Pretzels had their beginning around 610 A.D. somewhere in Southern France or Northern Italy. A young monk was preparing unleavened bread for Lent, the Christian period of fasting and penitence before Easter. Christians of the day prayed with their arms folded across their chests, each hand on the opposite shoulder. It occurred to him that he could twist the leftover dough from the bread into this shape and use it as a treat for the children to recite their prayers. He named his creation 'pretiola,' Latin for 'little reward.' In the centuries following, the pretzel made its way into history books and European culture. The pretzel's form became a symbol of good luck, long life and prosperity.
Historians believe, although cannot authenticate, that the pretzel came to America by way of the Mayflower in 1620. There are stories of early settlers selling the treat to Indians, who would pay any price for them.
The hard pretzel had its beginnings in Pennsylvania. One story tells of a baker's apprentice who dozed off while baking soft pretzels. The fire in the hearth died down and he awoke with a start, thinking that the pretzels had not been baked long enough. He fired up the furnace again, baking them twice as long as necessary. When the master baker found out, he was outraged at the "ruined" pretzels. Then, out of curiosity he tasted them. To his delight, he discovered they were crisp, crunchy and delicious. What especially pleased him was that the new hard pretzels also retained their freshness much longer.
Through the years, the pretzel has been associated with many interesting and diverse groups of people. In 1954, a boardwalk vendor in Ocean City, NJ offered cotton candy on pretzel rods. In 1958, a pretzel baker turned politician campaigned for governor using the slogan "a new twist in government-clean, honest, efficient." The Barbie Baby-sits set used to come with a miniature box of pretzels. And a new dance was introduced called "The Pretzel Twist" after the famous dance originated by Chubby Checker.
By 1960, total pretzel sales reached $92 million. In the mid 1960's pretzels were the fourth most popular snack in the U.S. and the number one snack preferred with beer.
Today, the center of pretzel history in America still resides in Pennsylvania where the first commercial bakery was founded in the small town of Lititz in 1861. Since the days of beer gardens and saloons, the pretzel has climbed the ladder of respectability. They're now seen at parties and in the company of ice cream, soda, soups, salads and main dishes. They come in all shapes and sizes, flavored and unflavored, salted and unsalted and are still one of America's most popular snacks.