The German soft pretzel or ‘bretzel’ in German, can be found many places in Greater Cincinnati. Mention the ‘facebook’ coupon at the Hofbrauhaus in Newport, for example, and you get a free soft pretzel with dipping mustard to go with your beer. And at any of the handful of Oktoberfests around town, you can find them en masse – stacked on sticks, worn around necks to be bitten off in between gulps of Vienna lager.
But the original ‘bretzel’ did not look like the consistent tubed one we see today. The man given credit for bringing the German soft pretzel to Cincinnati was immigrant Ernst Friedrich Kurfiss (1800-1866). E. F. arrived in Cincinnati from the kingdom of Baden-Wuertemburg, with his wife Elizabeth and 3 year old son, Johann, in 1829. He immediately started baking the bretzel, well known to Germans, somewhere in the 1200 block of Vine Street. This is according to Robert Wimburg, author of Cincinnati: Over the Rhine.
He operated a coffee and boarding house between Sycamore and Broadway in 1842 and 43, and by 1846 had a bakery on Front Street. E.F. Kurfiss died in 1866, but his bretzels lived on – unfortunately not into his second generation. His son, John and his daughter Augusta’s husband, John Gunkel, moved to Louisville, Kentucky and operated a pork and beef packing company there from the 1850s to the Civil War. Both enterted the 4th Kentucky Calvary in 1861 and fought with the Union. John died of pneumonia at the end of the war in 1865, having made it through some very bloody battles, like Chicamauga, unscathed.
But the Baden-Wuertemburg style lye-soft pretzel made it as a feature at all the German saloons in Over-the-Rhine. From Kissell’s to Schuler’s to Hildebrand’s the pretzel boy vendor was a common sight. Even on the packed streets of 19th century downtown and Over-the-Rhine, the pretzel vendor vied with the Negro hominy man, the sauerkraut and cheese men, the ringing bells of the scissors sharpeners, and the yells of the coal and rag peddlers.
Local artist Henry Farny immortalized the bretzel boy in his 1875 sketch of Wielert’s saloon for Illustratedl Cincinnati.
Bretzel Bakeries were not specifically called out in the Cincinnati city directories until 1878, when three bretzel bakeries were listed in Over-the-Rhine: Simon Dorshung’s on 152 Clay Street, C.F. Lohmann’s at 28 West Mulberry, and Catherine Moser’s at 85 McMicken.
According to legend, Medieval monks invented the bretzel to tide them over their fasting during Lent, and shaped the dough to represent arms crossed in prayer. These are the same monks who invented bock beer for the same reason. We gotta love the creativity of these ‘starving’ monks!
In Baden-Wuertemburg, in southwest Germany near France and Switzerland, where pretzel baking has most firmly taken root, and where our Cincinnati guy, Herr Kurfiss hailed, the pretzels are known for their fat “bellies” and skinny, intertwined arms. It’s not the consistent tubular shape of your Auntie Anne’s variety. In much of Germany and parts of Switzerland and Austria, the pretzel is the symbol of the bread baker’s art, as the baguette is in France , even though the pretzel is much older. Wooden and iron pretzels signs have hung over bakery doors for centuries, especially in the south of Germany. This lye pretzel is the type that E.F. Kurfiss would have been baking in Over-the-Rhine before the Civil War.
The goal of a Baden-Wuertemburg soft pretzel is two distinct eating experiences, one crunchy and one fluffy, in a single pretzel. And, the defining secret of this experience is lye, a powerful alkali that gives them their contrast between a creamy white interior and a cruncy, dark-brown, lightly bitter crust. Just before baking, pretzels are dipped into a bath of water and lye, (somewhat like a bagel) which transforms the starch on the surface so that it can brown quickly, while the interior remains moist. Cold lye solution can burn the eyes or skin, but the chemicals are neutralized by the heat of the oven.
As a nod to the long pretzel legacy in Over-the-Rhine, a new business, Brezel, has opened there at 14th Street in the last year. Female owned, it feels like more of a bagel shop with its over 29 flavors of Bavarian hand-rolled bretzels. With varieties like cinnamon sugar, banana nut, ranch, habanero, jalapeno, and coconut & almond, you’ll find one to suit your particular taste. Although E.F. Kurfiss might be confused with some of the flavors, I think he’d be happy that his bretzel legacy lives on in his former German neighborhood in Cincinnati.