Historic Birthday: George Crum

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Today is the date that George Crum died in 1914, and the closest anyone knows about when he was born is July 1832, although some accounts say as early as 1822 and at least one more gives 1831. But he was born George Speck, but changed his name to “Crum” (July 1832-July 22, 1914). He worked several jobs before finding his true calling as a chef in upstate New York, most notably at Moon’s Lake House near Saratoga Springs, New York, and later at his own “Crum’s Place.” But his true fame came from the invention of the potato chip in 1853. There is some controversy about whether he is the true inventor, although there are other candidates, and some evidence that either way he may have been involved at some level, he remains the likeliest person to be credited with inventing the potato chip, which makes him a hero in my book.

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Here’s a short account of his life from Ancestory.com:

When George W. Speck-Crum was born in July 1828 in Malta, New York, his father, Abraham, was 39 and his mother, Catherine, was 42. He had three sons and one daughter with Elizabeth J. He then married Hester Esther Bennett in 1860. He died on July 22, 1914, in his hometown, having lived a long life of 86 years, and was buried in Saratoga County, New York.

Nothing about his life seems particularly settled, not his birthday, where he was born, his exact ethnicity, or almost anything else, but here’s what Wikipedia claims:

George Speck (also called George Crum) was a man of mixed ancestry, including St. Regis (Akwesasne) Mohawk Indian, African-American, and possibly German. He worked as a hunter, guide, and cook in the Adirondacks, who became renowned for his culinary skills after being hired at Moon’s Lake House on Saratoga Lake, near Saratoga Springs, New York.

Speck’s specialities included wild game, especially venison and duck, and he often experimented in the kitchen. During the 1850s, while working at Moon’s Lake House in the midst of a dinner rush, Speck tried slicing the potatoes extra thin and dropping it into the deep hot fat of the frying pan. Thus was born the potato chip.

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George and his wife Kate.

Biography

George Speck (also called George Crum) was born on July 15, 1824 (or 1825) [maybe, but possibly other years or dates] in Saratoga County in upstate New York. Some sources suggest that the family lived in Ballston Spa or Malta; others suggest they came from the Adirondacks. Depending upon the source, his father, Abraham, and mother Diana, were variously identified as African American, Oneida, Stockbridge, and/or Mohawk Indians. Some sources associate the family with the St. Regis (Akwesasne) Mohawk reservation that straddles the US/Canadian border. Speck and his sister Kate Wicks, like other Native American or mixed-race people of that era, were variously described as “Indian,” “Mulatto,” “Black,” or just “Colored,” depending on the snap judgement of the census taker.

Speck developed his culinary skills at Cary Moon’s Lake House on Saratoga Lake, noted as an expensive restaurant at a time when wealthy families from Manhattan and other areas were building summer “camps” in the area. Speck and his sister, Wicks, also cooked at the Sans Souci in Ballston Spa, alongside another St. Regis Mohawk Indian known for his skills as a guide and cook, Pete Francis. One of the regular customers at Moon’s was Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who, although he savored the food, could never seem to remember Speck’s name. On one occasion, he called a waiter over to ask “Crum,” “How long before we shall eat?” Rather than take offense, Speck decided to embrace the nickname, figuring that, “A crumb is bigger than a speck.”

Wicks later recalled the invention of the potato chip as an accident: she had “chipped off a piece of the potato which, by the merest accident, fell into the pan of fat. She fished it out with a fork and set it down upon a plate beside her on the table.” Her brother tasted it, declared it good, and said, “We’ll have plenty of these.” In a 1932 interview with the Saratogian newspaper, her grandson, John Gilbert Freeman, asserted Wick’s role as the true inventor of the potato chip.

