Undeniably the most popular party snack and an absolute staple of modern-day American mall food. Restaurants serve them as appetizers and main dishes, and hell, there are even entire companies based around the production of pretzels, whether they be bagged or handmade at a stand in their one of their many forms. They can be crunchy or doughy, big or small, salted or unsalted, covered in cinnamon or covered in cheese—as a food, they are an absolute marvel.
But a pretzel’s place in our lives does not end in the kitchen. In fact, a pretzel's role in the world is huge; dominant, even. "Pretzel" is originally believed to have been derived from the Latin word "bracellae" meaning “little arms,” then adapted by the Germans and called "bretzel." The word itself has worked its way into our colloquial speech with meanings that go beyond a relation with eating. You can sit on the floor pretzel-style while untangling your headphones that pretzeled themselves into a bunch of knots. And you can do it all while eating a warm, doughy, buttered-up, salted pretzel.
"Pretzel" is a noun, a verb, and of utmost importance.
History of the Pretzel
So how did pretzels come to be so important? Like many (good and bad) things, the spread of Christianity may be the culprit. It’s surmised that in the 7th century, monks would hand out twisted baked dough to their star students. As for the shape? Well, at the time, crossing your arms was the pose for prayer and some suspect a twisted pretzel may resemble it. The three holes then began to signify the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the custom spread throughout Europe. And just like that, the pretzel became an emblem of luck and prosperity.
Catholic Church goers certainly took advantage of the pretzel during Lent, as well. The Church asks for abstinence from certain foods during Lent and long ago meat, dairy, and eggs were forbidden during this time. So pretzels—both delicious and filling—were able to take the place of the heavier foods that had to be surrendered. The pretzel had worked its way into lives not just as a side dish, but as a symbol of one’s spirituality and dedication to God and, at one point, pretzels were even hidden on Easter morning.
Things took a turn around the time of the 17th century, and pretzel loops became a meaning of love. According to Swiss lore, royalty used pretzels in wedding ceremonies to seal their union. It’s even possible that the phrase “tying the knot” came from this tradition. Despite religious affiliations and folklore, a pretzel’s shape may have a more rational explanation. It is believed that the holes are simply so bakers can hang them on sticks, similarly to Swedish flat bread.
Practicality, however, does not make for a particularly interesting story.
In the end, pretzel making is an industry, an incredibly important one that makes about $550 million a year in the United States alone. The average American consumes about 1.5 pounds of pretzels each year, an intake average that rises to 12 pounds per year if you live in Philadelphia, where 80 percent of US pretzels are made.
It’s truly an interesting phenomenon how pretzels have managed to stand the test of time with little to no ingredient or aesthetic changes. A simple snack became recognizable and unanimously delectable. Interestingly, pretzels crusaded the world with monks and royalty, yet managed to disaffiliate from religious and bourgeois ties to become what it is at its core: food.
Delicious, accessible, and profitable food.