I love discovering a story, when I’m least expecting it. While wandering through the Petoskey Antiques Show here in Michigan—I heard a story that I saved until this month as 2 billion Christians around the world approach their season of Lent.
It’s the story of a common snack food—pretzels—with a religious history that reaches deep into the traditions of Lent, the Christian season of fasting and reflection that leads to Easter.
I thank antiques dealer Rick Klass for starting the story as I talked with him at the Petoskey show. Most of us associate pretzels with Germany. After all, the German-style Snyders company sells more than twice as many pretzels in the U.S. each year as the second-ranking brand, Rold Gold.
“The Germans take credit for creating pretzels,” Rick told me, “but the credit belongs to Italy.” He explained that, during Lent many centuries ago, Italian monks baked unleavened bread. They rolled the left-over scraps into tubes and formed them into the shape of children’s arms folded across their chests in prayer. They were soft-baked as rewards for children who correctly recited their religious lessons. The monks called these treats “pretiolas,” Latin for “little rewards.” The 3-part shape of the pretzel was also associated with the Holy Trinity.
As your humble fact checker, I dug further into the history of these salty treats. In Lynne Meredith Golodner’s book, The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads, I discovered a second legend concerning the pretzel’s origin. Lynne acknowledges the Italian gifts story, but also cites a source that says the treats were first called “little arms” in another Latin phrase that also sounded like “pretzel” when Germans took up the recipe.
Little rewards? Little arms? There are so many variations on the legends, Lynne concludes, that the early history of the pretzel, 1400 years ago, is impossible to nail down today.
What is known? The first popular pretzels in America are associated with German and Austrian immigrants, especially communities in Pennsylvania. To this day, Lynne found, Pennsylvanians eat 12 times more pretzels than other Americans.
Now, whether crispy or soft, pretzels are firmly linked to Lent in many congregations where the early legends are repeated each year. The world’s oldest sketches and descriptions of these treats are in manuscripts now stored in the Vatican Library.
Take your pick, Lynne concludes: The classic shape can remind you simply of arms folded in prayer—or, more specifically, the Christian Trinity. Both associations are correct.
And, that’s an inspiration: Salty flavor and spiritual mystery in a single crunchy bite.
P.S. Please share your Godsigns stories with me, and give blog readers something else to chew on.
THE PHOTOS WITH TODAY’S COLUMN: Thanks to food stylist Celeste Dykas and food photographer Stephanie Fenton for these photographs, which were made for use with Lynne Golodner’s book, The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads.