It's Always Salty in Philadelphia

By Kate Duffy


Kate Duffy
"Pretzel". oil on wood, by Mike Geno, ©
"Pretzel". oil on wood, by Mike Geno, ©

The soft pretzel, to Philadelphians, is as universally loved as a food can be. Cheesesteaks, long considered (by outsiders) to be the city’s crown jewel, pale to the soft pretzel, both in mass appeal and sheer quantity consumed. A cheesesteak is an elementary school field trip to the Constitution Center. Everybody has done it, and it feels like Philly. A soft pretzel is sitting in a lawn chair at 8th and Dickinson for three hours just to hold a parking spot. It is Philly. 

The soft pretzel is one of the few traditions that hasn’t changed as our beloved hometown has evolved from a city of close ethnic neighborhoods to a bona fide hipster mecca. They’re at every Wawa checkout, street cart, and high school football game, but they’re far from the only pretzel in town.

Philly chefs, spurred by genuine admiration or a begrudging sense of duty, have long found ways to feature soft pretzels. Eli Collins’ first new menu item after taking the reins of + was the High St. Soft Pretzel. “It’s absolutely a Philly icon ingrained into the fabric of the food scene. It was a no-brainer,” he says. With his stellar charcuterie program, a naked pretzel would be a disservice. Collins enjoys his pretzels with chicken liver mousse. (I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear that.)

Lost Bread Co. Baker Alex Bois’ buttery pretzel shortbread has taken over the cookie-sphere, and the cry can be heard all the way from New York. Introduced to upcycle leftover pretzels, Bois took inspiration from the pretzel’s homeland. In Germany, the idea of a salty-sweet, pretzel-like cookie is far from novel. Germans eat pretzels with sweet butter and mustard. (I’ll allow it.) When he eats straight-up pretzels, Bois ups the umami quotient with house onion-barley malt mustard and emmer-miso butter from White Rose Miso.

Well, shit. Carry on, sir.

Sure, we might be a little salty to see a simple pleasure turn chef-driven headturner, but we’re salty people. We hate change and eat pretzels. It’s (kind of) our jawn.

The (un)Official Rules of the Philadelphia Soft Pretzel

I.  Rock salt and (if you desire) mustard are the only permissible toppings. Fancy pretzels are for fancy people. No Philadelphian has ever been described as fancy*.

II.  As with the Oreo, there are passionately held views on how a soft pretzel should be eaten. The doughy knot in the middle, like the Oreo’s cream filling, is either devoured immediately out the gate or preserved surgically for the final bite.

III.  Soft pretzels must be eaten within eight hours of coming out of the oven, or they go from folk treasure to dog biscuit**.

IV.  If you eat an entire pretzel in front of someone and do not offer them a bite, they have every right to never talk to you again. Ev-ver.

V.  If you eat the middle of my pretzel without asking, I’m never talking to you (or your son) again.

*Exception: Grace Kelly **Exception: Wawa pretzels are fresher for longer. God only knows why.

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