How pretzels conquered the streets of Philadelphia

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How pretzels conquered the streets of Philadelphia

History + Culture

How pretzels conquered the streets of Philadelphia

My dad used to buy all sorts of things from the salesmen hawking their goods on Philadelphia’s Roosevelt Boulevard when I was growing up. By driving through just a single intersection on the enormous thoroughfare connecting the city’s Northeast neighborhoods with the Center City core, you would come across men pushing any number of items. Pacing thin loops up and down the medians between the massive 12 lanes of traffic, the hawkers sold newspapers, flowers, teddy bears to drivers paused for a few seconds at the stoplights. Heck, we even used to get our Christmas trees from a lot on “the boulevard.” 

Most common of all were the guys selling school lunch-sized brown paper bags of soft pretzels. The bags cost anywhere from 50 cents to $2, depending on the time of day and the weather outside. As such, my childhood memories are littered with these brown paper bags.

There was always one on the kitchen table, and usually another on the coffee table in the living room. They were on the floor of my dad’s car, and the backseat of my stepmother’s van, along with plenty of shards of the opaque white salt that had shaken out from the bags. I don’t remember ever seeking soft pretzels out so much as I remember them constantly being made available to me. I know I’m not alone in this experience.

But where did they come from? How did Philadelphia end up with this specific strain of soft pretzel, baked into efficient rows of tight figure eights? What was it about the soft pretzel, as opposed to say New York’s sidewalk hot dogs, that stuck in Philadelphia? How did the soft pretzel become Philly’s most enduring street food?

Back in the seventh century, a Catholic monk crafted the first pretzel somewhere in either Southern France or Northern Italy. Called a pretolia, the treats were given to children as reward for learning their prayers. As such, each little baked good was loaded with religious subtext. The three holes were meant to evoke the Trinity. The dough folded over itself at the center was a pair of praying arms and hands in miniature. Hearty pretolia carb bombs also served as perfect diet aids to get parishioners through their annual Lenten abstinence from meat.

The word pretzel itself has twisted etymological roots. Both pretolia and the old German word, brezitella, stemming from the Latin word for arm, brachium, likely contributed to our modern day pretzel. In 1510, some 900 years after the pretzel’s invention, as the Turks were attempting a siege of Vienna by tunneling below the city walls, pretzel bakers working overnight shifts were the ones who realized what was happening, and sounded the city alarms. For saving Vienna, bakers earned a coat of arms featuring a lion’s head and a pretzel that can still be spotted across Europe today.

The timeline on the pretzel’s migration across the Atlantic is a little fuzzy, but it had to have come by boat. The recipe was likely brought to the New World by German colonists, who were mistaken for Dutch. We don’t know who the first pretzel bakers to successfully bring their knowhow to the American colonies were, but we do know the first pretzel bakery was built here in the 18th century. In 1861, Julius Sturges reopened a bakery first built in 1784 in Lititz, called Pennsylvania’s Pretzel House. Today, Lititz is a little under two hours drive west of Philadelphia, but it likely took days to traverse the distance between the two cities in the 18th century. Sturges’ youngest son Lewis ran the business until 1976. It remains in the family – and is still in operation – today.

The first recorded pretzel sale in Philadelphia proper happened in the 1820s, when trendsetting Daniel Christopher Kleiss made a career out of selling them on the city’s sidewalks, where they still loom large. But it wasn’t until 1933 that Philly’s twist on the treat took on its long-lasting iconic shape. Technological innovations resulted in automated pretzel-making machines, capable of twisting dough into shapes that previously required individual attention by hand. In order to fit efficiently onto conveyor belts, the two-holed, rectangular shape was adopted.

Most of today’s pretzels in the region, the ones sold all over street corners and narrowly between busy lanes of traffic, are baked at Philly Pretzel Factory and Center City Pretzel. And depending on which part of town you grew up in, you would likely be reared on one specific shape or the other. That’s right, the dueling pretzel empires each produce a significantly different product. 

While both options adhere to the tight, two-holed archetype synonymous with the city, Philly Pretzel’s product features rounded loops at each end, with holes large enough to poke a finger through. Center City’s pretzels, on the other hand, are thicker, more rectangular blocks of dough with holes barely bigger than a slit.

Philly Pretzel Factory alone has eight outposts in Philly, producing 125 million pretzels each year. The average Philadelphian eats about 12 pounds of them a year. Daily consumption numbers are a little fuzzy, but The New York Times wrote that 300,000 pretzels were eaten each day in Philadelphia in 1988.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t countless other bakers and chefs producing their own take on the Philly staple across town. Restaurant royalty Stephen Starr’s Frankford Hall produces a killer pretzel fit for his modern take on a biergarten. Wawa – the best convenience store on the planet (fight me) – always has a stack of them on the checkout counter. They appear on both appetizer and dessert menus at restaurants, reimagined as something highbrow, or simply allowed to exist. Like I said, you don’t ever have to seek a pretzel out in Philadelphia. A pretzel, instead, will find you.

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