In the fall of 1529 the city of Vienna, Austria in the Holy Roman Empire was under siege by the Ottoman Empire. To explain what exactly was happening there would require a lot of complicated details surrounding a geopolitical hot mess that, of course, involves the death of a king, a civil war, and nosy neighbors who weren’t big fans of the Hapsburgs and would have loved to see them take it on their rather unusual chins. If you’d like to puzzle all of that out, then you’ve probably come to the wrong blog, because I’d rather talk about pretzels.
The 1529 siege of Vienna was ultimately unsuccessful, a fact that didn’t sit well with the Ottoman Empire until the second siege of Vienna one hundred and fifty-four years later, which didn’t really turn out all that well for them, either. I don’t know whether pretzels had anything to do with the struggles of 1683. And I don’t really know whether pretzels had anything to do with the thwarting of the 1529 siege either, but according to the historical rumor mill, it may have been the soft, salty treats that saved the day for the citizens of Vienna.
Since at least the early seventh century, and possibly further back than that, the pretzel has been the preferred snack of Catholic monks. Allegedly they used the twisted treats that not only mimic the crossed arms of a child in prayer, but also conveniently contain three holes corresponding nicely with the three parts of the trinity, to reward students who excelled at learning their catechism. That might be true.
Pretzels are a simple snack, that in addition to lacking any significant nutritional value, also have the advantage of containing no eggs or dairy and therefore fit perfectly into a traditional, fast-heavy Catholic Lenten diet. They also make an inexpensive, relatively quickly made food to pass out to the poor of the Middle Ages while simultaneously offering a little spiritual counseling. That’s probably true.
So then, the rumor that a couple weeks into the siege, it was a bunch of pretzel-making Viennese monks in the pre-dawn hours who heard, from within their basement pretzel kitchen, the digging of a horde of Ottoman would-be sneak-attackers, seems like it could be true. The monks alerted the city, which was ready then to fight off the attackers, break the siege, and celebrate victory with a soft, salty, and heroic snack.
But if I’m honest, this sounds to me like the kind of story that probably isn’t true, though in my admittedly shallow internet research, I haven’t discovered the counterclaim. My teenage sons, who have studied more European history than I have, do assure me the story is somewhat dubious. Still, at least some historians seem to be willing to let this one slide.
I think that’s probably because people love pretzels. And boy do they. I haven’t been able to discover numbers of world popularity of the snack, but the average American eats two pounds of pretzels every year, and if you happen to live in Philadelphia, where most of the nation’s pretzels are made, your average is closer to twelve pounds.
I don’t happen to live in Philadelphia, but as an occasional booster club concession stand volunteer here in Missouri, I can attest that those big soft pretzels are the clear high school sports crowd favorite. And when my son’s robotics team recently sold pretzels from a long-time and beloved St. Louis pretzel business, it made for the easiest fundraising he’s ever tried to do.
People love pretzels. There’s not much to them, but if you’re craving something either soft or crunchy that’s salty, is mostly devoid of nutritional value, pairs well with beer, can be dipped into just about anything, satisfies your Lenten munchies, reminds you to pray, and might just save your life from the invading Ottoman horde, then pretzels are for you.
So, how do you like to enjoy them?