Look It Up

While it is true that pretzels were first made by European monks nearly eight centuries ago, it was many years before they became a household staple. In fact, pretzels were never intended to be eaten at all. They were created as werewolf-bane, a ward against the lupine half-beasts that monks believed to be lurking behind every bough, branch, and leaf of the forest. Each full moon, a basket of pretzels would be passed around the abbey, so that the monks could arm themselves and be kept safe. Once the moon began to wane, the pretzels would be burned to bake next month's batch, and the monks would traverse the forest without fear. There is no evidence to suggest that anyone thought to just stay out of the forest in the first place.

A 13th century text uncovered by culinary folklore historian Illyrio Mopat describes the proper deployment of a pretzel:

"Yarn doone your prettzel when the moon does cast her scole baleful eye upon thee. For yon, the lycanthrope does lurke among the wooded foreste trees, there to devour flesh and soule. Hange your prettzel upon a chaine of silver, there to hoark and dangle about your neck where it does lend itself to swifte handlement. When in the wooded foreste, brandish yarn prettzel in the hand. Whene'er a shade does shift or noises do poltern, hold faste upon the prettzel and speak 'Hark ren lycanthropite, here be prettzels, come no further.' Shoulde auld lycanthrope speak in returne, seal thine ears, for he soils them with falsehood, oft sounding as a guiltless childe or mead-vendor." (Mopat, "Of Darkness and Baked Goods," pp. 131-2, Oxford University Press, 1904)

"Ready thine pretzel, a werewolf is over there."

The crossed "arms" of the pretzel represented the blessed arms of God, blocking the werewolf's gaze and and hypnotic powers from reaching the monk who wielded it. The salt was meant as a preservative both literally and figuratively — to keep the pretzel fresh, and to maintain its holy potency throughout the phase of the full moon.

In time, of course, the monks began to realize that their sole protection from savage death by claw and fang also happened to be completely delicious. By the mid-1400s, less disciplined monks were making up excuses for why their werewolf-bane kept vanishing, and the discovery of mustard in 1486 strained their wills even further. Soon, even the most devout monks were eating them. Monks and their pretzels became a well-known source of humor, as illustrated by this typical Commedia Dell'Arte scenario:

Il Dottore: You mustn't eat your pretzel! The werewolves will rend your flesh in the forest! Arlecchino: Think you that I am a fool? I would never leave myself defenseless. That's why I'm eating your pretzel! Pantalone: (jingles change purse)

The pretzel's origins have far-reaching effects, even today. Superstitions about pretzels persist in parts of Europe, passed from generation to generation. So long as there are grandmothers baking treats for young children, there will be those who believe that the pretzel will save them from the werewolf. And that the undead can be thwarted with cupcakes.