How it Started
The soft pretzel is not a German invention. No-one knows for sure, but most sources indicate that the pretzel was invented in 610 A.D. by an Italian monk who is said to have created the pretzel (‘pretiola’ in Italian) as a reward for children who learned their prayers. He is said to have made the treats formed into a ‘knot’, with little arms of dough folded over each other, to resemble the crossed arms of the children in prayer (history.com).
Other theories say that pretzels began in a monastery in Southern France, or in Germany, where bakers held hostage invented the ‘Bretzel’ for their captors out of desperation.
The Catholic Church saw the shape of the pretzel as a symbol for the holy trinity. Since pretzels were made of only flour, water and salt, they were suitable nourishment during Lent, when the consumption of fats and proteins was banned. Before Easter Eggs became popular, it was also common for children to search for hidden pretzels on Easter morning.
The Pretzel in Germany
Pretzels were popular in Southern Germany and many variations, including sweet varieties, were invented. In German-speaking European countries, pretzels were considered a symbol for good luck. They were often given as gifts at weddings as a symbol for ‘tying the knot’. At the beginning of the year, people give each other a ‘Bretzel’ for good luck.
‘Bretzel’ became the emblem of bakers and their guilds in Southern Germany as early as the 12th century. A Pretzel sign above a bakery entrance is a common symbol throughout Germany still today.
‘Bretzel’ are eaten with white sausages in Bavaria. In other parts of Germany, they are sliced horizontally and served with sandwich fillings. Some varieties are sweet, like ‘Lebkuchen Bretzel’ (gingerbread pretzels) at Christmas, and different types of dough can be flaky, brittle, soft or crisp. ‘Bretzel’ are often sold at beer festivals and there are even public days devoted to ‘Bretzel’ culture in individual cities throughout the country.
The Pretzel in America
Swiss German immigrants to Pennsylvania were the first to introduce the pretzel to people in the United States. Julius Sturgis is cited as the first American to open a commercial pretzel bakery in the Central Pennsylvania countryside in 1850.
With time the commercial production of pretzels increased and shifted to hard pretzels, because they could be packed in airtight containers to stay fresh longer than soft varieties. Today Pennsylvania remains the biggest producers of pretzels, with 80% of the 1.2 billion dollar industry in the USA (history.com).
Soft pretzels continue to be popular snacks sold by street vendors in major cities like, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. And today, pretzels are present in dishes that American forefathers could never have imagined, from ice cream toppings to chocolate candies. Who knows what twists and turns the future holds for the humble pretzel!