Food & Culture

Pretzels Got Their Characteristic Shape Thanks to a Catholic Monk

There's something about getting a warm, soft pretzel at carnivals that always hits the spot. Dip it in melted cheese, ketchup, mustard, you name it, and it tastes wonderful. But how did this salty snack originate? It might be a holier reason than the pretzel's unique shape.

Plot Twist

While nobody knows for sure, the pretzel's most common origin story says that it was created by an Italian monk around 610 A.D. Legend has it that the monk was baking bread for Lent when he thought of a way to reward children who had learned their prayers. He twisted strips of dough to resemble a child crossing their arms in prayer and baked them into a soft, squishy treat. Whether the treat was named for its shape or its purpose is less clear: According to History, their original name was "bracellae," which is Latin for "little arms" (and the origin of the German word "bretzel"); or "pretiolas," meaning "little rewards." You may have thought the pretzel twist was just for decoration, but plot twist! The pretzels you eat today are supposed to resemble a child praying.

That one monk set a trend among other Italian monks, who began presenting their students with baked dough twisted into the shape of crossed arms as a reminder to pray. As the popularity of pretzels spread across Europe, the shape took on even more meaning: The three holes were said to represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In fact, pretzels played a large role in the early Catholic church. In the seventh century, food restrictions during Lent were much more severe than they are today. All types of meat, dairy, and eggs were forbidden, and since pretzels are made out of a simple mixture of water, flour, and salt, they were an ideal food to consume during this holy period.

Salty AND Sweet

Did you know pretzels also played a part in saving Vienna from Turkish invaders? In the 16th century, the Turkish army plotted a surprise attack on Vienna. They had begun digging tunnels under Vienna's city walls with plans to invade late at night. Little did they know, the city's monks were up late making pretzels so they'd be fresh for the morning. Because the kitchens were in the basement of the monastery, the monks were able to hear the digging and alert the rest of the city. For their heroism, the Austrian emperor awarded the monks with their own coat of arms, which Viennese bakers still use to this day.

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If you found this intriguing, you'll love "Brother Giovanni's Little Reward: How the Pretzel Was Born" by Anna Egan Smuckers. It's a vividly illustrated children's book that tells the pretzel's tale and also includes a recipe to make your own homemade pretzels. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Related Video: How to Make Homemade Soft Pretzels

Written by Annie Hartman September 14, 2018

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