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History of the pretzel

Pretzels were invented by monks and used for the teaching of religion, feeding the poor, and to symbolize the marriage bond.  That is the history, now they are the most popular snacks today!

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 parties?

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.




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