and fake flavors.

Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives with his wife and daughter in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.

EDITOR'S NOTE: April Dore, a spokesperson for Interbake Foods, said THBQ was added to the ingredients of Pilot Bread in 2011 when the company contracted to produce food items for Kraft Foods, which uses the preservative in the oil of all of its cracker products.

Research to which Interbake has access thus far indicated "nothing that would show any kind of allergic reaction," Dore said.

"The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved TBHQ for use in a variety of oils at very low levels" said Susan Davison, director of corporate affairs for Kraft.

"Consumers do not actually ingest the preservative. The process of baking destroys any residual levels of TBHQ."

She added, "When TBHQ is used as a preservative in an oil ingredient and is not functioning or present after the manufacturing process, the FDA does not require it to be listed in the ingredient line."

Which is why you don't see it listed among the ingredients of Ritz, Oreos or several other popular Kraft snacks.


SETH KANTNER
Around Alaska