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Philadelphians are thought to eat more soft pretzels per capita than anywhere in the U.S. Urban legend says the city’s pretzel consumption is 12 times the national average, which is unproven, but Pennsauken, N.J.-based Super Pretzel, the country’s largest distributor or the snack, sells more per capita in Philly than anywhere else.
It might not be fair to say Philadelphia is the “pretzel capital” of the U.S. The commonwealth as a whole produces something like 80% of the nation’s supply, but other Pennsylvania jurisdictions have plenty to do with it. Reading calls itself “pretzel capital of the world,” laying claim to the first professional bakery, and National Pretzel Day was started in Lancaster, before being made official statewide by then-Gov. Ed Rendell in 2003.
What Philadelphia does have is a soft pretzel that’s different from all the rest.
From Bavaria to New York City to York, Pa., soft pretzels are heart-shaped, with two round wings billowing out from the central tangle. In Philly, the entire twist has been squashed into a figure eight.
The oblong shape is thought to have originated at Federal Pretzel Baking Company in South Philadelphia, created as a side effect of automation. It happened when the bakery began using conveyor belts in the 1920s, according to Serious Eats, and the hand-twisted rods of dough got squished together before being dropped in an alkaline solution and then baked all in a row.
Other bakeries apparently picked up the methodology, because that’s how soft pretzels are sold all over the city. That’s what you’ll get if you hit up the Center City Pretzel Co. warehouse on Washington Avenue for an early morning run. Furfari’s made them that way in Fishtown before closing in 2019 after 65 years. Philly Pretzel Factory’s 170 locations offer plenty of variations, from hotdog-stuffed to cheesesteak-filled, but the figure eight is the mainstay.
The shape isn’t just a visual thing. It results in a texture and flavor that makes Philadelphia soft pretzels uniquely delicious. It also makes them more versatile.
Snagging one on the way to school to eat as breakfast is a rite many Philly kids know well. It works because of the softness of the style, which eats more like a bagel than the unwieldy, crusty twist you’d get at a German beer hall. Though it’s done less often than you’d think, a Philly pretzel also has great potential to be sliced crosswise and used as a sandwich.
Probably the best part about the paper-clip shape is it’s fun to eat. There’s the weird dampness that remains along the edges when you pull apart a twin. The contrast between the pliant, peel-apart skin and the chewy, drowning-in-dryness middle. The quick brush of hand along the flat side that leaves just the right amount of salt.
Then there’s the sweet spot: a center knot that’s uniquely sublime.
For those who haven’t experienced such a thing, it’s hard to describe. But an excellently crafted meme did a good job.
Playing off a cupcake sketch that’s been floating around social media, in which someone deftly diagrammed out how the bottom half is “delicious” but the pile of icing on top is totally unnecessary, Twitter user @harpmuto used that format to sketch out the definitive anatomy of a Philly pretzel.
The top and bottom loops are delicious, sure, but it’s that central cluster of tightly wrapped dough and salt that really takes the cake. What eating it feels like, as described in the meme:
“This was handcrafted by god. I have never had the pleasure of eating something so incredibly delicious until right now in this moment. Holy f-k. Oh my god.”
It’s always nice when someone’s right on the internet.