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Published September 17, 2010, 12:00 AM

Tracking pretzel history is a twisted trail

During the first week of school, my 12-year-old daughter brought home an assignment to do with our family. She was to determine something about her ancestors and their culture.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

During the first week of school, my 12-year-old daughter brought home an assignment to do with our family. She was to determine something about her ancestors and their culture.

My lineage is pretty straightforward. Most of my great-grandparents hopped off a ship from Norway in the mid- to late 1800s. Some others were from Sweden and Germany. Most of my husband’s family arrived in America earlier and he added English, German, Scottish, Irish and Polish to the genetic pool.

I was learning something during this assignment, too.

Part two of the assignment was to figure out an item, such as a food, to share with the class about their culture. My daughter wanted some suggestions.

True to my heritage and field of study, I immediately thought of lefse (a potato-based bread). Then I figured there would be quite a few people in her class bringing lefse because people of Norwegian descent are numerous in the area.

I suggested homemade pretzels, since I associate pretzels with German celebrations. However, I decided I’d better confirm the origin of pretzels.

I was partially right to associate pretzels with Germany, but they weren’t “invented” there. According to the Kitchen Project, a food history website, pretzels were developed by monks in southern France or northern Italy. They were given to children who remembered their prayers and were called “pretiola,” which is Latin for “little reward.”

In Italy, the pretzel became known as “brachiola,” which is Italian for “little arms.” Eventually the pretzel made its way through Austria and to Germany, where it was known as the “bretzel.” Later, German immigrants brought the pretzel recipe to America.

Since pretzels finally made it to Germany and represent part of both of her parents’ heritage, we were set with my daughter’s assignment. Sharing foods associated with our heritage draws people together and allows them a chance to stay connected with their culture.

Here’s a quiz about bread from around the world. Can you name the place (country, continent or region) typically associated with these breads? The answers follow.

  1. 1. Steamed buns
  2. 2. Chapati
  3. 3. Bagel
  4. 4. Baguette
  5. 5. Soda bread
  6. 6. Pizza crust
  7. 7. Tortillas
  8. 8. Pita
  9. 9. Corn bread
  10. 10. Scones

The answers are 1. China; 2. India; 3. Eastern Europe; 4. France; 5. Ireland; 6. Italy; 7. Mexico; 8. Middle East; 9. North and South America (American Indian); 10. Scotland.

Taste another culture by exploring the different types of breads. Here is an easy pretzel recipe courtesy of Washington State University Extension that can be prepared in a zip-close plastic bag or in a bowl. When doing bread-related activities with children, using a plastic bag decreases the potential for a kitchen mess.

The recipe contains both all-purpose and whole-wheat flour. The whole-wheat flour, which is a whole-grain ingredient, increases the fiber content and adds more nutrients. Canola oil provides heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. You can top the pretzels with cheese or a sprinkle of coarse salt. You also can sprinkle them with cinnamon and sugar. As another option, try dipping them in slightly warmed pizza sauce.

Pretzels in a Bag

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1 Tbsp. quick-rising yeast (1 package)

1 tsp. sugar

¾ tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. canola oil

¾ cup plus 2 Tbsp. warm water

½ cup grated cheddar cheese, optional

1 egg, optional

Coarse salt, optional

Combine flour, yeast, sugar and ¾ tsp. salt in a large zip-close bag. Close the bag and shake. Add canola oil and warm water to the dry ingredients in the bag. Close and mix well. Roll dough on floured surface and knead. Add flour if sticky. Divide the dough into six pieces. Roll each piece between hands to form a ropelike shape that is 12 inches long. Form into a pretzel and place on a greased baking sheet. Let rest for 10 minutes. Brush lightly with water or beaten egg. Sprinkle with salt or grated cheese if desired. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.

Makes six soft pretzels. Without the optional ingredients, each pretzel has 200 calories, 4.5 grams (g) of fat, 32 g of carbohydrate, 3 g of fiber and 630 milligrams of sodium.

Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.