Speck, however, was the one who popularized the potato chip, first as a cook at Moon’s and then in his own place. By 1860, Speck had opened his own restaurant, called Crum’s, on Storey Hill in nearby Malta, New York. His cuisine was in high demand among Saratoga Springs’ tourists and elites: “His prices were…those of the fashionable New York restaurants, but his food and service were worth it…Everything possible was raised on his own small farm, and that, too, got his personal attention whenever he could arrange it.” According to popular accounts, he was said to include a basket of chips on every table. One contemporaneous source recalls that in his restaurant, Speck was unquestionably the man in charge: “His rules of procedure were his own. They were very strict, and being an Indian, he never departed from them. In the slang of the racecourse, he “played no favorites.” Guests were obliged to wait their turn, the millionaire as well as the wage-earner. Mr. Vanderbilt once was obliged to wait an hour and a half for a meal…With none but rich pleasure-seekers as his guests, Crum kept his tables laden with the best of everything, and for it all charged Delmonico prices.”

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Potato Chip Legend

Recipes for frying potato slices were published in several cookbooks in the 19th century. In 1832, a recipe for fried potato “shavings” was included in a United States cookbook derived from an earlier English collection. William Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle (1822), also included techniques for such a dish. Similarly, N.K.M. Lee’s cookbook, The Cook’s Own Book (1832), has a recipe that is very similar to Kitchiner’s.

The New York Tribune ran a feature article on “Crum’s: The Famous Eating House on Saratoga Lake” in December 1891, but, curiously, mentioned nothing about potato chips.[13] Neither did Crum’s commissioned biography, published in 1893, nor did one 1914 obituary in a local paper.[14] Another obituary states “Crum is said to have been the actual inventor of “Saratoga chips.””[15] When Wicks died in 1924, however, her obituary authoritatively identified her as follows: “A sister of George Crum, Mrs. Catherine Wicks, died at the age of 102, and was the cook at Moon’s Lake House. She first invented and fried the famous Saratoga Chips.”

Hugh Bradley’s 1940 history of Saratoga contains some information about Speck, based on local folklore as much as on any specific historical primary sources. Fox and Banner said that Bradley had cited an 1885 article in the Hotel Gazette about Speck and the potato chips. Bradley repeated several myths that appear in that article, including that “Crum was born in 1828, the son of Abe Speck, a mulatto jockey who had come from Kentucky to Saratoga Springs and married a Stockbridge Indian woman,” and that, “Crum also claimed to have considerable German and Spanish blood.”

Cary Moon, owner of Moon’s Lake House, rushed to claim credit for the invention, and began mass-producing the chips, first served in paper cones, then packaged in boxes. They soon became wildly popular: “It was at Moon’s that Clio first tasted the famous Saratoga chips, said to have originated there, and it was she who first scandalized spa society be strolling along Broadway and about the paddock at the race track crunching the crisp circlets out of a paper sack as though they were candy or peanuts. She made it the fashion, and soon you saw all Saratoga dipping into cornucopias filled with golden-brown paper-thin potatoes; a gathered crowd was likely to create a sound like a scuffling through dried autumn leaves.” Visitors to Saratoga Springs were advised to take the 10-mile journey around the lake to Moon’s if only for the chips: “the hobby of the Lake House is Fried Potatoes, and these they serve in good style. They are sold in papers like confectionary.”

A 1973 advertising campaign by the St. Regis Paper Company, which manufactured packaging for chips, featured an ad for Crum (Speck) and his story, published in the national magazines, Fortune and Time. During the late 1970s, the variant of the story featuring Vanderbilt became popular because of the interest in his wealth and name, and evidence suggests the source was an advertising agency for the Potato Chip/Snack Food Association.

A 1983 article in Western Folklore identifies potato chips as having originated in Saratoga Springs, New York, while critiquing the variants of popular stories. In all versions, the chips became popular and subsequently known as “Saratoga chips” or “potato crunches”.

The 21st-century Snopes website writes that Crum’s customer, if he existed, was more likely an obscure one. Vanderbilt was a regular customer at Moon’s Lake House and at Crum’s Malta restaurant, but there is no evidence that he played any role in inventing (or demanding) potato chips.

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Potato chips on a white background.

