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.


Historic Sites

A Man Full of Trouble: Philadelphia’s Last Surviving Colonial Tavern

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, Philadelphia was unquestionably a city of taverns. They were a one stop source of food, entertainment, and cheap drinks. Furthermore, they were the largest and most abundant (about one for every 25 men) public buildings available for community interaction. As a result, taverns, or “public houses,” became the center of social, business, and political activity in the city.

The colonial elite were inclined to patronize more fashionable “upscale” establishments. Perhaps most recognized of such venues in pre-revolutionary times was the City Tavern, whose patrons included Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, and George Washington, amongst others. In fact, it is well known that this famous pub is where members of the First Continental Congress met unofficially in 1774 and where the country’s early leaders met to celebrate the first anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Although the original structure was damaged in a fire and subsequently demolished in 1856, a replica was built at 2nd and Walnut Streets in 1976, and is open for business today.

There were, however, other less exclusive public houses that appealed to the humbler and perhaps less refined factions of society, including laborers, sailors, and other waterfront workers. One such establishment – A Man Full of Trouble Tavern is today the only surviving pre-revolutionary tavern in Philadelphia. Man Full still stands at its original building site at 127-129 Spruce Street in Philadelphia”s historic Old City.

Built in 1760 along the banks of Dock Creek, by Michael Sisk, the structure was first put into commercial service sometime in the decade following its manufacture, by its first unlicensed tavern keeper Joseph Beeks. Throughout its history, ownership of the tavern changed hands many times. Beeks’ successor, James Alexander obtained a license in 1773 and ran the pub through 1789 when Thomas Wilkins took it over for a short time. Perhaps the most noteworthy owner, widow Martha Smallwood acquired the property in 1796 and ran it for the next thirty years. Historical and archaeological data hint that Smallwood may have succeeded in bringing a small amount of gentility to a previously oafish establishment. Subsequent to widow Smallwood’s death in 1826, the establishment morphed into Stafford’s Tavern, Cove Cornice House, Naylor’s Hotel – a mid-nineteenth century hotel famous for its oysters – and, in the mid-twentieth century, a wholesale chicken market.

The building was finally, in the 1960s, restored and opened for historic tours by Councilwoman Virginia Knauer. In 1966, Knauer also invited a group of graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania to conduct an archaeological investigation of the site. Significantly, A Man Full of Trouble Tavern is the only public house site in Philadelphia to yield considerable archaeological findings that reveal important nuances of early American public life. Unfortunately, to the dismay of historical enthusiasts, and more specifically, the patrons of Philadelphia’s Tippler’s Tour*, the interior of Man Full, along with its archaeological relics, was closed to public speculation in 1994.