Nab the memories of this North Carolina favorite while you still can.
Advertisement

I am from the Central Piedmont area of North Carolina, and I was raised on Nabs. After I got my first car, the first thing I did—after buying a tank of gas—was buy a few packs of Nabs and a couple of water bottles to keep in my glove compartment to ensure I was equipped to stave off hunger during times of uncertainty. I offered passengers my tokens of goodwill, not unlike the beverage service offered on domestic flights from the airport.

If you aren't from the Tar Heel State you have no idea what I'm talking about, so I'll tell you what a Nab is and what it isn't.

Lance crackers variety pack
Credit: Moment Editorial / Getty Images

A Nab is a sandwich cracker that is packaged by a commercial company. It's not a peanut butter cracker made at home, and I know some people call the cheese-filled ones "Nabs" in the same way they call every soft drink a "Coke," but not in my house. In 1924, Nabisco introduced a five-cent "peanut sandwich packet," called it a Nab (short for Nabisco) and updated the name to NAB in 1928. What most people call Nabs today are often ToastChee, the signature offering of Charlotte-based Lance Inc. ToastChee made its debut in 1938 and as it caught on—especially with soldiers who trained at Camp Greene—Nabisco opened a bakery right there in Charlotte to meet the demand. Since the two were so similar, fans just called them both Nabs.

Nabisco stopped selling these packets sometime in the late '70s or early '80s, and Lance became the dominant brand, but the name stuck around like peanut butter on your palate. (Nabisco renewed the trademark for the last time in 1988 and canceled it in 2009.) Folks don't generally accuse my state of being progressive, but just like Confederate flags and Sunday blue laws, the word "Nabs" is just one of those obsolete things that some Southerners have refused to give up.

Each package is a single snack, four to six crackers, wrapped in cellophane. Nabs are generally found at convenience stores, gas stations, newsstands, and vending machines and more often than not, that's where you will find Nabs today.

"Get me a pack-a Nabs and a Co'cola," my mother would say when we made a pit stop on our road trips down home to Eastern North Carolina for family reunions. I distinctly remember spending many summers at the day camp sponsored by the local Y. With kids weary from traipsing through the woods, singing camp songs, and swinging on the jungle gym in a nearby park, afternoon snack time was heralded by a line forming in front of the vending machines by the pool. Though they're easily lumped together with other convenience foods like Vienna sausages, Honey Buns, sardines, or individually-wrapped snack cakes, Nabs are more than just a snack.

Sometimes a pack of Nabs is a replacement for the midday meal. Sometimes a pack of Nabs is enough to tide you over until the next meal. Essentially, it's six chances to stave off hunger. In one bite or two, twist off the top and excavate the peanut butter with your tongue, alternating sips of a soda with crunchy bites of sandwiched cracker or sharing one or two crackers with a less fortunate friend who may not have enough change for the vending machine. Nabs were (and still are) a snack that everyone can enjoy exclusive of socio-economic status. (Unless you, like me, have been allergic to peanut butter and now just stare longingly.) Possessing a pack of Nabs isn't a telltale sign of anything except immediate hunger. Nabs are what you eat when you're kind of hungry, but not enough to eat an actual meal. In other words, they're acceptable to have when you're fixin' to eat and they won't ruin your dinner like candy or potato chips—or so says my mother. Lance, Tom's, Keebler, and Kellogg's Austin brand might be the top purveyors of peanut butter crackers, but they are all called Nabs too. 

My hometown, Winston-Salem, has a very complicated relationship with Nabs, specifically Nabisco. In 1986 R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (maker of Camel and Newport cigarettes) and Nabisco joined to create RJR Nabisco. The company headquarters were moved from the Camel City to Atlanta, taking thousands of jobs with it. The city became a shell of itself and in many respects, is still trying to recover from that loss. Many millennials and Gen-Xers around my age remember taking field trips to Whitaker Park to watch cigarettes getting rolled, manufactured, and packaged. We were given packs of cigarettes to give to our parents but the most exciting part of the field trip was receiving The Token. 

The Token was a coin used to insert into a Nabisco vending machine to receive the snack or pack of Nabs of your choice. I remember a slick, buffed hallway grandiose, not unlike the scene where Dorothy meets the Wizard of Oz, only with dozens of vending machines glittering with snacks inside. I distinctly remember getting Oreos, because they were my mom's favorite. And a pack of Kent Golden Light 100s, which were what my grandmother smoked. Afterward, our group gathered in the main hall and we took photos in front of a statue of Joe Camel, made of real tobacco. We took our Nabs and ate them on the ride back to school.

Nowadays you might see wild flavor combinations like bacon cheddar, buffalo wing, or nacho cheese, but again, they're all still Nabs to plenty of people. Does cheese filling count? Orange cracker or buttery tan cracker? What about sweet cookies? These debates rival the "is a hot dog a sandwich" discussion in NC-centric online forums, but that connection to the past will probably disappear after my generation. I'm just nabbing the memories while I can.