And here’s yet another story about the origin of the potato chip, written by Jean McGregor in the Saratogian in 1940:

The authentic story of Saratoga chips is at long last revealed by the great nephew of George (Speck) Crum, their originator, Albert J. Stewart, now an employee of Mrs. Webster Curran Moriarta of North Broadway, with whom he has been employed for 24 years. Stewart told the story to Mrs. Moriarta many times as I relate it here: “Aunt Kate Wicks” so called by her friends, had something* to do with their Invention—worked for her brother, Crum. She related the true circumstances to Stewart many times before her death in 1914 at 68 William St., where she resided. Crum was born in Malta, the son of Abram Speck, a mulatto jockey who came from Kentucky in the early days of Saratoga and married an Indian woman of the Stockbridge tribe. It is related that a wealthy dinner guest had one time Jokingly referred to the name Speck, as Crura, and thereupon Speck took over the name of Crum. George Crum was more Indianin appearance. His younger days were spent in the Adirondack^ and he became a mighty hunter and a successful fisherman. His services as a guide in the Adirondack* were much sought after. His companion in the forests was a Frenchman from whom he learned to cook. Shortly after the Frenchman’s death, Cnrn took up his abode near the south end of the lake and prepared to serve ducks. He became known throughout the country for his unique and wonderful skill In cooking game, fish and camp fire dishes generally. While he was employed as a cook at Moon’s Place, opened by Carey B. Moon in 1853 at the Southend of Saratoga Lake, on the Ramsdill Road, the incident occurred which led to the making of Saratoga Chips. “Aunt Kate Wicks” who worked with her brother, Crum, making pastry, had a pan of fat on the stove, while making crullers and was peeling potatoes at the same time. She chipped off a piece of potato which by the merest accident fell into the pan of fat. She fished it out with a fork and set it down upon a plate beside her on the table. Crum came into the kitchen. “What’s this?”, he asked, as he picked up the chip and tasted it “Hm, Hm, that’s good. How did you make it?” “Aunt Kate” described the accident. “That’s a good accident,” said Crum. “We’ll have plenty of these.” HE TREED them out. Demand for them grew like wild fire and he sold them at 15 and ten cents a bag. Thus the Saratoga Chip came into existence. Other makes appeared on the market as time passed. For a long period of years, few prominent men in the world of finance, politics, art, the drama or sports, failed to eat one of Crum’s famous dinners.

The late Cornelius E. Durkee, who died at the age of 96, entertained many guests at Moon’s and was familiar with its history, related this interesting story of Crum’s genius as a cook for me one day while he was compiling his reminiscences: “William H. Vanderbilt, father of Governor William H. Vanderbilt of Rhode Island, a prominent visitor here in those days, was extremely fond of canvasback ducks, but could not get them cooked properly in the village. “He sent a couple to Crum to see what he could do with them. “Crum had never seen a canvasback but having boasted that he could cook anything, willingly undertook to prepare these. “I KEPT THEM over the coals 19 minutes.” Crum told Mr. Durkee, “the blood following the knife and sent them to the table hot. Mr. Vanderbilt said he had never eaten anything like them in his life”Mr. Vanderbilt,” continued Mr. Durkee, “was so pleased he sent Mr. Crum many customers. He prospered in the business. He kept his tables laden with the best of everything and did not neglect to charge Delmonico prices.” “His rules of procedure were his own. Guests were obliged to wait their turn, the millionaire as well as the wage earner. Mr. Vanderbilt was once obliged to wait an hour for a meal and Jay Gould and his party, also visitors here in the early days when this resort was the capital of fashionables of the country, waited as long another time. CRUM LEFT the kitchen to apologize to Mr. Gould, who told him he understood the rules of the establishment and would wait willingly another hour. Judge Hilton and a party of friends were turned away one day. “I can’t wait on you,” said Crum, directing them to a rival house for dinner. “George,” said Mr. Hilton, “you must wait on us if we have to remain in the front yard for two hours.” Mr. Durkee recalled for me that, among those who enjoyed Crum’s cooking and his potato chips were Presidents Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland, and Governors Horatio Seymour, Alonzo B. Cornell, David P. Hill, Roswell P. Flower and such financiers as Vanderbilt, Pierre Lorillard, Berry Wall, William R. Travers, William M. Tweed and E. T. Stokes. Crum died in 1914. His brother, Abraham (Speck) Crum dug out an old Indian canoe for Jonathan Ramsdill of Saratoga Lake which is still on exhibit in the State Museum in Albany as one of the finest examples of Indian canoes and Indian days at Saratoga Lake, rich in Indian lore.

