Origins of the Pretzel
Posted on April 26, 2012
Did you know that pretzels got their start in the early church? As early as 610AD at a monastery somewhere in Southern France or Northern Italy, where monks used scraps of dough and formed them into strips to represent a child’s arms folded in prayer. The three empty holes represented the Christian Trinity.
As with a lot of foods, the exact origin of the pretzel is unknown.
The monks offered the warm, doughy bribe to children who had memorized their Bible verses and prayers. The monks called it a Pretiola, Latin for little reward. From there, the pretzel transformed into the Italian word, Brachiola, which means little arms.
The Pretiola journeyed beyond the French and Italian wine regions, hiked the Alps, wandered through Austria, and crossed into Germany, where it became known as the Bretzel or Pretzel.
In medieval times merchants traveling to the Frankfurt Fair risked being robbed by bandits. In order to guard the tradesmen, the towns’ people would ride out, greet the vendors and offer them pewter pitchers of wine and loads of crisp dough on their spears, called Geleit-pretzels.
The Whimsical Pretzel shape worked its way into the culture not only as a reward but as a symbol of Good Luck and prosperity. I suppose it had the same effect as a logo did appearing in festivals and celebrations, as well as a quick snack available from street corner vendors.
Probably two of the most fascinating things about the pretzel is it was served on Easter with 2 hard boiled eggs and hidden around the farms, for the kids to find. This very likely was the forerunner of the Easter egg hunt. Weddings in Europe for a time used the tradition of the bride and groom tugging at a pretzel like a wishbone, the larger piece assured the spouses fulfillment of their wishes.
There are pictures of pretzels in paintings that help us to find how old their existence really is. Here is a one of the more famous pictures in which we find pretzels, called “The f ight between carnival and lent” by Pieter Bruegel in 1559. You can see the pretzels in the lower right hand corner.
From this came the saying we still use, “Tying the knot”.
So how did the hard pretzel spring into existence? Skip ahead to late seventeenth century Pennsylvania. A baker’s helper fell asleep tending pretzels baking in the hearth. When he awoke, the flames had died, he believed the pretzels hadn’t cooked long enough and started the fire up again. When the Master Baker came in, he was furious that an entire batch of pretzels wasn’t fit to eat. In the process of throwing them out, he tasted one and realized he was on to something big! Not only did he like the taste of these delicious crunchy morsels but realized due to the moisture being baked entirely out, that freshness was preserved and they would keep longer to sell.
It was the immigrants from these countries who brought the “bretzel” to our shores during the 1800’s, later becoming known as the “pretzel”. Some believe that the pretzel recipe was brought over on the mayflower and they were made and sold to the Indians who loved them.
The first commercial pretzel bakery was established in the town of Lititz in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania by Julius Sturgis in 1861. The modern age of pretzel making began in 1935 when the Reading Pretzel Machinery Company first introduced the automatic pretzel twisting machine. Prior to that, most commercial pretzels were actually shaped by a cracker-cutting machine, then placed on baking pans and put into the baking ovens by hand. This innovation made pretzels available to people in all parts of the country, and helped the fledgling industry grow…
Some more modern bizarre pretzel facts include these noteworthy items: Largest pretzel ever baked:40 lbs, 5-feet across, by Joe Nacchio of Federal Baking, Philadelphia, PA; Pretzels in the movies: 20 lb., 4’ pretzel in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World”—same baker; Pretzel capitol of the world: Reading, PA., where one plant can package over 10 million pretzels per day!
Annual pretzel sales top $180 million and are the second most popular snack, right behind potato chips and just in front of popcorn.