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Twisted History of the Pretzel
Pretzels have had a long, twisting, and fascinating history. They are found in all shapes, sizes, textures and with or without spices or coatings. Historians generally agree the popular snack originated about 600 A.D. in Europe. However, there’s debate over exactly where. Some say Southern France while others argue it was Northern Italy.
We now know where, but who first made them and how they came about is even more interesting. Legend has it a young monk was preparing unleavened bread for Lent shortly before Easter. In that day the custom of praying by Christians was done with their arms folded across their chests.
As the monk worked, he observed several other monks praying nearby in this manner. As he was about to discard some leftover dough he noticed the shape their folded arms made. It suddenly dawned on him he could twist the excess dough into this shape. It would make a wonderful enticement for children to recite their prayers.
He named his handiwork pretiola, Latin for “little reward.” It’s easy to see where the modern name came from. As time progressed the three holes became representative of the Trinity as well as a symbol of good luck, long life and prosperity. It’s thought by some researchers the pretzel eventually made its way to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620, although there’s no way to actually prove it. The notion came about by stories of local Indians buying the novelty.
The general belief though, is German and Swiss immigrants brought them over in the 1800s. These immigrants, now known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, established countless handmade pretzel bakeries across the central Pennsylvania countryside.
The history of how hard pretzels came to be is also interesting. The humble beginnings of hard pretzels originated in Pennsylvania. However, there are two accounts. One tells of an apprentice who fell asleep while baking soft pretzels. When he awoke he found the fire in the hearth had gone out. Fearing the pretzels were not done yet, he fired up the furnace again. Thus, they were baked twice.
Needless to say the master baker was furious when he found out. Then, he decided to taste one out of curiosity. They were delicious. They also had the added benefit of staying fresh longer. The other account says the recipe for hard pretzels came from a down and out hungry tramp that traded it for a meal.
Pretzels have been a favorite baking tradition for centuries in southern Germany and nearby German-speaking areas. There, they still have the original religious meanings. However, the use of lye in baking them is a relatively new technique thought to have been discovered by accident in the 19th century. Germans use them in many of their festivals.
As the story goes, a baker accidently dropped a tray of pretzel dough into a container of lye, which was used for sanitizing baking utensils. After the pretzels had finished cooking, it was discovered the lye had significantly improved the color, texture and taste.
Since then, the pretzel has become intertwined in American history. In 1954, a pretzel vendor in Ocean City, NJ put cotton candy on pretzel rods. In 1958 a pretzel baker, campaigning for office, used the slogan "A new twist in government, clean, honest and efficient." Toy manufacturers even got on board with its Barbie Baby-sits set, adding a miniature box of pretzels. The music industry as well prospered with a new dance called "The Pretzel Twist."
Producing over 80 percent of America’s pretzels today, Pennsylvania is still the king of American pretzel production for both hard and soft pretzels.