And Original Saratoga Chips in New York, also has their version of the story on their website. And The Great Idea Finder also has some info on Crum.

His own restaurant, Crum’s Place, was located at 793 Malta Avenue in Ballston Spa, New York. Today, a marker can be seen by the spot where it stood from 1860-1890.

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Pretzels In America

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While the exact origin of the pretzel is unknown, the best guess is that they originated in Europe, most likely among monks during the early Middle Ages.

Within the Christian Church, pretzels were regarded as having religious significance for both ingredients and shape. The knot shape has been claimed to represent hands in prayer. Moreover, the three holes within the pretzel represent the three persons of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Pretzels made with a simple recipe using only flour and water could be eaten during Lent when Christians were forbidden to eat eggs, lard, or dairy products such as milk and butter. As time passed, pretzels became associated with both Lent and Easter. Pretzels were hidden on Easter morning just as eggs are hidden today, and are particularly associated with Lent, fasting, and prayers before Easter.

Not surprisingly, it was Germany — where they drink a lot of beer — that pretzels really came into their own. “Pretzel baking has most firmly taken root in the region of Franconia (modern German states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg) and adjoining Upper German-speaking areas, and pretzels have been an integral part of German baking traditions for centuries.” In fact, while the origin of the name “pretzel” is also uncertain, “the German name “Brezel” may derive also from Latin bracellus (a medieval term for ‘bracelet’), or bracchiola (‘little arms’),” and this is one theory of where the word came from.

But it wasn’t long before they arrived in America, too. “The Palantine Germans, later known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, brought pretzels to America in 1710. German children wore the pretzels around their necks on New Year’s for good luck.” According to Wikipedia, “In the late 18th century, southern German and Swiss German immigrants introduced the pretzel to North America. The immigrants became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, and in time, many handmade pretzel bakeries populated the central Pennsylvania countryside, and the pretzel’s popularity spread.”

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On February 8, 1861, Julius Sturgis opened the first commercial pretzel bakery in the U.S., in Lititz, and Julius Sturgis Pretzels is still open today, and still owned by the Sturgis family. Pennsylvania. Lititz is in Lancaster County, which is the next county over from Berks County, whose biggest city is Reading. I grew up near Reading, Pennsylvania, in the small town of Shillington, which was also the home of Tom Sturgis Pretzels, started by a relative of Julius.

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The Julius Sturgis pretzel factory today.

According to the pretzel company website:

The Sturgis family continues to bake pretzels today, using the same old-fashioned recipe and methods established by Julius Sturgis in 1861. Marriott Sturgis, grandson to Julius, was born in 1910 and learned much of the pretzel baking trade in the original Lititz bakery, working for the family business before and after school. One of the bakers he worked alongside was his uncle Tom Keller, and because their mannerisms and baking styles were so similar, the other bakers began calling Marriott “Tom Sturgis”.

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When he was 14, “Tom’s” family moved from Lititz to Reading, Pennsylvania, where he continued to work in pretzel bakeries, including one run by his cousin Victor Sturgis. In 1936, he opened a pretzel bakery with his brother Correll called “Sturgis Brothers”, but World War II conscription took their entire workforce and by 1942 they were forced to close their doors.

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In 1946, after working at a munitions factory during the War, Tom Sturgis established another bakery, which he called Tom Sturgis Pretzels.

