Exploring Philadelphia's Pretzel Passion

April 26, 2014  •  Leave a Comment


Today is National Pretzel Day. Yes...there is an entire day dictated to the pretzel. That reminded me of a question I was asked from a visitor to Philadelphia a few months ago. They wanted to know "What's the deal with the Philly pretzel?" As a lifelong Philadelphian, I guess she expected me to know why "We... Philadelphians" loved our soft pretzels. 
I didn't have an answer for her, but she sparked something in me… I needed to find out the answer to her question. What was the deal with the Philly pretzel? I knew that we were known world-wide for our pretzels, just as much as we are known for the Philly cheese steak, but the questioned remained...Why?
I took the question to my mother, who seems to always have the answer to every question I have ever asked her. I was stunned when she came up blank. She didn't know why Philadelphia was known for the soft pretzel. If you know my mother, who is a writer of historical fiction and fact, you would understand why it was so shocking that she didn't have the answer. But, like me, it ignited a spark in her. 
What is the deal with the Philly pretzel? We had to get the answer to this burning question, and so our quest began. We decided to investigate and joined forces. Below is part one of our joint effort as writer and photographer as our journey into the discovery of the Philadelphia soft pretzel began…
It’s A Philly Thing
Written By: Elaine T. Jones
Photos By: Chanda Jones
When visitors come to Philadelphia they are usually excited by the city’s historical sites; however, it doesn’t take long for them to become intrigued with the cuisine. Philadelphia residents usually take for granted the favorite foods that the city of brotherly love is known for; for example, when we moved to another city for a while, we really missed the Philly pretzels… and we couldn’t find a good pretzel anywhere. It was never hard to find a soft pretzel in Philly because vendors sold them on almost any corner in center city, or from the abundance of pretzel stores throughout the city…
My cousin, who was visiting from out of state, was curious and intrigued by what she thought was a strange practice of eating the odd shaped bread with mustard on it. Another friend, who had relocated to Philly asked, “What is this with the pretzel?”
That was the question that sent my daughter, Chanda Jones, and I on a quest… We knew that the Philly Soft Pretzel was famous worldwide – but why? Why and how did Philadelphia earn the distinction of the soft pretzel being a Philly Thing?
We felt like detectives on a segment on the TV show, History Detectives.  It was fun doing the research, following every lead, exploring the locations, and talking to people about what they knew or remembered…
When people walk down the streets of Philadelphia with a curved pretzel smothered in golden mustard and bite into it to with the purpose of solving a craving, they become one of the many consumers that make the pretzel a Philly Thing… Philadelphians consume about twelve times more pretzels that the rest of the country; furthermore, Pennsylvania produces and eats 80% of America’s pretzels.
My daughter, Chanda Jones, and I wanted to find the answer to that question. Maybe you never wondered about the origin and evolution of the pretzel, but we did; thus our investigative journey began.
This is what we found…
To our surprise we discovered that the pretzel was not originally created or made in Philly…
The first pretzel was reported to have been created by German Monks in 610 AD, and used as a reward to children when they learned their prayers. The interesting shape of the pretzel has Christian meanings. The loop within the circle represents a child’s arms in prayer. The twist in the center of the pretzel is symbolic of family togetherness… We have all heard the saying – ‘tying the knot,’ it seems that the twist came to suggest the importance of a solid marriage and symbolic for good luck. The three holes formed by the special twist imply the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The fact that the recipe was only flour and water and yeast made this treat a favorite for Lent, fasting, and Easter; in fact, pretzels were hidden at Easter in the same way we use eggs today.
In the 1800’s the German immigrants, who came to be known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, introduced the soft pretzel to America; in fact, the first commercial pretzel bakery in the United States was opened by Julius Sturgis in 1861 in Lititiz, PA. He also began to produce hard pretzels when a mistake turned into a tasty variation of the snack. 
The Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery - still in operation as a family owned business, is about an hour drive from Philadelphia.

Well, Chanda and I hopped in the car and went to visit the historical Julius Sturgis pretzel bakery. We took the tour, received hands-on instruction on pretzel twisting, and examined the original baking tools. And, naturally we ate some pretzels… 
We discovered that there was so much more to learn… We had just started to 
uncover the answer to our question. How did Philadelphia get so much credit for 
the soft pretzel when it was not a Philly creation? Look out for part two of the quest of the Philadelphia Pretzel.


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