That food is of a sacred nature goes
without saying. Fresh produce
from the garden fits in that category for me, but foods with a history can
expand our appreciation both of cuisine and human ingenuity.
What food is especially associated with prayer and almsgiving, has
been used to help teach religion, saved a city from destruction, was a
symbol of good fortune in medieval times, serious sustenance during the
Great Depression, and is now mostly enjoyed at sporting events and
If you said “the pretzel,” good
for you. This humble food
comes in a variety of shapes, flavors, and with coatings that would have
amazed the humble monk who invented the pretzel sometime between the fifth
and seventh centuries. Idling with leftover strips of dough, the
monk-baker supposedly twisted and turned them until they resembled a
person’s arms crossed in prayer, traditional posture for prayer in those
days. The brother monks
approved the tidbits, and began using them as rewards for the children
under their tutelage.
The monks used the inter-connected
sections of the “prêt Iola” (literally, “little prayers”) to help
the children understand the Christian Trinity of “Father, Son and Holy
Ghost.” Their success with
the re-shaped crusts spread to monasteries far and wide, and soon the
pretzel became an important symbol in church life.
A page from the prayer book of Catherine of Cleves depicts St.
Bartholomew surrounded by pretzels, which were thought to bring good
fortune, prosperity and spiritual wholeness to those who ate them.
It wasn’t long before pretzels
were introduced into the wedding ceremony: the couple wished upon and
broke a pretzel like a wishbone, then ate it to signify their oneness.
A 17th century woodcut, copied from a cathedral in Bern,
Switzerland, depicts the “marriage knot” as being a pretzel!
But even earlier, the pretzel’s fame had emerged in a burst of
glory from beyond the monastery walls.
During the 1500’s, the city of Vienna was under siege by Ottoman
Turks. Thwarted in their
efforts to break through the city’s walled fortifications, the Turks
began tunneling below ground. Pretzel
bakers, working through the night, heard the strange noises in the
cellars, and notified the guard. The
city was saved, and the grateful emperor awarded the pretzel bakers an
honorary coat of arms!
Despite their royal status, pretzels
were a convenient way to hand food to the poor, and became a typical alms
for the hungry. Apparently
the homeless did not line up for soup or a sandwich, but for their daily
pretzel. And those who gave
the pretzels away were considered particularly blessed.
Indeed, pretzels became such a sacred sign that they were often
packed into coffins of the dead, no doubt replacing the jewels that were
buried with the rich.