April 26th is National Pretzel Day when we honor the German pastry loved by snackaholics worldwide. Pennsylvania has a lot to do with its popularity.
Everything known about the invention of the pretzel has “legend” attached to it. Legend has it that the pretzel was invented by monks in the 7th Century C.E., as a treat for students who memorized their prayers. Legend has it the dough was crisscrossed into the shape we know because it resembled crossing your arms, which at the time (so it is said) was the traditional position when praying. And legend has it the basic flour and water pretzel became popular for Lent because eating pastries with eggs, lard, milk, or butter was verboten. The shape of the pretzel may have more to do with making it easier for bakers to hang them on sticks for display, and as for popularity–Lent or not, they taste soooo good!
German and Swiss immigrants brought the pretzel to America. The first commercial pretzel bakery in America was founded in Lititz, Lancaster County, by Julius Sturgis in 1861. It’s still in operation. Legend has it (there’s that phrase again) they were the first to market the next great step in pretzel evolution–the hard pretzel. (Legend also has it the first hard pretzel was a happy little accident. As the story goes, someone somewhere overbaked a tray of pretzels. Just as they were about to throw them in the trash, some experimental soul took a bite, and history was made.)
Pretzels are now big business–over a billion dollars a year in the United States alone. You can find everything from pretzels hand-made one at a time in mom and pop bakeries, to pretzels churned out by the millions in huge factories. They come hard or soft (and in between), and all sizes and shapes, from circles to squares to sticks, and of course pretzel-shaped. Not only are they yummy by themselves, but they can also be topped with things, stuffed with things, and used to make sandwiches. (Better than sliced bread!) And to this day, Pennsylvania leads the nation in pretzel production, with about eighty percent of the market. It was to honor the pretzel’s contribution to Pennsylvania’s history and economy that Governor Ed Rendell declared the first National Pretzel Day in 2003.