Pretzel History : "Little Arms" Wrapped in Prayer
The warm, satisfying texture of a Bavarian pretzel reflects the warm, comforting story behind its creation.
There are many legends behind the twisted bread, but the most prominent stories point to monasteries in the French/Italian region around the 7th century. The story goes that monks twisted scraps of dough to represent children's arms in prayer. The three holes are meant to symbolize the three parts of the Christian trinity. These baked treats were used to reward children who had memorized their Bible verses, which explains the Latin name given to them: Pretiola, or "little reward". The Italians then called it Brachiola, or "little arms". Today's name, "Pretzel", came when Germans adopted the "Bretzel" treats.
Truly an international food.
"Little arms" and the twisted shape remind me of a welcoming hug. The dark, brown crust and warm, chewy texture imbue comfort. A sense of community is encouraged as big pretzels are pulled apart and shared with friends over pints of lager. Welcome, warmth, and a sense of camaraderie in a simple twisted bread.
Warmth and Love: Universal Kitchen Language
Such was the same welcome, warmth, and camaraderie shared on my day apprenticing at the Backerei Bohm in Stuttgart, Germany.
My day started at 4am, but the kitchen was already buzzing with energy. Within minutes, I was welcomed with the universal warmth shared in kitchens everywhere. As soon as the you wash your hands and step up to the pastry bench, you are part of the brigade that will work together.
Under the guidance of the bakery master, Sarah, I portioned and rolled baguettes, boules, and dinner rolls. With my limited German and her limited English, the universal language of food spoke through the simple mixture of flour, water, and yeast. We filled and rolled cinnamon buns and pecan twists. She showed me how to mold my hands to roll the dough into fun shapes like mice and hedgehogs – complete with ears, tails, and spiky backs. I even got a shot at the tricky pretzel twist…and my less-than-perfect creations invoked knowing chuckles. What’s the German word for “amateur”?
Teamwork beckoned when it was time for the raw pretzels to get their bath of lye, a sprinkle of salt, and a quick signature slice. Kilos of dough were mixed with flours of wheat and spelt. Flax and poppy seeds crusted rolls. In and out of a cozy-warm proof box rolled racks of loaves. Breads constantly rotated in and out of a non-stop 500 degree oven, creating a rhythm of glazing, baking, steaming, and resting. The smooth dance of efficiency pulsed the day forward.
Even with such focused precision, there was time for teaching. As the day wound down with cleaning, there was limitless tasting, touching, smelling – sharing the delicious creations after a day of passionate, focused work.
Pretzel: Warmth, Comfort, Hope
The satisfying, chewy texture of a warm Bavarian Pretzel will always remind me of this warm, German bakery. I hope the next time you tear apart the “little arms” of this twisted dough, you think of the rich history behind it. May its origins of hopeful prayer bring you present-day warmth and comfort.
A Recipe and Cooking Video to Relive the Memory
More Photos from the Day
Check out the Full Guide to German Breads
About the Author:
Chef Katie Simmons
Katie is a Personal Chef based in Chicago. She specializes in creating delicious, healthy recipes for those with special dietary concerns like gluten-free, oil-free, plant-based, and low-residue. Outside of the kitchen, she is a Fitness Instructor for Equinox, with over 13 years experience in the fitness industry, and a blogger for Kuli Kuli Foods. For fun, she loves to travel. Some of her favorite trips include 4 days on the Incan Trail in Peru, 10 days of hiking in the Patagonia of Argentina and Chile, and exploring the pretzels and vineyards of Germany