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Tom Sturgis Pretzels continues to operate today, run by his son, Tom Sturgis, Jr. and his grandson, Bruce Sturgis. The Sturgis family also now manages the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery.

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Tom Sturgis Pretzels in Shillington, Pennsylvania.

The grandson they mentioned, Bruce Sturgis, was a classmate of mine in high school. Though we weren’t close friends, we knew one another and later when I was the beer buyer at Beverages & more, I helped arrange for us to buy a truck of Tom Sturgis Pretzels for our stores. Bruce’s wife used to be married to the brother of a close friend of mine, and was also the sister of another classmate, and she came to stay with me in California for a couple of weeks before she remarried.

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The Julius Sturgis preztel factory in the late-1800s.

My hometown of Reading, which has billed itself as the “Pretzel Capital of the World,” had an article entitled “Reading, Pretzel Capital of the World,” which originally appeared in the April 1948 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County:

A year or two before the Civil War, a pretzel baker moved with his family from the Moravian Village, Lititz, to Reading, then a city of some 20,000 inhabitants. And today, just 88 years later, Reading is the pretzel capital of the world.

An article in the Lancaster “Volksfreund” of July 30, 1879, states that “the first pretzel in the United States is said to have been baked in the city of Lancaster by one Scherle in the year 1827. He was followed by Ambrose Ranch in Lititz and later by a baker in Reading.”

The pretzel baker, Ambrose Ranch, had an apprentice, Julius Sturgis, who is generally credited as being first in America to establish pretzel baking as an industry, back in 1861, in Lititz. The Sturgis family has remained in the business ever since. There are two Sturgis pretzel plants in Reading today. Victor Sturgis, of West Lawn, was incorporated in 1924, followed by a cousin, Tom Sturgis, of South Second Street in 1928.

The baker in Reading, mentioned by “Der Volksfreund,” was Benjamin Lichtenthaler. He was born in Lititz on March 17, 1817. Lichtenthaler began baking pretzels which soon won great popularity throughout this and adjoining states. His factory was located at 37 Apple Street and later at 207 Cherry Alley. At the time of his death, in 1893, the factory output was 1,500,000 pretzels a year. The Lichtenthaler Bretzel Company was succeeded by the Pennsylvania Bretzel Company in 1900.

The local pretzel bakeries, incidentally, spelled their product “bretzels” as late as the early 1900’s. The only concern in Reading which has retained the original spelling is Billy’s Butter Bretzels, established in 1931 by William R. Edmundson at 242 Plum Street.

If Mr. Lichtenthaler established his bakery in 1860, the year he came to Reading, the where and when of the beginning of the pretzel industry in this country might be disputed and if “two teams constantly on the road,” comprise an industry, even Mr. Lichtenthaler may have to yield his laurels to John Sauermilch, Sr., of Boyertown, who started baking pretzels in that place about 1846.

In the Reading “Weekly Eagle,” of Feb. 25, 1893, there appears an interesting article, entitled “An Old Pretzel Baker.” From this source we learn that John Sauermilch, Sr., the subject of this article, was born in Germany in 1808 and that he learned the pretzel trade from his father, who was an expert baker in Germany. Sauermilch came to America when he was twenty years old. After working as a lime burner for eighteen years, he established a bakery in Boyertown, where he made pretzels just as his father had taught him in Germany. At the time the Eagle correspondent interviewed Mr. Sauermilch, the old, retired pretzel baker claimed that his pretzels had been in their day quite as popular as the Lichtenthaler pretzels of that time.

Mr. Sauermilch said at the time, “Americans are in many things ahead of the old country, but not so far as pretzels are concerned. In the United States it is much more difficult to find a good pretzel, than in Germany to find a bad one.”

Then the Eagle reporter asked why it was that so few bakers could make a first class pretzel. Mr. Sauermilch answered, “They don’t understand pretzel baking and yet think themselves proficient in the work. It is a trade by itself. Some bakers take only bread dough for their pretzel. The proper pretzel dough differs widely from bread dough.”

