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What’s Cooking Wednesdays: The case of the buttered pretzel

The packaging label for American Cone and Pretzel Co.'s Butter Pretzels. We fancy the non-sequitur elephant pretzel in the logo.

Since it’s fall and October, our thoughts naturally turned to Oktoberfest as a possible topic for What’s Cooking Wednesdays. However, one too many encounters with Upton Sinclair’s letter to President Teddy Roosevelt about the working conditions in meat factories had us avoiding the bratwurst. And, apparently, drinking beer in the office is hugely frowned upon by the management. So we turned to another appropriately Oktoberfest-y menu item: the pretzel.

While its presence in the U.S. doesn’t pack quite the same punch to the gut as the (un)savory sausage, the pretzel has its own colorful history to tell. It’s thought to have originated from monasteries in the Middle Ages, where monks made little pastries from strips of dough to represent a child’s arm folded in prayer. The treats, called pretiola (Latin for “little reward”) were given to children for good behavior and memorizing their verses and prayers.

Thanks to human migration, the pretiola traveled to Italy and became called brachiola (Italian for “little arms”). In Germany, it was known as bretzel or pretzel. It crossed the oceans with the immigrants in the 1800s and settled in Pennsylvania.

Lancaster County, PA, boasted the first commercial pretzel bakery, which was established by Julius Sturgis in the town of Lititz in 1861. The pretzel business was a brisk one. To this day, about 80 percent of the nation’s pretzels are still produced in Pennsylvania. The pretzel capital of the world? Reading, PA.

But the pretzel is not without controversy. In 1926, a handwritten report of a routine inspection of the American Cone and Pretzel Co. revealed that different companies seemed to be using nearly identical recipes for a product called butter pretzels. The investigation was conducted by Pennsylvania authorities at the factory of a “Mr. Shumaker.” The American Cone and Pretzel Co., renamed Rold Gold, was founded in 1917 by a Philadelphia businessman named L.J. Schumaker.

A page from the Department of Agriculture - Bureau of Chemistry inspector's report detailing the formula for Butter Pretzels.

Mr. Shumaker provided the Department of Agriculture – Bureau of Chemistry inspector with the formula for the buttery goods, seeking to cooperate fully on the issue. The inspector seemed satisfied with both the formula and the way the item was packaged. “The 50-50 ratio of butter and crisco is sufficient to justify the name ‘Butter Pretzels,’” the inspector wrote. (One can only assume that “Crisco Pretzels” did not have quite the same ring.) No butter was used to make regular Rold Gold pretzels. There are also notes about the company’s bread formula being within industry regulations, and some comments on how the bread and pretzels were marketed.

Today, annual pretzel sales top $180 million. Not bad for a food invented by monks to bribe children for good behavior!

Many thanks to Leslie Simon, Archives Director of the National Archives at Philadelphia, for providing materials and enthusiasm.

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