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An assortment of pretzels
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An assortment of pretzels
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A pretzel (German: Brezel) is a type of baked bread product made from dough most commonly found in a unique knot-like shape, often claimed to represent hands in prayer. Pretzels originated in Europe, most likely among monasteries in the Early Middle Ages. The traditional pretzel shape is a distinctive symmetrical looped form, with the ends of a long strip of dough intertwined and then twisted back into itself in a certain way ("a pretzel loop"). Now, pretzels of various shapes are available around the world. Salt is the most common seasoning for pretzels, complementing the baking soda that gives pretzels their traditional "skin" and flavor through the Maillard reaction; other seasonings include sugars, glazes, seeds, and/or nuts.
There are numerous accounts on the origin of pretzels, as well as the origin of the name; most agree that they have Christian backgrounds and were invented by German monks. According to The History of Science and Technology, by Bryan Bunch and Alexander Hellemans, in 610 AD "...an Italian monk invents pretzels as a reward to children who learn their prayers. He calls the strips of baked dough, folded to resemble arms crossing the chest, 'pretiola' ("little rewards")". However, no source is cited to back up these details. Another source locates the invention in a monastery in southern France. The looped pretzel may also be related to a Greek ring bread, derived from communion bread used in monasteries a thousand years ago[when?]. In Germany there are stories that pretzels were the invention of desperate bakers held hostage by local Dignatories.  Meyers Konversations-Lexikon from 1905 suspects the origin of pretzels in a ban of heathen baking traditions, such as in the form of a sun cross, at the Synod of Estinnes in the year 743. The pretzel may have emerged as a substitute. The German name "Brezel" may derive also from Latin bracellus (a medieval term for "bracelet"), or bracchiola ("little arms").
The pretzel has been in use as an emblem of bakers and formerly their guilds in southern German areas since at least the 12th century. A 12th-century illustration in the Hortus deliciarum from the southwest German Alsace region (today France) may contain the earliest depiction of a pretzel.
Within the Catholic Church, pretzels were regarded as having religious significance for both ingredients and shape. Pretzels made with a simple recipe using only flour and water could be eaten during Lent, when Christians were forbidden to eat eggs, lard, or dairy products such as milk and butter. As time passed, pretzels became associated with both Lent and Easter. Pretzels were hidden on Easter morning just as eggs are hidden today, and are particularly associated with Lent, fasting, and prayers before Easter.
Like the holes in the hubs of round Swedish flat bread (which let them be hung on strings), the loops in pretzels may have served a practical purpose: bakers could hang them on sticks, for instance, projecting upwards from a central column, as shown in a painting by Job Berckheyde (1630–93) from around 1681.
The pretzel has been in use as an emblem of bakers, here in Görlitz, Germany.
The emblem of bakers Hattingen.
Bakery emblem in Ravensburg.
Bakery emblem in Ribe, Denmark.
Pretzel baking has most firmly taken root in the region of Franconia and adjoining Upper German-speaking areas, and pretzels have been an integral part of German baking traditions for centuries.
Lye pretzels are popular in southern Germany, Alsace, Austria and German-speaking Switzerland as a variety of bread, a side dish or a snack, and come in many local varieties. Almost every region and even city has its own way of baking them. Examples for pretzel names in various Upper-German dialects are Brezn, Bretzel, Brezzl, Brezgen, Bretzga, Bretzet, Bretschl, Kringel, Silserli and Sülzerli. Baked for consumption on the same day, they are sold in every bakery and in special booths or stands in downtown streets. Often, they are sliced horizontally, buttered, and sold as Butterbrezel, or come with slices of cold meats or cheese. Sesame, poppy, sunflower, pumpkin or caraway seeds, melted cheese and bacon bits are other popular toppings. Some bakeries offer pretzels made of different flours, such as whole wheat, rye or spelt. In Bavaria, lye pretzels accompany a main dish such as Weisswurst sausage. The same dough and baking procedure with lye and salt is used to make other kinds of "lye pastry" (Laugengebäck): lye rolls, buns, croissants and even loaves (Laugenbrötchen, Laugenstangen, Laugencroissants, Laugenbrot). Yet, in some parts of Bavaria, especially in lower Bavaria, unglazed "white" pretzels, sprinkled with salt and caraway seeds are still popular. Basically with the same ingredients, lye pretzels come in numerous local varieties. Sizes are usually similar; the main differences are the thickness of the dough, the content of fat and the degree of baking. Typical Swabian pretzels, for example, have very thin "arms" and a "fat belly" with a split, and a higher fat content. The thicker part makes it easier to slice them for the use of sandwiches. In Bavarian pretzels, the arms are left thicker so they do not bake to a crisp and contain very little fat.
