Martin's Pretzels Bucket

The Martin’s Pretzels Bakery Tour

Slow Pretzels

Take the Martin's Bakery Tour

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The pretzel, has a long, quirky, and only anecdotally documented past that wends its way through modern history. Martin's Pretzels' pretzel-ancestors trace their origins to ancient Rome, and travel into their twisted shape in medieval Europe, and eventually cross the Atlantic to 17th century New York and Pennsylvania. Despite the pretzel's pedigree, not one scholarly work on the history of pretzels exists. But in the Slow Food world, it is recent history that has endangered the handmade hard pretzel (also known as the "Pennsylvania Dutch" or "beer" pretzel), a hearty Slow Food that refuses to speed up.

Around 1900, the simplest machinery of the industrial revolution helped make pretzel baking a little faster and more economical, but these machines did virtually nothing to compromise quality. Hands still dominated the process. For years, a pretzel twister's speed had few equivalents in human terms. But, starting in mid-century, the quest for more economy and faster machines eventually eliminated hands, as well as the true magic of deep pretzel crunch and flavor.

There is no way to imagine the difference between machine and handmade pretzels without tasting. Ed Levine, in New York Eats, writes that Martin's Pretzels-a fixture in the City's Greenmarkets since 1982-are to machine-made pretzels what a BMW is to a Yugo. Tasting a mere crumb tells the whole story: progress took the "S" out of the Slow Pretzel, and left it with the last three letters: "L-O-W." Low, compromised quality.

The authors of the change, and their inheritors, still boast their accomplishments. One bakery born in 1911, brags that its founder's "exact recipe is still being used in the production of almost 50 million pretzels daily." Tom Sturgis Pretzels, widely acknowledged home of the first hard pretzel in America (1850), no longer makes pretzels by hand, and even vaunts that a single "state-of-the-art pretzel machine can extrude 245 pretzels in a minute or five tons of hard pretzels in a day." And adds, "Compare that to the record of 40 hand-twisted pretzels in a minute." The simultaneous translation: speed is better. Martin's bakers (whose average pretzel twister rate is about 12 per minute) and thousands of their fans disagree.

And there's a more to the Slow Pretzel story. Take a little tour of Martin's Pretzel Bakery. Step inside, into the din of whirring fans, belts, and chains. Into the high, sweet, and perhaps, today, slightly off-key notes of hymns, interrupted periodically by chatter and giggles. The nutty fragrance of baking pretzels warms the air. The singing rollers and twisters-mostly wearing organdy caps, veils, long flower-print dresses-labor at a table lined with grooved wooden boards.

At one end, the head "twister" silently scoops a spongy white gob from the dough tray, kneads it into a slender log, and cranks it through the cutter, a primitive looking machine that spits out uniform nuggets. Ten pairs of hands sequester little piles of them. With a few gentle waves they roll them, one by one, into strands, that, with a magician's slight-of-hand, end up twisted into pretzels. In a flicker. A blur. You watch, again, again, and the gesture is inscrutable. But, presto, the pretzels appear at the end of so many fingers and collect on wooden boards that get slotted into racks to rest a while before baking.

Martha suggests another song. Voices join. There's a strange resonance in the lyrics of this one-"Take up the tangled strains/that we have wrought in vain/that by the help of Thy dear hands/some beauty may remain." Some beauty definitely remains in their pretzels, along with detectable fingerprints where hands have pressed the ends onto the loops.

Joining the chorus from an unseen room are the strained grindings of the mixer kneading the dough for a while, then resting. Across the way, two figures seem to dance in front of an enormous oven. One steps back, lifts a board of pretzels from its rack, sets it next to a steaming cauldron. She twists to the left, sweeps twenty pretzels into the simmering golden liquid. They disappear for a moment, then float to the surface.

She then bows forward and lifts a strainer-full onto a draining tray, and twirls back to the rack for another board. Meanwhile, her partner broadcasts salt onto the long wooden peel between them, then reaches to and fro, picking up wet pretzels from the drainer and lining them up by two's on the peel. He then waves on another spray of salt, rocks sideways left to grab the peel's handle, and sideways right to lean it into the small mouth of the giant oven. With an instant flick of his wrists he rotates the wooden handle forward, and the pretzels flop onto the oven's stone table.

Then he rocks back left to set down the peel and faces his partner at the draining tray for another round. The 500-degree oven table creaks, turning, in slow motion. As the pretzels complete their baking journey, they clunk, clunk, clunk down a small metal chute, climb up a cranking belt, then thump into a larger pile that slowly parades them out of site on the wire mesh belt of the drying oven. Twenty minutes later they crunch through a small curtain, in large piles, for hands to pack into bags, boxes, tins, tubs.

Copyright 2013 Alfred Milanese