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Secrets of the City: Philly

Revealing all the untold stories of Philly. From all the best local spots to our love for a good parade, check out the stories that make the City of Brotherly Love unique!

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All Hail the Pretzel!

a person standing next to a fence

1930s street vendor selling soft pretzels

Can you believe that Pennsylvania accounts for 80% of the pretzel supply for the US? And did you know that Philadelphians consume the most pretzels per capita of anywhere in the world? While Americans on average eat around 2 pounds of pretzels annually, the typical Philadelphian eats about 12 pounds per year. Why? Well, they’re delicious!

In celebration of National Pretzel Day on April 26th, let’s take a look at the twisted tale of the pretzel, Philly’s favorite treat.

Pretzel Origins: More Twisted Than a Soft Pretzel

Ah, the pretzel. That golden-brown beacon of salty goodness, as ubiquitous in Philadelphia as cheesesteaks and Rocky reruns. But this beloved bready companion boasts a history richer, and arguably more twisted, than the dough itself. Buckle up, carb lovers, for a delicious journey through the pretzel’s rise from humble monastery treat to the undisputed king of Philly snacks.

Legends abound about the pretzels origins. Some claim that in 610 AD, a kind, French monk wanted to motivate children to learn their prayers. Since people often prayed with their arms crossed over their shoulders, the monk created a special treat for the children: a soft bread dough twisted into the shape of a person with folded arms. These pretiolas (Latin for “little rewards”) were given to children who memorized their prayers.

Another theory points to Southern Germany as the birthplace of the pretzel. Here, the origin story connects pretzels to a type of unleavened Roman bread and suggests that German bakers decided, in a period of boredom (and perhaps under the influence of their delicious beer), to contort their dough into an intriguing new form. These bretzels then evolved into the pretzel shape we know today and became a symbol of Bavarian baking culture by the 12th century. By the 1400s, pretzels were being sold by vendors in the streets of European villages.

While the legends are charming, historians haven’t found concrete evidence to support either of them. The exact origins of the pretzel remain a bit of a mystery. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. We do know for certain that by the 1700s, German immigrants brought their pretzel passion to Pennsylvania, forever altering the course of Philadelphian snacking.

The Rise of a Squished Soft Pretzel Empire

Fast forward to the 1800s. Philadelphia found itself in a pretzel predicament. Those traditional German pretzels were a bit, well, hard. Not exactly ideal for a city on the go, especially if your commute involved a horse-drawn carriage and a bumpy cobblestone road. Enter the soft pretzel, a glorious innovation that combined a thin crust on the outside and a satisfying chew with a delightful, doughy softness on the inside—perfect for devouring while dodging traffic or cheering on the (yet to exist) Eagles!

According to legend, the recipe for soft pretzels originated at the Sturgis bakery in nearby Lititz, PA in the mid-1800’s, when a hobo offered the recipe to the bakery’s apprentice in exchange for a hot meal.

From Bavaria to New York City, soft pretzels are heart-shaped, with two round wings shooting out from a central knot. In Philly though, the entire twist has been squashed into a figure eight. The oblong shape is thought to have originated at the Federal Pretzel Baking Company in South Philadelphia, as a side effect of new-fangled technology gone awry. It happened in the 1920s when hand-twisted rods of dough got squished together in a new conveyor belt system before being pushed into the oven. Before long, the other bakeries in town had copied the unique shape, and ever since, soft pretzels have been a staple for Philadelphians. You grab one on your way to the office, snag one on your coffee break, or pick one up after-school. They make for great finger food at parties and an ideal late-night munchy after the bars let out. They are the perfect all-purpose, any-time snack!

a bunch of food on a grill

From Philly Pretzel Factory’s Instagram

National Pretzel Day: A Philadelphia Celebration

In 2003, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell recognized our pretzel prowess when he declared April 26th to be National Pretzel Day. On this day, free pretzel giveaways become a competitive sport. Tourists, wide-eyed and bewildered, find themselves swept up in the salty frenzy, battling hardened locals for the last pretzels. It’s a beautiful, doughy mess.

Honestly, it’s not nearly that dramatic, but you are likely to find some free pretzels. Even if you have to purchase them, they’re worth it! Hot spots to find Philly’s favorite snack include Philly Pretzel Factory, Miller’s Twist at Reading Terminal Market, and any number of street corner vendors. Just make sure they are “squished” or figure eight-shaped and sold in paper, rather than plastic, to get the authentic Philly pretzel experience.

More delicious options for Philly pretzels can be found here.

Other April Events in Philly:

Calling all drama nerds! Philly Theatre Week returns on April 4 through the 14th. This year’s events also include several new “pay what you can” options.

Savor the meal deals from some of the city’s best Latino-owned restaurants during Dine Latino Restaurant Week from the 7th through the 13th.

Sunday, April 21 marks the return of the Manayunk StrEAT Food Festival. Over 50 food trucks, crafts and music take over the streets of Philly’s Manayunk neighborhood, a few miles northwest of Center City.

Help raise funds for community-based organizations serving people living with or impacted by HIV by Dining Out for Life on April 25th.

The oldest, largest and most-widely recognized track and field meet in the country The Penn Relays will be held from April 25 -28.

Featuring fine art, Americana, period furniture, folk art, ceramics, porcelain, silver, jewelry, textiles and more, The Philadelphia Show returns to the terrace above the Rocky Stairs, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on April 25 through the 28th.

Written by Jenna, a local expert guide for Philly Crawling. A recent escapee from the corporate world, she enjoys volunteering and spending time with family. She’s a pet lover, self-proclaimed beer geek, travel enthusiast, and aspiring foodie. Join Jenna for history and beer on Philly Crawling’s Liberty Pub Crawl.

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