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Do The Twist: Pretzels. Can you even think of a more inane victual? I don’t think even condiments are taken as much for granted. Pretzels are practically an afterthought. A bag of something you throw into a bowl at a party to increase the appearance of hospitality. Of course I’m referring to the workaday, bagged pretzels indigenous to every American supermarket. However, the average American consumes 1Â½ lbs. of pretzels a year. That translates into a $550 million a year business. Not so inane after all.
Nevertheless, I doubt many people ever contemplate the origins or meanings of this voluble little snack. No problem. It’s my job to do that homework for you. You’d be amazed how convoluted the history of the pretzel is. Pardon the pun but get ready for a lot of twists.
To begin, there are a number of claims to the pretzel’s origin. These include 1) the ancient Romans. 2) the Greeks of 1,000 years ago 3) Italian or French monks in the year 610, and 4) German bakers in the year 743.
Trying to identify the specific birthplace of a food product like a pretzel is like asking when the first chicken appeared on earth. It’s not like on one Monday millions of years ago there were no chickens and on Tuesday there were. Chickens and pretzels are entities that develop over time with multiple influences. Not to mention the fact that certain food products can be “discovered” by more than one independent source contemporaneously or at different times. As for the pretzel, there were probably many “prototypes,” i.e., similarly baked items from various parts of the world that eventually morphed into the barroom nibbler we know today.
OK, so somewhere over the last 2,000 years in Europe the comestible we now call pretzels were “invented.” Let’s twist some more. How did it get its shape and what does a pretzel symbolize? Well, first there’s the notion that an ancient cult of sun worshippers formed a circle of dough around a cross but this was too fragile a configuration so it was amended into the current form.
The monks who supposedly created the pretzel in 610 allegedly crossed the dough strands to represent children with their arms crossed learning their prayers. Pretzels were popular with Christians at lent since they were devoid of any forbidden ingredients. Moreover, the three holes came to signify the trinity. In Germany, Catholics would form palms into pretzel shapes for Palm Sunday. Pretzels were thought to bring luck, prosperity and spiritual wholeness. They were considered particularly lucky on New Year’s. Finally, some accounts claim that the marital expression “tying the knot” emanates from the pretzel shape and denotes everlasting love. Love struck German boys would paint a pretzel on the door of their beloved. In Luxembourg, on “Pretzel Day,” it is customary to give your inamorata a pretzel or pretzel shaped cake.
So it appears then that the meaning of the pretzel shape is as multifaceted as its origins. Tired of drifting through all the twists? Let’s straighten out a little by discussing what is clear cut.
A pretzel is a baked pastry product made from dough that can be soft or hard, (although originally it tended to be chewier). Cooking time and the amount of moisture in the dough determines its hardness. The name pretzel comes from the German bretzel which in turn comes from the Latin brachium which means arm. Some cite this as evidence for the “crossed-arms” theory of the pretzel’s meaning.
The pretzel was introduced to America by German immigrants in the 18th century and flourished in the areas populated by the Pennsylvania Dutch. The first commercial pretzel enterprise in America was the Sturgis’ Bakery in Lititz, Pennsylvania which began in 1861. Pennsylvania currently produces 80% of our country’s pretzels. While pretzels are traditionally salted, there are also sweet varieties coated with glazes and other flavoring elements such as chocolate, yogurt and fruit. But I think nothing beats a traditional New York soft pretzel with lots of salt and mustard.
An intriguing aspect of both pretzel and bagel making is that they are poached in water before they are baked. Many people are surprised when they first learn this. Indeed, the average person doesn’t equate a pot of boiling water with baked goods. The reason bagels and pretzels are poached first is to set the outside crust. This renders the final crust thicker and crisper. It also adds density to its interior. Too long in the hot water however and the crust becomes too thick and the interior lightens. Typically pretzels and bagels are only poached for 30-60 seconds.
One final interesting anecdote about pretzels occurred in 16th century Vienna. The city was under siege from the Ottoman Turks. As the story goes, because the walls of the city were so well defended, the Turks attempted to tunnel under them. Pretzel bakers working at night heard the commotion and informed the authorities. The city was saved and the Emperor awarded the bakers a coat of arms. The pretzel is indeed a microcosm of the twists and turns of history.