The pretzel shape is used for a variety of sweet pastries made of different types of dough (flaky, brittle, soft, crispy) with a variety of toppings (icing, nuts, seeds, cinnamon). Around Christmas they can be made of soft gingerbread ("Lebkuchen") with chocolate coating.
In southern Germany and adjoining German-speaking areas, pretzels have retained their original religious meanings and are still used in various traditions and festivals.
In some areas, on January 1, people give each other lightly sweetened yeast pretzels for good luck and good fortune. These "New-Years pretzels" are made in different sizes and can have a width of 50 centimetres (20 in) and more. Sometimes children visit their godparents to fetch their New Years pretzel. On May 1, love-struck boys used to paint a pretzel on the doors of the adored. On the other hand, an upside-down pretzel would have been a sign of disgrace. Especially Catholic areas, such as Austria, Bavaria or some parts of Swabia, the "Palm pretzel" is made for Palm Sunday celebrations. Sizes can range from 30 cm (1 ft) up to 1 m (3 ft 3 in) and they can weigh up to 2.5 kg (6 lbs). An old tradition on Palm Sunday dating back to 1533 is the outdoor pretzel market (Brezgenmarkt) in the Hungerbrunnen Valley near Heldenfingen.
In the Rhineland region, sweet pretzels are made with pudding-filled loops (pudding pretzels).
On Laetare Sunday in Luxembourg, the fourth Sunday in Lent, there is a festival called "Pretzel Sunday". Boys give their girlfriends pretzels or cakes in pretzel form. The size symbolizes how much he likes her. In return, if a girl wants to increase his attention, she will give him a decorated egg on Easter. The pretzel custom is reversed on Pretzel Sunday during leap years. This custom also still exists in some areas of the Swabian Alb.
Schloss Burg is renowned for a 200-year-old speciality, the "Burger pretzel". Its texture and flavour resembles rusk or zwieback. A local story says that the recipe came from a grateful Napoleonic soldier in 1795, whose wounds were treated by a baker's family in the little town of Burg. The cultural importance of the pretzel for Burg is expressed by a monument in honour of the pretzel bakers, and by an 18-km hiking trail nearby called "Pretzel Hiking Trail".
A variety typical for Upper Franconia is the "anise pretzel". The town of Weidenberg celebrates the "Pretzel weeks" during the carnival season, when anise flavored pretzels are served with special dishes such as cooked meat with horseradish or roast. In the city of Lübeck, the 500-year old guild of boatmen on the Stecknitz Canal call their annual meetings in January Kringelhöge (Pretzelfun). The elaborate affair, with about 200 participants, is celebrated as a breakfast with beer, and includes Mass in the Lübeck Cathedral and a presentation of songs by a children's choir. In earlier times, the children were very poor, coming from an orphanage, and each received a Kringel (pretzel) as a reward. Hence, the name "Pretzelfun" was adopted, because this gift was considered a highlight. Today, the children come from schools, but they still get the pretzels.
The city of Osnabrück celebrates the anniversary of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and organizes an annual hobby horse race for grade-four children. On finishing the race, they are presented with a sweet pretzel. In Heraldry the city seal of Nörten dates from around 1550 and depicts two facing lions holding a pretzel at the center. 
The lye pretzel is the theme for a number of festivals in Germany. The city of Speyer prides itself to be the "pretzel town", and around the second weekend of July, from Friday to Tuesday, it holds an annual funfair and festival called "Brezelfest", which is the largest beer festival in the Upper Rhine region, and attracts around 300,000 visitors. The festival includes a parade with over 100 bands, floats and clubs participating from the whole region, and 22,000 pretzels are thrown among the crowds. On the market square of Speyer, there is a fountain with a statue of a boy selling pretzels. The pretzel booths on the main street are permanently installed and were specially designed when the whole downtown area was redone for the 2000th anniversary. One-day pretzel fests and markets in other German towns are in Kirchhellen, a borough of Bottrop, or in Kornwestheim.
In 2003 and 2004, "Peace Pretzels" were baked for a UNICEF charity event and other charity purposes in Munich. Instead of the typical pretzel loop, they were made in the similar shape of a peace symbol.
