In the Beginning
You may have heard that the pretzel has a German background. The truth is, well - complicated! It certainly has embedded its twisted roots in Germany. However, the oldest and most widely accepted story of the invention of early pretzels goes back to the beginning of the middle ages, in 610 A.D. It involves a monk, and is not the only time monks are involved in these twisted roots!
The Italian Monk
An Italian monk teaching children in Northern Italy is said to have invented soft little pretzels and called them pretiola or little rewards, to reward children for learning their prayers. He is said to have made the treats with little arms forming the 'knot', to resemble little arms crossed of children in prayer.
There are other claims to the pretzel's fame, although less reliable perhaps. One tells the story of a monastery in Southern France being the origin. In Germany, the story is of local officials or dignitaries holding bakers hostage, the bakers inventing the brezel for their captors out of desperation.
Pretzel Bakers' Guild Coat of Arms
In any case, the pretzel has very early roots in Southern Germany, as well, where it is typically credited as the birthplace of soft pretzels. As early as the 12th century, German pretzel bakers used the pretzel shape in the emblem for their guild (kind of like a union), and also for their own coat of arms.
Before we move on to the history of pretzels, we must first talk a little about its origins in Christianity, and the Catholic Church. They believe the pretzel shape represents the holy trinity, the three holes representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Soft pretzels using a simple recipe of only flour, water, and salt were used during Lent when Christians were not permitted to eat eggs, lard, or any dairy products.
It eventually became a tradition on Easter morning to hide pretzels for the children in a pretzel hunt, instead of eggs for an Easter egg hunt like we do today. As a result, pretzels have become heavily associated with both Lent and Easter.
Back to Germany
There were many pretzel bakers from Southern German areas who baked good pretzels from slight alterations in their pretzel dough. All different types of delicious pretzels became popular as pretzel baking took a stronghold, including those with sweet flavors like cinnamon and gingerbread.
Poppyseed pretzels became a big seller in certain parts of Germany, Austria, and German-speaking Switzerland. The pretzel was a symbol of good luck and was used at weddings ('tying the knot') the way we use a wishbone where the bride and groom each take a side and pull. Pretzels are still given as gifts today for good luck.
On to America
In the latter part of the 18th century, Swiss German immigrants introduced German baking traditions to people in the United States, Pennsylvania in particular. These immigrants became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, and they quickly became popular for their freshly baked pretzels.
The pretzel's popularity spread until many handmade pretzel bakeries populated the Central Pennsylvania countryside.
In Pennsylvania in 1850, Julius Sturgis had a bread business. In that year he provided dinner for a homeless man. The man had been on a train that he got off of when he saw the bread business, to ask for a job and a meal. According to the story, Julius didn't have a job for the man, but he still fed him a nice dinner.
In return, the man gave him a recipe for hard pretzels, which he tried out on his family first. A hit, he began selling pretzels in his bakery, where they became such a popular snack that he couldn't keep up with as many pretzels as people wanted. In 1861, Sturgis opened the first commercial pretzel bakery.
The American Pretzel Industry
As the American pretzel production increased, the baked snacks were made in different shapes and sizes including sticks, braids and letters. They discovered the hard, crispy baked treats would stay fresh in an airtight container much longer than the soft ones.
By the 20th century, hard pretzels were being baked (and other soft bread types of goods) in other big cities in the U.S. at sidewalk stands, for a popular quick meal on the go. In 1949 the first automated pretzel maker secured the mass production of the nation's pretzels.
Where hard pretzels were invented, the state of Pennsylvania remains the biggest producer of the popular baked snack, with 80% of the 1.2 billion dollar industry in the United States.
On April 26th, 2003 Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell proclaimed a new holiday - National Pretzel Day, in honor of the significance of the pretzel in the state's history. National Pretzel Day acknowledges the pretzel as an item of literal sustenance for the state's economy.
If you're a pretzel lover, we hope you enjoyed our post on the historic "twisted tale" of the pretzel. We will be posting many interesting blogs about this intriguing symbol of good luck, twisted roots, and all ;) See you soon!