History of the German Pretzel - Who Invented the Pretzel?

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Pretzels, or pretiolas as they were first known, had their humble beginnings around 610 A.D. in the region between the south of France and northern Italy. According to historians, the pretzel is the oldest snack food known.

A young monk was preparing unleavened bread for Lent, the Christian period of fasting and penitence before Easter. Using the dough left over from bread making, he accidentally formed the pretzel shape. The shape resembled the way Christians of the day prayed with their arms folded across their chests, each hand on the opposite shoulder, and as this looked like a child's arms folded in prayer, he used them as treat to reward children for reciting their prayers. It's said the loops were taught to represent the Christian Trinity of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

The monk named his creation 'pretiola,' Latin for 'little reward.' From there, the pretiola transformed into the Italian word, brachiola, or "little arms." The treat became popular and spread around the other monasteries over the Alps into Austria and Germany, where it became known as the "Bretzel" or "Pretzel"

The Religious Significance of the Pretzel

From it's early roots as a reward for reverence, pretzels were regarded as having religious significance for both ingredients and shape and within catholic countries, it became a part of many religious ceremonies. Pretzels were a convenient way to give food to the poor and became typical alms for the hungry. Those who gave pretzels away were considered particularly blessed. They became such a sacred symbol that they were often packed into coffins.

As time passed, pretzels became associated with both Lent and Easter. The bread culture became highly developed because of meatless holidays, and pretzels, made with a simple recipe using only flour and water, could be eaten during Lent, when Christians were forbidden to eat eggs, lard, or dairy products such as milk and butter.

The Easter egg hunt may very well be a descendant of the tradition the Germans had at Easter, and are particularly associated with Lent, fasting, and prayers before Easter.

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Pretzels were hidden around the farms for the children to find, just as eggs are hidden today. They were then served with two hard-boiled eggs on Good Friday. The pretzel symbolized everlasting life and the two eggs nestled in each large hole represented Easter's rebirth. A page in the prayer book used by Catharine of Cleves depicts St. Bartholomew surrounded by pretzels which were thought to bring good luck, prosperity and spiritual wholeness. The Pretzel became an early symbol in marriage, where the wedding phrase “tying the knot” got its start, where a pretzel was used to tie the knot between two prominent families and it was broken like a wishbone at the ceremony.

Pretzels in Germany

A pretzel (known as Brezel in German, sometimes also Brezn or Breze) is a type of baked food made from dough in soft and hard varieties and savory or sweet flavors in a unique knot-like shape, that over the centuries has made its way into history books and European culture. Pretzel baking has most firmly taken root in southern Germany and adjoining Upper German - speaking areas, and pretzels have been an integral part of German baking traditions for centuries. The pretzel has been in use as an emblem of bakers and formerly their guilds in southern German areas since at least the 12th century.

How Pretzels Saved a City

A special recognition was given to the pretzel bakers in Austria. In 1510, the Ottoman Turks invaded Vienna by tunneling under the city walls. Pretzel bakers, working through the night, heard the strange noises in the cellars, grabbed every available weapon and killed the Turks. The city was saved and the grateful emperor awarded the pretzel bakers an honorary coat of arms. It shows a lion holding a shield with a pretzel in the middle.

How Pretzels came to America - Early American Pretzel History

As with the earliest origins of the pretzel, it's arrival in America seems to be a mixture of facts and stories. It's believed pretzels were bought over to America on the Mayflower in 1620. From an early court case, where the defendant, a Carl Carmer and his wife, were accused of selling pretzels to the Indians (he was using the good flour for pretzels and the left overs for the bread), we have facts, but this is where the stories and legends start. During the 19th century, southern German and Swiss German immigrants introduced the pretzel to North America and it flourished in areas populated by the Pennsylvania Dutch.

One story tells of a baker's apprentice who dozed off while baking soft pretzels. The fire in the hearth died down and he awoke with a start, thinking that the pretzels had not been baked long enough. He fired up the furnace again, baking them twice as long as necessary, baking all the moisture out of the pretzels. When the master baker found out, he was outraged at the hard "ruined" pretzels. Then, out of curiosity he tasted them. To his delight, he discovered they were crisp, crunchy and delicious. What especially pleased him was that the new hard pretzels also retained their freshness much longer, lacking the moisture that causes breads to spoil.

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Another popular legend surrounds the first American commercial hard pretzel bakery, the Sturgis Bakery, which apparently came to bear as a result of an act of kindness. It seems that in the 1850's, a baker in Lititz gave a free meal to a drifter passing through town and in return for his generosity the drifter gave the baker a recipe for pretzels that eventually became the recipe of the baker's apprentice - Julius Sturgis. The immigrants became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, and this style of Pretzel became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch Hard Pretzel, and is the origin of the hard pretzels that we've come to know today.

In time, many handmade pretzel bakeries populated the central Pennsylvania countryside, and the pretzel's popularity spread. Throughout the 20th century, soft pretzels became extremely popular in other regions of the United States. Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York became renowned for their soft pretzels. In particular, it became iconic with Philadelphia and was established as a cuisine of Philadelphia for snacking at school, work, or home, and considered by most to be a quick meal. The average Philadelphian today consumes about twelve times as many pretzels as the national average.

Pennsylvania today is the center of American pretzel production for both the hard crispy and the soft bread types of pretzels. Southeastern Pennsylvania, with its large population of German background, is considered the birthplace of the American pretzel industry, and many pretzel bakers are still located in the area. Pennsylvania produces 80% of the nation's pretzels.

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Germany has the largest variety of breads with more than 300 basic kinds of bread, producing more than 1,000 types of small bread-rolls and pastries. Our World German Bakery has been baking our 6 styles of the most popular German breads for more than 30 years, the Farmers Bread, Baurenbrot, our Old World Rye, Russian Rye, Dark Rye and Komis Bread. We also have freshly baked Pretzels, Pretzel Rolls, Seasame Seed, Poppy Seed and Kaiser Rolls.