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Pretzels: A Retrospective
Despite their unassuming snack presence, pretzels will be here long after we're dead.
By Alex Springer
The pretzel has been around for more than 1,300 years, and there's a lot we can learn from the Robin to beer's Batman. The story of the pretzel is one of conflict, drama and no shortage of divine intervention. Thanks to the salty snack's trademark design, as well as its comforting flavor, it's no stranger to the art of reinvention. It's seen the rise and fall of empires, it's lived through countless international conflicts and it still occupies a pivotal position in bars and beer fests the world over.
Despite the fact that modern iterations of pretzels include braids, rolls, hamburger buns, pizza crusts and even the breading for chicken fries at Burger King, the traditional loopy twists might just be the secret to the humble pretzel's success. Credit for this design breakthrough goes to a group of Catholic monks in Europe—some say they were from Italy; some say Germany—who baked the little treats for sustenance during Lent. Not content with simply rolling the simple mixture of water, flour and salt into sticks or squashing them into balls, these inventive monks arranged their creations into the twisty shape that we know today. According to tradition, the pretzel was designed to look like arms folded in prayer, and the monastic brass liked the fact that the design created three holes that could easily represent the Holy Trinity.
With a design that carried a papal stamp of approval, the pretzel became a popular proselytizing tool for the Catholic church. Monks would distribute pretzels to their younger pupils for correctly reciting prayers, and pretzels became one of the primary tools that clergy would use to feed the poor—the pretzel's design reminded the recipient of things spiritual, while the doughy twists provided physical sustenance.
The pretzel had a pretty sweet gig as a symbol of the church's community outreach, but it achieved rock star status in the early 1500s. A contingent of soldiers from the Ottoman Empire had sneakily dug a series of tunnels beneath the walls of Vienna, Austria, in an attempt to capture the city. A group of monks busy baking pretzels in a monastery basement heard the clatter of the Turks' sneak-attack and sounded the alarm. This effectively prepared the city, whose military fought off the invading Turks. To show his gratitude to the monks and their baked goods, the emperor of Austria awarded the heroes with their own unique coat of arms. From then on, the pretzels' popularity soared throughout Europe. It was immortalized in paintings and sculpture, and became a staple of bakeries all over the continent.
Pretzels eventually made their way to America by way of the European settlers who set sail for the East Coast in the 1700s. Pennsylvania then became—and still is—the heart of American pretzel production. It was there that an enterprising baker named Julius Sturgis created the first commercial pretzel bakery this side of the Atlantic. Popularity of the treat, which would keep its crunch during long ship journeys, soon took off—and a snacking legend was born.
So how did this once-revered symbol of restraint and spirituality become associated with the Dionysian sensibility of beer and breweries? A common theory is that bar and pub owners knew that salty snacks like pretzels made beer go down smoothly and also made customers thirstier. Serving small bowls of pretzels and peanuts became a common practice among barkeeps that saw the cheap, salty snacks as great ways to maximize their drink sales.
While this rudimentary capitalist practice might have brought beer and pretzels together, the bond that formed between them transcends the machinations of these early business owners. Nowadays, beer festivals the world over are incomplete without pretzels in some form or another—though I'm given to understand that pretzel necklaces are akin to going to a concert clad in a T-shirt that features the headlining act, and should be avoided at all costs. Still, I have to admit they have flair.
For those who are looking for gourmet pretzels outside of Oktoberfest, I'd wager that the best around are baked and twisted by the folks at Vosen's Bread Paradise (328 W. 200 South, 801-322-2424, vosen.com). While Vosen's is most well-known for its croliner—a cross between a croissant and a Berliner doughnut—their soft-baked pretzels are the best link to the centuries-old recipe. You know you're getting something of quality because these pretzels lack the uniformity and each is rolled and twisted by hand. They sometimes offer experimental toppings, but usually you can find an original and a cheese pretzel whenever you go in.
The original is everything you need in a soft pretzel. It's got the golden brown suntan of an exterior that is bejeweled with thick grains of salt, and it's perfectly soft and chewy on the inside. Their cheese pretzel lacks the traditional shape, but that's just because the ovoid design works better to capture the layer of post-melt Swiss cheese that fits like a dreamcatcher in between the doughy foundation.
Between the pretzel's surprisingly eventful history and its current role as beer's favorite sidekick, the unassuming, carb-and-salt-loaded morsel is a true renaissance snack. As we go into our upcoming beer-related endeavors, let's not overlook the silent majesty that is the common pretzel.