We leave Mr. Sauermilch and his reporter friend, discoursing upon the pleasant pastime of drinking beer (something which, according to Mr. Sauermilch, Americans did not know how to do either) and on eating pretzels in a beer garden along the Rhine.

Patriotism notwithstanding, Mr. Sauermilch was correct about the number of Americans who were not bona fide pretzel men. Often the bread bakers made left over pieces of dough into pretzels and gave them away with loaves of bread to encourage mothers to buy their product. True pretzel bakers, like Sturgis in Lititz and Lichtenthaler in Reading, had jealously guarded trade secrets and secret yeast formulas. In fact, both places at one time or another have seriously confided that the secret of the success of their pretzel lay in some special quality of the water found in their town. The pretzels were cooked in lye and there was also a great deal of secrecy observed as to where the lye was obtained. Lye from straw ashes was considered best, and next, the ashes of hardwoods. Hickory, walnut and maple were used by others. It is probable that the secret of the different flavors resided in the mixture of the various ashes.

While Benjamin Lichtenthaler has taken the place of most renown there were many others in Reading dedicated to the art of pretzel baking.

John S. Hendricks and John T. Adams, who operated as Hendricks and Adams, constantly referred to themselves in their advertisements, in the 1890’s as having formerly been with Lichtenthaler. The volume, “Reading, Its Representative Business Men and Its Points of Interest,” published in 1893, says of the Hendricks and Adams Firm: “The growth of their trade has already required the employment of six experienced men. The firm has a capacity of making 6,000 regular size bretzels per day, and their trade is constantly on the increase. They were located at 335 Cherry Street, began in business in 1893 and in 1898 employed eight men, operated two ovens and manufactured over 4,000 barrels of pretzels annually. Their investment was $5,000 and their annual product was worth $12,000. They were succeeded by J. T. Adams & Co., in 1907.

Another of the better known men of our town was Andrew Muntz, whose father, Augustus, began a bakery in 1856. He was located at 121 North Eight Street and, according to the personal recollection of Ira J. J. Reber, a well-known local collector, was well versed in the Bible and renowned for his wit and caustic tongue. In his daily selling trips about the county, he delighted in baiting all comers, local and “foreigner” alike. Mr. Reber recalls an occasion when lie asked a New Yorker why the people of New York never ate the cross in the pretzel, and after properly confounding the stranger, replied, “Because then they’d have nothing to sell.”

Mr. William A. Newmoyer, a baker at Quinlan’s, recalls that he learned pretzel baking at the Addison Guyer bakery, 435 N. Ninth Street, fifty-eight years ago. Other names that have long since disappeared are those of Daniel Mayer at 709 Penn St. and Christian Mayer at 52 N. Tenth St.; George May at 344 Locust St. and Charles Muntz at 1410 Muhlenberg St., who advertised his product: “200 for 1 dollar.” Frank P. Nistle started in 1903 on Walnut, above Locust, and William H. Behrle had a bakery on Fairview Avenue. The latter’s son, J. Behrle, is still associated with pretzel baking at the present Heller Bakery on North Ninth Street.

There is only one name, that, beginning many years ago, remains today as one of the largest representatives in the industry. In 1884, Joseph S. Bachman began baking pretzels in a small plant on Nicholas Street. The business prospered to such an extent that it was found necessary to take over additional space. On the death of Mr. Bachman, in 1923, the business was incorporated and moved to its present location in Hyde Park.

There are many types of pretzels available today. Many more have apparently disappeared with the years and new ones have taken their places. The popular butter pretzel, using shortening in addition to the other ingredients, seems to be a modern innovation. Also new are the pretzel sticks, extra thins and penny rods. The soft pretzel is considered one of the oldest types. The stamped cracker pretzel is popular. The sugar pretzel, similar to a sweet bun, has seemingly disappeared.

