Come hell or lye water
Back in second grade, I wanted to be a priest. Adults loved my professional desire, as they considered a young boy who seemed so willing to dedicate himself to Catholicism a true rarity. What those adults didn’t know is that my piety existed because I was wetting myself over the descriptions of Hell offered by my well-intentioned Catholic school. Where Satan dwelled, there seemed to be a lot of fiery lakes of burning sulfur and blazing furnaces and weeping and gnashing of teeth. I wasn’t into it.
You’d think the church of the 1990s would share a more positive message. Back in the seventh century, pretzels were invented by enterprising monks to provide devout, studious children a reward and a reminder during religious services. The crossed arms represent praying hands while the three holes symbolize the father, son, and holy spirit—present even in absence, I’m told. That’s the kind of teaching I can get behind. Maybe a pretzel before mass would have assuaged my fears and made me think saintly thoughts, like a normal Catholic. Instead, I figured, if I entered the priesthood, God would have to give me a technical pass no matter what. My plan was to game the system, and I thought myself the smartest seven-year-old in the world. Enjoy Hell, suckers, I would think in my religion class.
Then, I became a dim teenager. My faithful superiors offered me harsh words, and so, as an altar server, I defiantly slept through Easter Mass. During Sunday school, I asked where the dinosaurs fit into the Bible and somehow ended up comparing Jesus and RoboCop as messiah figures. No one came out the winner on those occasions. But perhaps my religious fervor was imposed upon by a hangry wrath that could’ve been quieted by a breakfast pretzel. After all, any Catholic would be more inclined to listen to the priest’s homily if they could be sitting in a pew at 9 a.m. while gnawing on a braid of salt covered dough.
I know that some readers might now be saying, “Pretzels for breakfast? You savage.” But you’re thinking of Auntie Anne’s doughy and somehow delicious abomination or those incredibly dry objects that twirl inside a glass cage at a concession stand. I bet you’re shooting yellow mustard all over your pretzel, too.
So in response, I say, “You obviously haven’t spent much time in southern Germany, you civilized philosopher king.”
Not far from where these early monks shaped their first pretzel, I came to know the twisted lye-based bread as an important element of a German, carb-heavy Fruhstuck, or mid-morning snack. When I spent time in my mother’s hometown, a village on the border of southern Bavaria, my grandfather would often wake me early in the morning to go fetch a half-dozen pretzels and a few rolls from the bakery. Only over a table heavy with sliced and spreadable meats and cheeses, soft-boiled eggs, and a basket of pretzels, could the family start its day.
Before we move on, let me say I’m not a pretzel snob. I like all twisted, salted doughs. But I do have preferences, and the Laugenbrezel (lye-dipped pretzel), like the ones I’d pick up from that small southern German town’s bakery, are by far the best. They’re crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, and covered in large kernels of salt. The thickest portion isn’t browned like the rest, and offers a furtive smile as you look at it.
Before eating one, you’d cut it open, sandwich-style, from the left arm to the right. Butter is the favored filling of the Germans, and it’s hard to disagree. It’s a simple addition that is a textural and tasty delight—you know, butter. Sometimes, in search of my own personal Sodom and Gomorrah, I’d spread some liverwurst in there instead. I don’t think my grandfather was ever prouder.
I’ve struggled to find something similar in the United States. They call it the land of opportunity here, but it’s tough for those of us looking for a specific type of pretzel dough. Out of frustration one morning in my cramped New Orleans apartment, I attempted to make my own—a spontaneous desire that ate up my entire day. Morning turned into afternoon and afternoon to evening as I mixed and kneaded and braided. I cheated and bathed them in a simple water and baking soda mixture because acquiring lye seemed like a chore. Then I put them in the oven to bake.
In the end, they tasted kind of like a mix of pretzels and biscuits. My friends loved them, but that’s because they were from the South and loved biscuits.
When I moved to New York, I was excited by the possible pretzel prospects. Surely with 8.5 million people, there had to be one German guy who was cornering the market. So far the city has offered me some great pretzels, but none of them were quite the one—and none I’ve found could be purchased in the morning. Most of the kind you can get can only be bought in the afternoon and are accompanied by a beer and a little container of grainy mustard. Although it’s still great, it’s not exactly what I want.
It’d be nice to have those seventh century monks around again maybe—then again, this is also back in the day when people rubbed cobwebs on their faces to cure warts—but I’m not sure I would be considered dedicated enough to earn a treat. Though I can still recite them, I haven’t said an “Our Father” or “Hail Mary” since the last time I was forced to pick up a rosary. That was a long time ago. Perhaps it is up to me then. Though New York City might not have the pretzel I want, I guarantee it carries all the ingredients.
So I’ll once again attempt to bake my own and save them in the cupboard. I have butter, but I’ll pick up some quality liverwurst and reward myself each morning. While I chew, I’ll think, Hell hath no fury like a dude who can’t get a goddamn breakfast pretzel, and give myself a sweet high-five.