The whole story of the Philadelphia pretzel you need to know


Philly and pretzels? It’s such a natural combo that, uh… okay, it’s kinda weird. But here’s more than you ever wanted to know about how it happened!

Here’s how the Philadelphia pretzel became such an icon. Photography by Ashbridge Studios

We Philadelphians love pretzels. How much? We eat 12 times as much as anyone else in America, and we produce 80 percent of the country’s supply. Oh sure, somewhere had to be the pretzel capital of the United States, but why us? Here are some of the historical coincidences that brought about this twist of fate.

Heroes of the past

Pretzel historians generally agree that the pretzel form has its roots in Christianity. During the Lent season, the first Catholic rules prohibited the consumption of dairy products, fats and meats, so pretzels – made only of flour, water and salt – fit perfectly on the menu. The early pretzels are believed to have been sweet, like the ones we treasure in Philly today.

The the name can be derived Latin brace, meaning “little arms”, or pretiole, for “small rewards”. Either way, scholars theorize, pretzels may have originally been a treat given by monks to young students who learned their lessons properly. In the Middle Ages, they were distributed to the poor both as food and as a spiritual supplement, the three spaces representing the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. According to one story, in 1510 the Ottoman Turks attempted to invade Vienna by burying themselves under the city walls. The pretzel bakers, up early in their trade, heard them and foiled the plot, for which they were rewarded by the Emperor of Austria with their own coat of arms.

Pretzels were so widely baked and loved that some historians believe they are the origin of the saying “tie the knot” when referring to marriage. According to this theory, the pretzel symbolized the union of two families, and one was broken to the ceremony like a triangle. In Germany in the 1400s, the traditional Good Friday meal consisted of hard-boiled eggs and pretzels. German kids enjoyed pretzel hunts and even carried pretzels around their neck on new year’s eve for good luck.

A skill worth having

By a 1988 New York Times item While visiting the pretzel factories of Philly, pretzel twisting was the second highest paid job in town in 1861. (Tobacco workers were the highest paid.) The article states that America’s first pretzel factory has opened in Lititz, Lancaster. County, in 1861 by Julius Sturgis; one of his sons, Lewis, ruled it almost until his death in 1976. He recounted how his father learned his recipe from a traveling tramp and how the family sent pretzels to a son imprisoned in Andersonville for civil war. Among the pretzel factories the Times the recommended tours were the Bretzel Co city center., Philadelphia Soft Pretzels, Inc. (whose pretzels went to space on Colombia space shuttle in 1996), and the Federal Bakery Company. From the 1987 book The invaded pantry, the first record of a street vendor selling pretzels in Philly is of a Daniel Christophe Kleiss, in the 1820s.

According to Heinz History Center (yes, Heinz as in mustard mavens), in the 1800s a distinction emerged between taverns, which served food and drink, and saloons, which focused only on drinks, mostly food and drink. beer, and whose clientele was largely male. The Germans dominated the beer business, so when astute saloonkeepers figured out they could sell more beer if they served up salty treats to whet men’s appetites, they naturally turned to pretzels. They even sometimes offered a free lunch of pretzels, pickles and cheese. This angered the rising Temperance movement, which argued that the tactic was contributing to the deterioration of the family by keeping men away from home at lunchtime. Ooh, pretzels, you family destroyers, you! Pretzels also suffered during World War I from anti-German sentiment; the patriots forbade them the saloons, and the Los Angeles Times declared them “too German to be taken seriously”. The ban threatened the survival of the pretzel, but it actually flourished as people bought them to go with their homemade beers. A major innovation was the start of the pretzel rod – so much easier to make than its twisted parent.

Nation of Automation

Which sets the scene for 1947 and the beginnings of Pretzel reading machine, a mechanical wonder that could twist 250 pretzels per minute. The snack, once largely confined to the mid-Atlantic states, spread across the country in its hard, crisp form, which could be kept for long periods of time in boxes and bags. Forty years later, in 1988, Anne Beiler, better known as Aunt Anne, showcased his idea for the sweet pretzel at a farm stand in the Dutch country of Pennsylvania; today there are over 1,500 franchises. About nothing in particular, in 2002, while watching a football game, President George Bush smothered with a pretzel and briefly lost consciousness. The offending pretzel would have been a artisanal version – Lancaster County.

The biggest pretzel ever made was cooked by (of course) a guy from Philly, Joe Nacchio. It was five feet in diameter and weighed 20 pounds. Unless, of course, you believe Guinness Book of World Records, who cites one cooked in El Salvador in 2015 that measured 29 feet long by 13.3 feet wide and weighed 1,728 pounds. Why, El Salvador, why? Do you know who was able to resolve this discrepancy? The Bretzel Museum, opened in 1993 on North 3rd Street, which celebrated all things pretzels and allowed visitors to try their hand at bending the dough. Alas, he is now out of the game. Corn National pretzel day, first declared by then-Pennsylvania Mayor Ed Rendell in recognition of the importance of industry to the state, is perpetuated, celebrated every April 26. Thank God.

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