Pennsylvania is the center of pretzel production in the U.S., making 80 percent of the nation’s supply. Both Reading and Philadelphia vie for the title, “Pretzel Capital of the World.” According to Wikipedia, “The average American consumer eats 1.5 pounds of pretzels per year.”
The exact origins of the pretzel are unknown from the European countries, but here are a few legends and facts from different regions.
There is a legend that in 610 A.D., unleavened bread was made for the Lent season, the empty holes represented the Christian Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Italian monks formed from the scraps of dough into a soft twisted shape of crossed arms of praying children. Young children were given these treats as a reward for learning their prayers. The monks called them pretiola, Latin for “little reward.”
Experts agree that the pretzel does have Christian origins. Because of their ingredients of flour, water, salt, they could be eaten during Lent as meats and dairy products were forbidden.
In 1510 pretzel baking monks detected tunnel building by the Ottoman Turks beneath the city of Vienna. The monks not only alerted the townspeople, but helped defend the city as well. For their effort, the Austrian Emperor honored the pretzel bakers their very own coat of arms.
In 1614 there is a legend in Switzerland that couples used a pretzel in the form of a nuptial knot in the wedding ceremony to seal their bond. Some writers feel this to be the custom of “tying the knot.”
Of course, even in America, there were legends about the pretzel. Some believe the Pilgrims brought the pretzel to this country on the Mayflower, trading them with the Native Americans.
Most writers believe the Palatine Germans, later known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, were the immigrants who brought the pretzel to America around 1710.
It was the soft pretzel that came to America, but the hard pretzel began to be made in Pennsylvania.
The legend goes that a baker’s apprentice dozed off while baking the soft pretzel. Upon awakening, thinking the pretzel hadn’t baked long enough, he rekindled the fire. When the master baker arrived, he was furious that his soft pretzels were ruined. In the process of throwing them away, he tasted one. To his surprise, they were crispy, tasty, and the freshness was still in them. He then realized he could make money on this new hard pretzel.
From this legend we’ll travel to Lititz, Pennsylvania, where, in 1850, Julius Sturgis ran a bread bakery. According to their legend from “Our History---the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery,” relates that a hobo came by the bakery for a job and something to eat. He was invited to the family dinner that day. Before leaving, the hobo gave Julius a pretzel recipe.
Whether the legend is fact or not, in 1861, Julius stopped making bread and established the first commercial pretzel bakery in America.
Until the 1930s, pretzels were made by hand. In 1935, the Reading Pretzel Machinery Company introduced the first automated pretzel maker.
While growing up, a grandson of Julius, Marriott Sturgis, later called Tom, learned the pretzel baking business. Tom’s family eventually moved to Reading, Pennsylvania. By 1936, Tom and his brother, Correll, opened a pretzel bakery calling it “Sturgis Brothers.” Alas, due to war conscription, the bakery closed in 1942.
After the war, Tom established another bakery, calling it “Tom Sturgis Pretzels,” which is still in operation today, as well as the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery in Lititz.
Now that I’ve finished the pretzel history, I’m going to work on that dance, “The Pretzel Twist” made popular by Chubby Checker. Wanna’ join me?