Image In the Public Domain – taken from Wikimedia.
In June 1864, the U.S. Sanitary Commission held a great fair in Philadelphia to contribute to the aid and comfort of the Northern soldiers during the Civil War. It was such a grand and extravagant affair that a book was published on the activities and items found at the fair including the various foods of Pennsylvania. Pretzels were one of the foods fair-goers could sample.
Speaking of cookery naturally suggests the bill of fare, which, in this case, consists of coffee, tea, chocolate, bread and butter, lot-werk (apple butter), noodle-soup, eggs (boiled or fried), omelette etwas (scrambled eggs), dried beef, summer wurst, tongue, ham (boiled or fried), buttered waffles (with sugar and cinnamon), trichter-kuchen (flannel cakes), dampf-knauf and schnitz, meerschaum, pie, zwiebach, krollers, fast-nachts, pfefferkuchen, leb-kuchen, pretzels, or zucker-pretzels…The cooking is going on very constantly, and a glance into the back kitchen reveals cakes and loaves and pies, and all the delicacies we have named, in exhausting profusion…The Pennsylvania Kitchen is a great feature of the Fair, and a visit to it provokes that hearty good feeling and enjoyableness which more elegant departments fail to excite… – Stille, Charles Janeway. Memorial of the Great Central Fair for the U.S. Sanitary Commission. 1864. Philadelphia.
All those luscious treats were made by hand and served hot and fresh in great quantity. Some, especially the pretzels, schnitz un knepp, and dried beef, remain Pennsylvania Dutch specialties today.
Anything made by hand tastes better than when mass produced by machines, and pretzels are the perfect example. We’ve watched the employees making soft pretzels at Revonah in Hanover, PA, and it looks easy. Looks can be deceiving. My first effort at making pretzels was a dismal failure. Perhaps because we’ve had the best anything else pales in comparison.
In Ohio (and probably other pretzel-making states) girls were employed in making pretzels by hand from the later part of the 19th century. It was hard work, monotonous, with long hours, and for little pay.
The work is tiresome and the wages low. Their duties consist of forming the pretzels, the material coming to them cut in strips by machinery. The girls stand at long tables and before each is placed a small board, leaving just space enough in front of her to shape the dough. As the pretzels are rolled and formed they are placed upon the board and when the latter, which hold just 800, is full, the girl has earned 3 ½ cents. Although the wages are slender, and in some cases fall as low as $1. per week, many of the girls attain a high degree of speed and skill. An expert, with constant work can make $3. per week. The figure represents the making of 25,860 pretzels which would be an average of 4,300 pretzels per day. The girls are required to be constantly on their feet. Wrapping and packing are not so laborious, and is paid by the week instead of by the piece. In all departments, the little corner in which each girl works is called her shop, and she must clean it up and put in order every evening, after working hours are over. The average number of weeks worked during the year is fifty, and the average hours per day 10. – Ohio Bureau of Labor Statistics. Annual Report. Vol. 17. 1893.
Now that we’ve seen how hard workers labored to produce sufficient quantities of pretzels to sell on the streets and in shops during the 19th century, let’s take a look at period pretzel recipes to see what went into them. The 1881 receipt is probably the closest to the pretzels served in 1864 by the U.S. Sanitary Commission. I could find no receipt actually published that early. [The internet is full of recipes for pretzels for those who want a modern recipe.]
GERMAN PRETZELS. Take 2 quarts of flour, one tablespoonful of butter, one teaspoonful of salt, one compressed yeast cake, 2 tablespoonsful of sugar and 2 ½ cup of milk; dissolve the yeast in a third of a cup of milk, add 1 tablespoonful of sugar and mix with 1 cup of flour to a soft dough; put into a bowl and let stand overnight. Mix the remainder of flour with the salt and sugar, put the light dough into the center and mix with the milk and butter and knead until smooth, and let rise again; when light divide the dough into small pieces, roll out into long sticks, twist in pretzel shape, and lay on buttered pans; when light, brush over with the white of an egg and sweet milk and bake in a quick oven. – Our Horticultural Visitor. 1895.
PRETZELS: Sift together two cupfuls of flour, one teaspoonful of salt and a pinch of ginger; add one egg beaten, one-third of a cupful of butter, one-half of a yeast cake dissolved, and stir in enough sweet milk to make a very stiff dough; beat with biscuit roller until smooth, and let rise; cut off small pieces and roll them between the hands into strips, form small rings, pinch the ends of the dough together, and let rise; put them a few at a time in salted boiling water, let cook until they begin to come to the top of the water, take out quickly, sprinkle with salt, put in a greased pan, and bake a light brown. – Table Talk. Vol. 27. Feb. 1912.
GERMAN SWEET PRETZELS. Mix half a pound of flour with half a pound of fresh butter; add a quarter of a pound of sugar, one egg and one beaten yolk, one tablespoonful of sweet cream and some grated lemon peel. Mix thoroughly and mold the dough into small wreaths; brush the top with the yolk of an egg and sprinkle with powdered sweet almonds. Lay in a well buttered baking tin and bake until a deep yellow. – Table Talk. Vol. 27. June 1912.
TEA PRETZELS. 1/3 cup butter, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 egg, 2 cups white flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 3 dozen almonds. Cream the butter and add the sugar slowly. When thoroughly creamed, add the beaten egg, the salt, and the flavoring. Add the flour. Cover the dough and place on ice an hour or so. Break off small bits and roll into strips the size of a lead pencil. Bring the ends together, cross them and fold back to the middle portion of the strip. Beat one egg slightly and add one tablespoon of milk. Brush the pretzels with the egg mixture. Chop the almonds and press into the dough. Bake in a moderate oven. – Cooper, Lenna Frances. The New Cookery. 1914.
PRETZELS. Made of ordinary bread dough with an extra amount of salt; roll the dough to a proper thickness and form into pretzel shape; throw them into a cauldron of strong hot lye made from wood-ashes; as soon as they rise to the surface, throw them on fine salt; immediately after put in the oven and bake; it requires about an hour to perfectly bake them. – Gill, Thomas. The Complete Bread, Cake, and Cracker Baker. 1881. Chicago.