Mrs. Edith Rumbaugh recalls when Tom Hannahoe, Reading’s famous Mayor of Irishtown, kept three or four goats in the rear of his domicile. The neighbor children brought pails of potato peelings, apparently the mainstay of the animals’ diet, for which they were rewarded by Mr. Hannahoe’s housekeeper. The reward was an oblong pretzel-like cracker, known and remembered by the children as a “Tom Doodle.” Who made them, and how? There the trail of the “Tom Doodle” pretzel ends. We are not left in doubt concerning the close association between Reading and the pretzel, since even across the football field or basketball floor comes the derisive chant of the opponent’s cheering section:

“Pretzels and beer, pretzels and beer, Bach du lieber, Reading’s here!”

Pretzels are no longer, as they once were, necessarily the companions of beer. They are today served with ice cream and other delicacies. In fact, Quinlan’s claims the credit for bringing the pretzel out of the saloon into the parlor.

Although the process of manufacturing the pretzel is essentially unchanged today, modern machinery has speeded production from the “6,000 regular size bretzels per day” of the Hendricks and Adams era, to the 1,000,000 per day capacity of the present Quinlan Pretzel Co., which was started in 1923.

Today most of the pretzels are made from pure wheat flour to which is added only yeast, salt and water. After the dough is made, it is cut off into small pieces and rolled out into strips for twisting. This is done by hand or machinery according to the size of the bakery. The pretzel is let stand for a few minutes for the dough to rise and is then quickly placed in boiling water to which soda has been added. Here the pretzel is partly cooked, just as dumplings, noodles or other doughs are cooked in boiling water. After the pretzels are removed from the boiling solution, they are sprinkled with salt and placed in the oven, The heat of the oven prevents the salt from dissolving, and it clings tightly to the pretzel as it begins to bake. After being thoroughly baked, the pretzels are then placed in a drying or toasting oven to insure crispness.

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For almost a century the pretzels were baked in the same old style hearth ovens. It was a tedious process to place the pretzels in rows in the oven with a long handled wooden shovel, called a peel, and then to remove them again by the same method. The baker was always under a constant pressure to hustle them out in time to prevent burning. In the early days dough was kneaded on the quarter oak, with a jumping rail. A man sat on a lever and jumped up and down until the dough was thoroughly mixed.

Gradually, each process was modernized. First the dough was mixed by a machine and then the correct quantity was cut off automatically and rolled; ready to be picked up and twisted by hand.

The Reading “Adler,” August 5, 1879, quotes from “Der Volksfreund” of Lancaster, July 30, 1879: “A skilled pretzel baker can form seven to eight pretzels out of dough in one minute and no more. However, three men in Lincoln [Lancaster County] have just invented an ingeniously constructed automatic pretzel machine and have had it patented. The names of the three men are Thomas K. Keller, Martin S. Keller and C. W. Myers. The new machine can form sixty to one hundred pretzels per minute or 3,000 to 6,000 an hour.”

Apparently “Der Volksfreund” was a bit premature with its announcement, for a check of the patent office in Washington reveals that no such patent was issued. From a Lititz newspaper clipping, dated October 1, 1942, in the possession of the Sturgis family, we learn that Thomas Keller had married one of Julius Sturgis’ daughters and was also a pretzel manufacturer. Although he had worked on a machine to twist the dough into the pretzel shape, he never succeeded. The trouble was that the dough was never the same consistency.

So the twisting itself stumped the inventors for many years and even Robert Ripley said, “believe it or not,” it couldn’t be done. Reading did it. In 1933 a pretzel machine was perfected by Quinlan’s and in the same year, Earl Curtis, of South Temple, now associated with the Bachman Bakeries, challenged by Mr. Ripley’s statement, also produced the impossible.

Mrs. Helen Hoffer, of Quinlan’s, also surpasses “Der Volksfrennd’s” statement of “seven to eight pretzels per minute and no more.” She deftly spins out the curleques at the rate of forty-five per minute. The rate on the machine varies with the type of pretzel and consistency of the dough, from about fifty to one hundred twenty per minute.

