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Today for T-Shirt Tuesday, we're going to delve into the history of one of Philly's favorite snacks, the Philly soft pretzel. Observe their particular squat shape, lightly browned and crisped exterior, doughy inside and sprinkling of coarse salt.
While Philly has, in my mind, perfected the pretzel, we certainly didn't invent it. According to legend, pretzels got their start as far back as 610 AD when Italian monks used the pretiolas, or “little rewards”, to encourage children to be diligent in their prayer studies; the strips of baked dough were folded to resemble arms crossing the chest. The pretiolas soon became popular in Austria and Germany where they were known as “bretzels”.
This illustration from the 12th century Hortus deliciarum, a medieval manuscript compiled at the Hohenburg Abbey in Alsace, may be the earliest depiction of a pretzel. It depicts a feast of the biblical Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus. Were pretzels present in a feast in Biblical times? Probably not. But their inclusion in a medieval manuscript does perhaps prove that they were enough part of everyday religious life to earn cameos in monastic art.
While accounts vary, one source claims the first American pretzel was baked in 1861, about 75 miles west of Philadelphia in Lititz, Pennsylvania. As the story goes, sometime around 1850 bread baker Ambrose Roth obtained the recipe from a hobo as a thank you for a hot meal and some hospitality. Roth then passed the recipe on to his apprentice, Julius Sturgis who subsequently established the country’s first commercial pretzel bakery. Because of the tight trading ties between Philadelphia and the areas in and around Pennsylvania Dutch Country, it was only natural that pretzels would trickle into the city. Since the late 1800s, vendors have been slinging pretzels on Philly's street corners. The inexpensive and filling snack have since been a go-to for school children and other hungry people with little money to spend. Heck, you can still get a sack of them for a measly few bucks!
Pictured below are some pretzel vendors vending at various Philadelphia high schools in the 1920s and 30s...