The History Of Pretzels

Pretzels - crunchy snacks enjoyed for over 1390 years. Their history starts in Europe where a monk using leftover bread dough baked them as treats.

Everybody loves pretzels - crunchy, brown, salty heart-shaped snacks. You can buy a whole bag for little more than a dollar on sale. They're handy to keep around for unexpected company or for munching in front of the tv. But did you know pretzels have been around for approximately thirteen hundred and ninety years?

Somewhere straddling the border of northern Italy or southern France, pretzels were invented by an ambitious monk baking unleavened bread for the Christian Lent. Possibly out of boredom, he made some little shapes with leftover bread dough. Because Christians in those days prayed with their hands crossed over their chests, he tried shaping the dough to mimic that action. They were baked to a soft bread consistency and given as a treat to children that memorized their prayers. The monk named his new treat 'pretiola' - a Latin word meaning 'little reward'.

These baked unleavened shapes were the soft pretzels we know today that are sold in shopping malls, carnivals, fairs and even grocery stores stock them in the freezer aisles.

From that humble beginning, the pretzel became famous across Europe. Mention of the pretiola can be found in books from that time period. The pretzel's shape became a symbol of good luck and many believed the shape was also symbolic of long life and good health. The pretzel's shape decorated many embroideries and other artifacts in Europe.

There is a special coat of arms hanging outside every Austrian pretzel bakery. The coat of arms shows a lion holding a shield with a pretzel shape in the middle. The Viennese king awarded this honor to the pretzel bakers. The story is that in the year 1510, the Turks invaded Vienna by tunneling under the city walls. Even though it was time for the bakers to start the next day's pretzels, they abandoned their baking tasks to defend the city of Vienna. The bakers invaded the tunnels, using their weapons effectively to squash the attack and kill the Turks.

It's believed soft pretzels found their way to America onboard the Mayflower in 1620, although this has never been authenticated. It is known that enterprising colonists knew the recipe and sold these treats to the Indians, who paid dearly for them.

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.

Today pretzels come in all shapes and sizes and many companies experiment with flavor. Butter-flavored pretzels are favorites that have stayed in the public eye. Pretzels are great accompaniments to soups, salads, entrees and as tavern owners will attest, beer.

Annual pretzel sales top $180 million and are the second most popular snack, right behind potato chips and just in front of popcorn.

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