On a blustery, cold day, nothing tastes better than a soft and salty New York-style pretzel served steamy and hot straight out of the heated drawer of a street vendor’s cart. Crackling with coarse salt and dipped ever so delicately in bright yellow deli mustard, the soft, bread-like inside and hard, shiny outside are perfection defined and well worth the inevitable mustard spill that will adorn your coat for the rest of the day.
New Yorkers hate the fact that this quintessential street food got its New World start in the City of Brotherly Love, but it’s time we got over it. Pretzel wars aside, nothing can beat the taste of a New York style, salted softie. And besides, as with so many wondrous things, pretzels have a multifaceted, colorful past much larger than simple geography.
Praying for Pretzels
Made without eggs so as to conform to Lenten tradition, legend has it that soft pretzels were invented in 610 A.D. by Monks in Italy as a type of bread people could eat during that holy time. The shape was meant to replicate people praying with their arms crossed as was a common tradition in Medieval Europe. Called pretioli, or “little rewards,” word of the delicacy traveled the continent and was seized upon with great enthusiasm in Germany where its historical record begins in pictorial form. Soft, three-holed pretzels showed up in a baker’s crest in 1111, illustrated many religious manuscripts, and centuries later appeared in a 1440 prayer book used by Catherine of Cleves that shows the delectable treat surrounding a rapturous Saint Bartholomew. The three holes were thought to represent the holy trinity and soft pretzels became a symbol of spirituality and good luck worn as necklaces by 17th century German children who called them brezel or “little arms.”
Pretzels were adored by the early German settlers who brought the soft and crunchy treat to America in the 1700s. The first commercial pretzel bakery was opened in 1861 in Lancaster County, where large communities of German immigrants, known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, settled. Now dipped in an egg wash, the soft pretzel was no longer prized as a staple best suited for Lent, but instead became a daily treat.
Pretzels Without Borders
Just as it had made its way across Europe hundreds of years earlier, the yearning for soft pretzels crisscrossed the borders of American cities and landed on the cobble-stoned streets of New York in the early 1800s. Unlike its Philadelphia cousins, its shiny brown skin was now sprinkled with coarse salt, a New York tradition to this day. Soft pretzels became the staple of factory workers and day laborers who would often reach for the hunger-busting treat from push cart vendors who peddled them door-to-door.
Soft pretzels have remained a street vendor staple since their early infiltration into New York City’s food culture, even inspiring an episode on “Seinfeld,” one of New York’s most quintessential television shows. Considered by fans to be one of the funniest bits ever, the “These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty” bit continues to live on.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.