The Legend of the Pretzel

The Story of the Pretzel begins about 1500 years ago in a monastery; it is believed, in Southern France or Northern Italy. There, the monk whose task it was to bake bread found he always had scraps of dough left over when he'd shape the loaves. Being as imaginative as he was frugal, he formed these scraps into dough-ropes which he twisted into the now-familiar shape. Someone soon noticed how this shape resembled that of a child's arm folded in prayer, and since the demand had almost instantly outstripped the supply, our friend decided to called them "Pretiola" – "little rewards" in Latin – and saved them for the children who learned their prayers well.

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That they were even pictured in an illuminated manuscript of the period (Vatican Codex 3867) attests to their immense popularity, and they were soon being made north of the Alps, in what is today Austria and Germany. It is from the Germanic version of Pretiola – Bretzel – that our word comes.

At least as early as the late 1400's pretzel baking was a recognized trade. A woodcut from Ulrich von Richenthal's "Concilium zu Constancz", printed in Augsburg in 1483, shows a traveling pretzel bakery with the baker baking and selling his wares as he rolled through the streets.

These pretzels were soft and delicious but like bread, they had to be eaten the day of baking or lose their freshness. Perhaps it was about this time that a young apprentice pretzel baker fell asleep while tending the oven. The fire burned low, and when the youngster awoke in his sleepy confusion he fired the oven with greater heat and let the pretzels bake twice as long. This resulted in some very brittle, hard pretzels which the Master would have destroyed save for the obvious enjoyment shown by the apprentices eating them. Although he chastised – and rightly so- the young sleeper, the next day he began baking the now-famous hard or brittle pretzels. The two varieties have existed side by side ever since, though the hard short is probably the more popular.

The soft pretzel has even found an honored place in the marriage ceremony. A woodcut, dated 1614 and copied from a still-older cathedral window in Berne, Switzerland, shows the pretzel as nuptial knot in a royal marriage. And certainly the custom of the bride and groom wishing on a pretzel (much as we do a wishbone) is of equal antiquity – and it may even survive today in some places. Although today some 90% of all commercially-made pretzels are processed entirely by automation, the craft of Pretzel Twister was made obsolete by a successful machine only in 1933.

And here we are today, 1500 years later and halfway around the world from that monastery, in a land whose very existence our monk couldn't even have imagined – making and eating pretzels.