Crunchy air. Dieter’s paradise. Carrier for molten cheez. The pretzel. They’re just there, as they’ve always just been there. But how did they get there, that bag sitting in front of you, pouring out hard twigs flecked with salt?
As it turns out, the hard pretzel, the most boring of snack foods, is quite rich in history. Richer than the corn chip, the potato chip and the cheese puff combined. The humble pretzel has spanned a history of at least fourteen centuries and had stretched in popularity over the old world long before the new one was even discovered. Who knew that snack that you’ll eat more out of a desire to keep your mouth busy was actually significant?
Its true. Although the exact pinpoint of the origin in regards to date and location of the pretzel are hazy, we can generally say that they were first mentioned as we know them in the early seventh century. Anecdotal history tells us that pretzels were found in Italy way back in 610 AD, when the future snack was given out as a reward. As lore has it, an Italian monk would give out simple flour and water pretiola (Literally “little gifts”) to any child who learned their prayers that week. Pretiola were simply strips of dough that were folded over one another like praying arms and baked, which I personally can’t see any small child looking forward to receiving as a study reward- but the popularity transcended the ages.
Other stories place the origin of the pretzel in French monasteries or being invented by German bakers. Although there’s quite a few hard little nuggets of unsubstantiated origins associated with pretzels, we can say that by the 12th century the looped shape was used in crests for southern German baking guilds and they were first illustrated in books during this time period.
For centuries, pretzels much like the afore mentioned pretiola were popular during the Lenten season as they contained no leaveners. They were eaten by Christians and Jews alike. There’s even a prayer and ceremony attached with pretzels during the Lenten season, in which some Christians observe as a reminder that this time of the year is meant for penance and prayer. Supposedly, in some parts of Europe hard pretzels are still only served from Ash Wednesday until Easter to keep the tradition alive.
Being that I’m focusing only on the boring hard variety of pretzels, lets just fast forward to the nineteenth century. (My apologies. There’s easily enough information on the soft variety to write an entire article on that as well.) The pretzel, which has a strong presence in Germany for centuries, finally jumps across the pond with German immigrants settling in Pennsylvania.
In 1861 the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery was established in Lititz, Pennsylvania. Sturgis, a baker by trade, had originally opened his namesake’s factory to produce bread eleven years prior, of which he was quite successful. Rumor has it that a transient gentleman riding the local locomotives was enticed to the bakery with the wafting smell of baking bread and Mr Sturgis offered the man a meal in exchange for a day’s work rather than a simple handout. The transient, so grateful for the meal that he essentially paid for, gave his temporary employer a recipe for hard pretzels. Sturgis almost immediately gave up bread baking to produce these hard little knots exclusively.
The popularity of the Sturgis crispy baked pretzels exploded, and before you knew it competition was cropping up all over Pennsylvania Dutch country. Small and large scale hard pretzel bakeries are still prolific in southeastern Pennsylvania today, ranging from the 100 pound a day producing Intercourse Pretzel Factory to the gargantuan HK Anderson plant that produces 65 tons daily. Some bakeries still produce their goods by hand, while others prefer to use mechanized rolling machines invented by the Reading Pretzel Machinery Factory around 1935.
Hand or machine rolled, the average person consumes about a pound and a half of hard pretzels annually. (Pennsylvanians probably consume more than that, mostly because 80% of the pretzels consumed in the United States are made in the region.) They’ve permeated the snack aisle and have become ingrained in popular culture far and wide, be it for a dip carrier or the butt of a joke when former presidents choke on them.
Thank the baby cheeses for pretzels. (We also have something to melt them over.)