Traditional Weisswurst meal, served with sweet mustard and a soft pretzel.
Pretzels at Christmas market
In the late 18th century, southern German and Swiss German immigrants introduced the pretzel to North America. The immigrants became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, and in time, many handmade pretzel bakeries populated the central Pennsylvania countryside, and the pretzel's popularity spread.
In the 20th century, soft pretzels became extremely popular in other regions of the United States. Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York became renowned for their soft pretzels. The key to success was the introduction of the new mass production methods of the industrialized age, which increased the availability and quantity, and the opening up of multiple points of distribution at schools, convenience and grocery stores, and entertainment venues such as movie theaters, arenas, concert halls, and sport stadiums. Prior to that, street vendors used to sell pretzels on street corners in wooden glass-enclosed cases.
In particular, it became iconic with Philadelphia and was established as a cuisine of Philadelphia for snacking at school, work, or home, and considered by most to be a quick meal. The average Philadelphian today consumes about twelve times as many pretzels as the national average.
Pennsylvania today is the center of American pretzel production for both the hard crispy and the soft bread types of pretzels. Southeastern Pennsylvania, with its large population of German background, is considered the birthplace of the American pretzel industry, and many pretzel bakers are still located in the area. Pennsylvania produces 80% of the nation's pretzels.
The privately run "Pretzel Museum" opened in Philadelphia in 1993. In 2003, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell declared April 26 "National Pretzel Day" to acknowledge the importance of the pretzel to the state's history and economy. Philly Pretzel Factory stores offer a free pretzel to each customer on this day.
In Tell City, Indiana, the Tell City Pretzels originated over 100 years ago. In 1858 Casper Gloor, a baker from Switzerland settled in Tell City, Indiana. Gloor was a member of the Swiss Colonization Society. He soon became known for the pretzels that he baked from a recipe brought from Switzerland. Today, the recipe remains in use.
Hard pretzels originated in the United States, where, in 1850, the Sturgis bakery in Lititz, Pennsylvania, became the first commercial hard pretzel bakery. Snack food hard pretzels were shaped as sticks (around 3 millimetres (0.12 in) thick and 12 centimetres (4.7 in) long), loops, braids, letters or little pretzels; they have become a popular snack in many countries around the world. A thicker variety of sticks can be 1 centimetre (0.39 in) thick; in the U. S. these are called Bavarian pretzels. Unlike the soft pretzels, these were durable when kept in an airtight environment and marketable in a variety of convenience stores. Large scale production began in the first half of the 1900s, more so during 1930 to 1950. A prime example is in 1949 when highly innovative American Machine and Foundry Co., of New York City, developed the "pretzel bender" a new automatic crispy styled baked pretzel-twisting machine that rolled and tied them at the rate of 50 a minute, more than twice as fast as skilled hand twisters could make them, and conveyed them through the baking and salting process. In Europe, snack food pretzels are usually sprinkled with salt, but also with sesame seed, poppy seed or cheese. In the U.S., they come in many varieties of flavors and coatings, such as yogurt, chocolate, strawberry, mustard, cheese and others, and chocolate-covered hard pretzels are popular around Christmas time and given as gifts. The variety of shapes and sizes became contest of imagination in the marketing of the pretzels taste. During the 1900s, people in Philadelphia would use the small slender pretzel stick as a common accompaniment to ice cream or would crumble pretzels as a topping. This combination of cold sweet and salty taste was very popular for many years. Eventually this led to the development of an ice cream cone tasting like a pretzel. More recently Mars, Incorporated manufactures M&M's with a small spherical pretzel covered in milk chocolate and candy coated in all of the standard M&Ms colors, called "Pretzel M&M's".
Although not as popular as among German speakers and Americans, the looped pretzel is known in other European countries and in other countries around the world. In the Czech Republic, the pretzel is known as preclík, in Finland as viipurinrinkeli. The Spanish, French and Italians call it pretzel, bretzel or brezel, the Dutch favor sweet variants called krakeling, Norwegian and Danish call it a kringle, in Polish it is precel, in Serbian it is pereca, and in Hungarian it is perec. In Romania the pretzel is known as covrigi and it's a very popular fast food in urban areas and also as a holiday gift.
The pretzel has become an element in popular culture, both as a food staple and its unique knotted twist shape which has inspired ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images and other phenomena. Although historically, the pretzel has influenced culture it has recently been heavily influenced by mass media.
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