In an earlier post, I told the history of the man who brought the bretzel to Cincinnati – Mr. E. F. Kurfiss. His bretzel was the traditional Baden-Wurtemburg lye-dipped soft pretzel, with a fat belly and thinner arms. But we expect our pretzels today to have a consistent diameter. If they’re not we think them deformed and odd.
That’s because the pretezel that took off in the U.S. was the more consistent diameter-tubed pretzel that came out of the Pennsylvania Dutch country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, more specifically the little town of Lititz. This town was settled in the 1700s by Moravian Brethren, or Palatinate Germans, and is home to the U.S.’s first commercial hard pretzel bakery, that of Julius Sturgis, started in 1861.
Julius Sturgis had worked in Lititz for Henry Rauch, a German bretzel baker when he came to town in 1850. Sturgis saw that a bretzel got crispy after it had been left in a wood oven overnight and started the baking of these crispy ‘snack pretzels’. This opened up a whole new market because the hard pretzels would keep and hold longer and could be distributed farther away. There were earlier bakers of pretzels in Lititz like Henry Rauch and others, but Sturgis is given the most notoriety because he is said to have started the first commercial pretzel bakery in the U.S. Tourists to Lititz can tour the original Sturgis factory and its pretzel museum to get the full story.
As a result, the area around Lititz, Reading, Philadelphia, and Lancaster, County PA are generally regarded as the birthplace of the American soft and hard pretzel. That’s even though other German immigrants like Kurfiss brought them to other German communities across the U.S. The nation generally thinks of the pretzel as a Pennsylvania Dutch food invention. That’s because we have so many commercial snack companies and pretzel making chains from that area. Aunt Anne’s, the pretzel made popular in malls across the country, was started in 1988 at a farmer’s market in Downington, Pennsylvania. By 1992, they had 100 franchise stores across the country. Snyders of Hanover Pennsyvlania in York County, came out with their sourdough hard pretzels – the ones that can knock out a filling and scar the inside of your mouth. Hanover is also the home of another well known pretzel company called the Utz Quality Food, founded in 1921 by William and Sallie Utz
When exactly the bretzel became the ‘pretzel’ in the U.S. is not clear, but it might have been that the bretzel referred to the soft, more breadlike pretzel, and the pretzel referred to the crispy snack pretzel.
In 1884, Greater Cincinnati lists Michael Grau (1834-1923), an immigrant from Thungen, Germany, as the “Baker of the Only Genuine Lititz Steamed Bretzel.” Thungen is between the Baden-Wurtemburg /Palatinate region and Upper Bavaria – Germany’s bretzel baking regions. Grau started his bretzel bakery in 1868 on Monmouth Street, Newport, Kentucky’s central business district. By 1884, he had such a market for his Lititz bretzels that he was shipping them in large quantities to Alabama and Louisivlle, Kentucky. He had two delivery teams and five bakers helping him to supply the Greater Cincinnati market.
Now Lititz bretzels are different from the Wuretmburg bretzels brought to Over-the-Rhine by Mr. Kurfiss. Instead of being dipped in lye, they are dipped in a less caustic mix of hot water and baking soda flakes. Lye’s chemical name is sodium hydroxide, and it’s a strong base that is the same stuff used to make soap and clean drains. Baking soda maxes out at a pH of 9.5, while lye can get up to 14. The caustic in the form of lye is used to break down gluten proteins on the surface of the dough into smaller amino acids, so they can react with the sugars in what is called Maillard reaction, to cause the browning. If a pretzel is not dipped in a caustic solution, it will come out light, like a bagel, instead of the deep brown shade of our soft pretzels.
Many Germans who grew up on lye-dipped pretzels of their homeland say they can’t find a good Oktoberfest soft pretzel in the U.S. It may be because the less caustic food grade baking soda isn’t strong enough to break down the gluten proteins into the smaller amino acid components to cause the browning and flavor development of the more causic lye. It may also be the time it spends in the caustic solution and the heat of the oven they’re cooked in.
We do have one claim to fame locally in Greater Cincinnati with pretzel innovation. In 1930, Angelo Grippo, an Italian immigrant, and the founder of our own local pototo chip company, Grippo’s, invented the loop or tear drop pretzel. He wanted a pretzel that was easy to manufacture and resisted breakage in the bag. This new pretzel was also perfect size to line up on a finger for easy portage while watching a sporting event and great for dipping in viscous cream cheese based dips that would break a standard pretzel.
Angelo Grippo and his wife, with his pretzel loop product.
So even though it was the first form of the pretzel brought to Cincinnati, like the fate of Beta video and laserdiscs, the Wurtemburg lye-dipped bretzel was beat out in popularity by other late comers like the Lititz and Bavarian style pretzels. And because of this we expect all our pretzels to have a consistent diameter. But the sure sign of the most delicious and most authentic pretzel is seeing small arms and a bigger belly. Maybe we should bring it back for Oktoberfest next year.