Where Have All the Pretzels Gone?

We live in a golden age of beer, with hundreds of brands and varieties easily available at local stores at reasonable prices. No human population has ever, in the history of mankind, had a richer beer experience than American beer lovers today. It is a joyful time to be alive.

But where have all the pretzels gone?

What a painful irony it is that now that I am of age to match pretzels with their proper beverage, the honest pretzel is nearly extinct, preserved only in far-away gourmet sanctuaries beyond the reach of ordinary folk.

Today’s pretzels are a shadow of what pretzels should be. Pretzels should be twisted, but now they are pooped preformed from machined tools and baked to bland uniformity. When I was a child, even the mass market brands were twisted, with little extra-browned pretzel nipples to be snapped off the top arch, and a corrugated center where strands of dough did a joyful dance of crispness. Now, mass-market pretzels are flat and uniform, tanned and smooth.

And the snap! Back in the day, when you bit a pretzel, it snapped like a dried branch. The place where it broke would be jagged with striations and spikes. Crumbs were flakes or like tiny twigs of dough. Now, pretzels are like compressed powder. The texture when you break one is like crumbling a clump of laundry detergent.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ll eat a bag of the current version of mass-market pretzels without a shred of self-control. Even a bad pretzel is, after all, a pretzel, and proof that crispy and salty are two keys to the good life.

But every now and then, I’ll recall the pretzels of an earlier time. “Nibble with Gibble’s” brand came in plastic bags and a twist-tie, and brightened winters in Schenectady, New York. When my mother passed away a couple years ago, the only item my wise brother sought from the home was a large round Tupperware container that she used to store pretzels in the cabinet when we were kids, but, alas, it was gone like Rosebud.

Snyder’s sourdough pretzels are the closest you’ll find in our grocery stores to the great pretzels of my childhood, though they are expensive and taste of cardboard. I’ve heard rumors that there are still great pretzels being made out there, and I may someday resort to mail ordering some. I’ve even tried baking my own, but they came out stone-hard, and looked more scatological than appetizing.

Even if I mail-order or bake my own, though, it won’t be the same. Great pretzels are like a mother’s love. You shouldn’t need to seek it out, and scarcity reduces, rather than enhances, its value. They’re both at their best when they are a comfortable part of everyday life. This holiday season, I miss them both.

6 Responses to “Where Have All the Pretzels Gone?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Son of a gun. You just made me tear up about pretzels. That's some damned fine writing. Merry Christmas.

  2. The DLC says:

    This Thanksgiving someone brought some pretzels over that they had purchased in Lancaster County, PA at an Amish stand of some sort. Damn were they good, just as you describe. They came stuffed into a plain brown paper bag with the top stapled shut.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Three words: Fisher's Soft Pretzels. Available in the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, PA. An Amish family makes them and they are so well-loved that people line up for hours to get one right out of the oven. The hard ones are good, too.

  4. SouthCountyMike says:

    Dan,
    You must visit Gus's Pretzels when your in St. Louis. They've been around about 40 years and make a variety of beer's best friends. It's just across the interstate from the (inbevAb) brewery. I'll buy if you bring me a bottle of homebrew.

  5. SouthCountyMike says:

    Dan,
    You must visit Gus's Pretzels when your in St. Louis. They've been around about 40 years and make a variety of beer's best friends. It's just across the interstate from the (inbevAb) brewery. I'll buy if you bring me a bottle of homebrew.

  6. Busplunge says:

    Growing up in St. Louis, my Dad spoke often of the soft pretzels one could buy from street corner vendors.

    I especially remember getting them from a vendor next to a white castle, across the street from a Bettendorf's market and a JC Penney store. Was it Hampton Avenue?

    (I rediscovered your blog this evening, hence the plethera of comments.)

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