Soft Pretzels: A Philadelphia "Culinary" Tradition

Just like other major cities and tourist hot spots, Philadelphia has its own unique set of delectable edibles. New York is known for bagels, Chicago for its buttery crusted deep dish pizza, and Savannah for its heavenly pralines. Philadelphia has made its way into similar culinary fame, not only for cheese steaks and water ice (characteristically known as “wudder ice” by the locals), but also for the delicious, chewy, salty, “get-em just about everywhere in Philly,” soft twisted pretzels. Philly’s soft-pretzels are breakfast for many a commuter on the run, dependable snacks for the late-night munchy crowd, and at around fifty cents a pop if you buy them individually, the big salty twists topped with yellow mustard (or not) even stand in as “hearty” lunch or dinner for the hungry college student strapped for cash. Soft pretzels are so desirable in this city that some report Philadelphia consumes up to twelve times the national average in pretzels each year.

So, how exactly did the pretzel come to take its place as one of the city’s top tidbits? 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. While the pretiolas soon became popular in Austria and Germany where they were known as “bretzels,” it was not until some ten-plus centuries later that they made their way to the United States in the hands of those immigrants eventually identified as the Pennsylvania Dutch.

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’s cuisine. Once cart vendors picked up on the potential of the salty treat, pretzels became a run away favorite of Philadelphians who, by the way, prefer them soft, chewy, and often topped off with a simple yellow mustard.

Today, most of Philadelphia’s soft pretzels are made, not in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, but right here in the city. Some of the better-known factories are the Federal Pretzel Baking Company at 638 Federal Street, the Philadelphia Soft Pretzel Factory at various locations around the city, and the Center City Pretzel at 816 Washington Avenue. Vendors sell the popular treat at the local fresh markets, out of plain brown paper bags in the streets during rush hour, and – most visibly – out of the once-shiny metal lunch carts that line the city streets. With pretzel merchants on every corner, one thing is certain: In Philadelphia, you never have to go far for a tasty treat.