Today is the first day of October, a month which has been officially designated as National Pretzel Month.
You might not think we need an entire month dedicated to the pretzel, and, frankly, neither did I until I visited Lititz, Pa., the birthplace of the American pretzel. It's a town in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country not far from Philadelphia, another town that takes its pretzels seriously. (Back in 1861, before the process was mechanized, pretzel twisting was the second-highest-paying job in the City of Brotherly Love.)
At 219 E. Main St. in Lititz is the Julius Sturgis Pretzel House, America's oldest pretzel bakery. As part of my visit there, I tried my hand at pretzel twisting, receiving an official pretzel twister's certificate for my efforts. Twisting a pretzel is not as easy as it looks, and by the time I'd mastered the art -- more or less -- I had developed a much fuller appreciation for what previously, like Alton Brown, I had regarded merely as the penalty for flying coach.
Julius Sturgis got into the pretzel business by accident. Originally his bakery specialized in bread, until one fateful day in 1861 a hobo looking for a job was lured into his shop by the aroma of freshly baked loaves. Though Sturgis had no openings, he did invite the man to dinner. In return the hobo gave Sturgis a pretzel recipe. Having never baked pretzels before, he tried it out and was pleased enough with the results to add it to his offerings. Within a few years the pretzels became so popular that Sturgis quit making bread altogether and established the first commercial pretzel bakery in the country. They still use the original recipe today.
Though the Sturgis Bakery has been making pretzels for almost 150 years, it's still a relative newcomer. Pretzels, some historians contend, may be the oldest snack food known to humanity.
Some experts suggest that pretzels were first devised by a cult of ancient sun worshippers to look like a cross encircled by a ring, but most scholars believe that they first appeared in the seventh century when monks in Northern Italy (or possibly the French region of Alsace) formed scraps of dough to resemble arms folded across the chest in prayer. Called "pretiola," which is Latin for "little reward," they were used as incentives to get children to say their prayers and learn their Bible verses. (Similarly today in many a bar they still function as an inducement -- to buy beer.)
Before long the pretzel became an important religious symbol. A 15th-century prayer book belonging to Catherine of Cleves, for example, shows St. Bartholomew surrounded by pretzels. In the 16th century they were hidden on Easter morning just as eggs are today, and in the 17th century they even figured in the wedding ceremony when wishing on a pretzel became a common marriage custom, giving rise to the term "tying the knot."
Today there are more than two dozen varieties of pretzels on the market in two major categories: soft and hard (the latter the serendipitous result of accidental over baking by a baker's apprentice who fell asleep at the hearth.) After countless twists and turns they're still satisfying people's cravings as they have for centuries.
This recipe is adapted from the Junior League Centennial Cookbook.
1 package active dry yeast
1 scant tablespoon sugar
3/4 cup warm water
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
1/4 cup baking soda
Dissolve yeast and sugar in warm water. Mix in salt and flour to make a soft dough, kneading until smooth. Divide dough into six portions. Roll each portion into a long rope and twist into a pretzel shape. Dissolve baking soda in 4 cups water and bring to a simmer. Submerge pretzels in simmering water for 30 seconds. Remove with slotted spoon and place on greased baking sheet. Sprinkle with coarse salt and bake at 425 degrees until golden brown, about 15 minutes.
Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699.