Forget cheesesteaks, the soft pretzel is Philadelphia’s true culinary achievement. Every year when my family drove down the shore, we’d get a brown paper bag filled with two sheets of soft pretzels, wet from all the salt, purchased from a guy at a red light on Roosevelt Blvd who had been there all day with no bathroom access. TRADITION! Now Philly has a whole chain of stores that only sells pretzels. So, who do we have to thank for this?
Who invented pretzels?
Legend has it, 7th century CE Italian monks first created the twisted bread as a reward for young students who correctly said their prayers. They were called pretiola (little rewards) and they were designed to look like hands in prayer.
Or maybe not.
Maybe the three holes in a pretzel represent the Holy Trinity.
Or maybe not.
According to Mental Floss, pagans could have invented pretzels. Apparently they were in the habit of baking bread that looked like all sorts of things for rituals and pretzels could have been created to look like a noose or “funeral arm-rings.”
So, who invented pretzels? Someone religious. That’s about all we can agree upon. But who made them popular? In 12th century Germany, the pretzel was the official symbol of many baker’s guilds, becoming a celebrated snack, even adorning the tables of kings and queens. The Germans continued the pretzel tradition up to today and they are often considered the progenitors of the modern pretzel we all love.
When did pretzels come to the United States?
As Europeans began pouring into the United States, they brought many culinary traditions with them. A large population of German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania between Harrisburg to the west and Philadelphia to the east. This group became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch.
This area of Pennsylvania became the pretzel capital of the United States. It started as a soft pretzel enterprise, as was the German tradition. But in 1861, the Sturgis Pretzel House opened in Lititz, Pennsylvania, and they began producing small, hard pretzels; these were the first of their kind.
Many pretzel makers followed suit and today there are more than 40 pretzel companies in Pennsylvania. This includes some of the biggest hard pretzel producers: Snyder’s of Hanover, Utz, and Herr’s. The famous Auntie Anne’s Pretzels chain that can be found in malls throughout the country got its start in Philadelphia.
80% of pretzels sold in America are made in Pennsylvania. The other 20% might as well be dog food.
How deep does the Philadelphia soft pretzel tradition go?
When I was in elementary school in the Philadelphia suburbs, I was sent to school with milk money and pretzel money. For 25 cents, you could buy a soft pretzel every day; they were delivered to our school.
You cannot go to a family function in Philadelphia or its surrounding area without seeing a Philly Pretzel Factory tray on the snack table. It’s truly a sight to behold: a mountain of little pretzel nuggets that you dip into all kinds of mustards, melted cheese, even frosting. It’s madness and I love it.
Remember when the food critic in the film Ratatouille took one bite of the titular dish and was transported back to his childhood, reminded of his mother’s home cooking? I guarantee every single person who grew up in Philadelphia has the same visceral experience when they get a sheet of six soft pretzels that are still stuck together, peeling one off, and dousing it in packets of Gulden’s or Heinz mustard. It’s heaven.