The history of pretzels begins, believe it or not, with God. You heard that right – the Catholic Church played an instrumental role in creating and popularizing the pretzel, a soft or crunchy baked snack now associated more with Germans and carnivals. No matter how you take your pretzel, its history is more interesting than that of the average baked good.
Read on to learn the twisty, involved history of a now common snack.
The Early History of Pretzels
Unlike the history of many modern products, the history of pretzels starts in the 800s AD. Pretzels played a central role in a decision by the Catholic Church regarding its followers during Lent. For those who don’t know, Lent refers to a period of observance practiced by Catholics for six weeks leading up to Easter, which represents the resurrection of Jesus. During this period, the church orders fasting and abstinence from its followers.
During the seventh century, these rules were far stricter than they are today. Today, it’s hardly mandatory to give up meat, dairy, and eggs, though this was required back then. So where do pretzels come in?
Pretzels don’t contain dairy or eggs, making them perfect Lent food. Instead, the recipe for pretzels contains only flour, water, and salt. The first pretzel was a soft sort of bread, similar in consistency to the big pretzels you get today from vendors. Their original Latin name means “little arms,” owing to the shape. Translated by the Germans, the name became “bretzel.”
Regardless of the name, they became popular in churches. Some records show them being used as rewards for young pupils in monasteries across Europe. For others throughout Europe in the darkest period in human history, pretzels became symbols of luck and fulfillment. They became signs of prosperity even in times of abstinence.
The History of Pretzels from Then to Now
In the early 1500s, monks who were baking pretzels in their monastery aided in defending Vienna from the invading Turks. As a reward, the emperor gave them a coat of arms, a statement of valor. So if you’ve ever seen a tapestry depicting two lions thrusting swords into a pretzel, now you know why.
Pretzels continued on this line of symbolism throughout the centuries, symbolizing love and honor. Historians wonder if they came to America on the Mayflower. However, they agree that by the 1700s, German immigrants were baking them in Pennsylvania where commercial pretzel bakeries were only a matter of time.
Pretzels were baked soft or crispy for longer storage life and made by hand until the invention of a machine in 1935 that was capable of manufacturing them.
Today, everyone knows pretzels. However, few people realize they have a storied history involving monks, invading Turks, and the observance of Jesus’ sacrifice. Like so many inventions, pretzels came about by necessity first and pleasure later.
They have been symbols of love and prosperity for centuries. People may not have as much respect for the humble pretzel today, but they certainly still have a taste for them.