Street Foods of NYC: A Short History of the Soft Pretzel


The soft pretzel: a street snack unchanged for almost two centuries.

It’s oddly sized, don’t you think? And if you’ve only been brought up with the hard kind, the texture of the street pretzel is weird, too: The interior is soft like bread, while the exterior is shiny, like a bagel.

As a street snack, pretzels may be conveniently stacked by the vendor on a rod — though he’s likely to draw a warm one for you from the charcoal-heated cabinet in his cart.

The soft pretzel has been sold on the streets of New York and Philadelphia at least since the 1820s. In fact, both the contemporary product and the method of vending them from carts at Union Square and elsewhere in the city remains nearly identical to that of nearly two centuries ago, making the sight of a pretzel vendor a pleasing anachronism.

Some say the pretzel was invented by medieval Italian monks who created it as an austere form of Lenten bread. The shape was said to portray a person with crossed arms, which was the way people prayed in the Middle Ages. The Italian word for pretzels was “pretioli,” which means “little rewards.”


Though “pretzel” is ostensibly a German word, it was the Dutch who first brought the snack to New Amsterdam during the city’s early colonial era. (The Dutch also introduced the waffle and the cookie; both are Dutch words.) Serving grainy yellow mustard with pretzels is certainly a German-American innovation of the 19th century.

Pretzels possess a shiny skin because, as with bagels, they are briefly boiled before being baked. Purchased at the southwest corner of Union Square, they cost $3. Which is not much to pay for such a voluminous and shareable snack. It’s also not much to spend to be connected, culinarily at least, with early New Yorkers, and to dine exactly as they dined.

Pretzels were obviously invented in a time when salt was a luxury, hence the lure of plenty of salt. If it’s too much for you, brush some of it off.