Statistically, the average US citizen eats 1.5-2 pounds of hard pretzels a year. The inhabitants of Philadelphia eat nearly 12 times that amount in soft pretzels!
Philadelphia soft pretzels find their origin in the state's history of Germanic influence. In the 1700's, a large number of Pennsylvanian's spoke German, and many places in southeastern Pennsylvania still have German names. (See also Pennsylvania Dutch).
Characteristics of a Philadelphia Soft Pretzel:
- Fresh, soft, golden brown and chewy
- Baked in slabs so that a number of pretzels are stuck together
- Sprinkled with coarse salt
The first step to learning what makes the Philadelphia soft pretzel so famous is to find a good one. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- The best places to purchase pretzels are street vendors (those with good hygiene practices), small "mom and pop" stores, or directly from the pretzel factory.
- Look for pretzels that are packaged in a brown paper bag. Never buy ones that are wrapped in plastic; these are guaranteed to be stale, soggy, or hard.
- Don't choose a pretzel that looks moist. The moisture is caused by the extraction of water from the pretzel by the salt and means that the pretzel has been sitting around a little too long.
- Avoid reheated pretzels. They tend to be a bit hard.
- If a pretzel looks good, it probably is good. It should have a golden brown colour and a fresh appearance.
Once you have found your perfect pretzel, you are ready to eat it. Many people scrape off the excess salt with their fingers, finding the salty residue alone to be sufficient for their tastes. The pretzels taste great on their own, but they are commonly topped with a liberal coating of yellow (not Dijon!) mustard. (Vendors usually keep a squeeze bottle or three readily available.)
These deceptively simple snacks are extremely popular. They are often considered to be a comfort food, and many people will swear that they're addictive.