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Pretzels: the Bagels of Philadelphia

Pretzels: the Bagels of Philadelphia

Pretzels in Philadelphia

“Fresh! Hot! Pretzels!”

It’s 7:30 am in Philadelphia, and there’s a pretzel seller touting his wares under my window. Here in Fishtown, on the banks of the Delaware River, things have been changing quickly: the brick rowhouses that housed fishermen, Irish immigrants, and brewery workers a century ago are being renovated and flipped faster than you can say “gentrification.” Between the hip coffeehouses, galleries, and warehouse lofts, though, longtime Fishtowners carry on the old traditions, like selling hot soft pretzels carried on a stick first thing in the morning.

And is there any Philadelphia tradition more beloved than soft pretzels? You can find them on just about every corner in Center City, though every Philly native you ask will point you toward a different bakery (there are at least a dozen). The prominence of pretzels is part of Pennsylvania’s German heritage, which goes back four centuries. The central and eastern parts of the state are famous for their Amish and Mennonite residents, many of whom speak “Pennsylvania Dutch,” a German dialect that’s evolved on its own since it was imported to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries. (“Dutch” is a misnomer; it’s actually a corruption of Deutsch, or German.)

Pretzels are popular all over the U.S., of course, but here in Philly, they’re breakfast. New Yorkers bring bagels to work and Southerners bring Krispy Kreme doughnuts, but here, if you want to make friends at the office, you swing by Furfari’s Soft Pretzels on Frankford Avenue (or wherever your secret spot is) and pick up a dozen soft pretzels still warm from the oven. You’ll even find their fresh pretzels sold inside the local elementary schools first thing in the morning, with a line of children clutching quarters stretching down the hall from the pretzel cart.

The iconic Philly breakfast pretzels aren’t the wide-open twists you find at every Auntie Anne’s: they’re dense and squat, very nearly rectangular. They come in a cardboard box still connected, with a little container of mustard on the side. When you tear one away, a little puff of steam tells you how fresh it is. They’re also dirt-cheap: think fifty cents apiece.

Furfari’s pretzels have been the same since the bakery opened in 1954: elemental, conjured from the simplest interplay of salt and flour and water. A little yeast, maybe a hint of sugar, some egg wash to burnish the top and make the salt stick. They get more chewy as they cool, but the clean, yeasty flavor always plays well with coffee for a quick rush of morning carbs.

At the Mennonite-owned Miller’s Twist in the Reading Terminal Market, on the other hand, it’s all about butter. Here tourists watch women in T-shirts and women in bonnets roll the dough for a wider, richer pretzel with less chew, one that leaves your fingers slick. They’re delicious on their own, but Miller’s has locked down the Reading Market breakfast game by combining pretzel dough with a breakfast sandwich. Pretzel wraps stuff the buttery dough with egg and cheese, sausage, or even the glorious grease-and-Cheez-Wiz mixture that Philadelphians just call “cheesesteak.”

There’s debate about how much butter is too much, but you’re unlikely to go wrong if you show up early with a salt-shedding armload of pretzels and mustard. And if the pretzel-seller disturbs your sleep? Get up and run outside like a kid chasing the ice-cream truck. That’s how we do it in Philly.

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