In 1943, the pretzel industry sent a brief to the VVar Manpower Commission, requesting that they be declared an essential industry. It was then that the Honorable Clair Booth Luce, in her usual vituperative manner, ran afoul of the industry by referring to pretzels and the W. M. C. as an indissolvable group of waltzing mice and pretzel benders.”

Congresswoman Luce promptly received her chastisement in the form of a letter from the National Pretzel Baker’s Institute and the “pretzel benders” were declared essential. In fact, it was proven that while bread trucks carry 60 per cent moisture, pretzels were the most perfectly dehydrated food made.

The pretzel industries of Reading ship their merchandise to all corners of the globe. Here is an excerpt from a Chamber of Commerce News Letter: “You perhaps are wondering just who it is that has a taste for pretzels in these [far away] places. Well, to be frank with you the Pretzel Industries are just as much mystified. The idea of a turbaned Hindu in India, or a saronged native in Batavia, munching on a pretzel is a bit hard to conceive. Nevertheless, if we are to believe the shipping addresses, that must be the case.

Reading produces one-third of all the pretzels baked in the United States. The production capabilities of our city’s industry are 15,000,000 pretzels per five-day week, using 900 barrels per week of winter wheat bought, we are informed, all in Berks County. According to the Department of Agriculture, twenty bushels of wheat is the yield per acre. Therefore, manufacturing the pretzels takes the output of 210 acres of farmland, week after week.

Aside from its unquestionable industrial importance, this oddly shaped little item has made for us a multitude of friends. It has been introduced to countless strangers by local concerns as Christmas gifts, and one of the first ideas for alleviating the lonesomeness and homesickness of a far away friend or relative, is the thought of sending some pretzels!

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One of my favorite memories as a child was being in downtown Reading with my stepfather. He took me down a side street, almost an alley, and I could smell baking pretzels. I think it may have been Unique Pretzels, which was Dad’s favorite brand, but I’m not sure. At any rate, it was a stone building, and my Dad went inside, while I peered in from the sidewalk, and could see the stone oven inside, with workers there using a large flat paddle to pull out freshly baked pretzels from it. Soon after, my father reappeared outside, handing me a hot, crunchy pretzel straight from that oven. Although I’m sure I’ve romanticized it over the years, that must have been the best-tasting pretzel I’ve ever had.

Although for everyday pretzels, I still do love the Tom Sturgis pretzels. They can be ordered mail order over the internet, and I treat myself to some every few years. I suppose it’s probably because they’re the ones I grew up with, but there were many others that were just as good, too. Sadly, we can’t get any decent pretzels here in California. Snyder’s used to be about it for anything decent, though I confess they’re about at the bottom of my list of edible pretzels. Happily, Cost Plus recently started carrying a large plastic tub of Utz Sourdough Specials that the family seems to go through at least one a month.

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Now Made With Craft Beer

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So I’m walking through the grocery store the other day; and I’m hungry, which is never a good combination. I’m perusing the frozen food section, when something catches my eye. It’s Cheddar Bites, or more specifically “Crispy Beer Battered Aged White Cheddar” by Alexia. Now it’s not that they’re beer-battered — which I’m pleased about — but it’s nothing new. That’s not what caught my attention. On the box is a small tri-colored square, at an angle, to the right of the main label, declaring that these cheddar bites aren’t made with just any old beer, but are “Craft Beer Battered!” Woo Hoo! We’ve come a long way, baby, when that becomes a selling point. It made me laugh a bit, and naturally there’s no information about what craft beer was used for the batter. The company’s in Washington, so that’s a clue, I suppose.

Still, I find it interesting that a food company thought it was enough of a selling point to include it as a separate element on the packaging. That certainly suggests that they believed it would appeal to a certain type of consumer, and specifically one for whom the fact that the beer was “craft beer” had some meaning. That’s an interesting development. And it worked, I suppose, since I bought them. The family verdict was mixed. My wife thought they were just “meh,” whereas I liked them just fine; though in fairness my tastes run toward anything that’s not too good for me and can be considered comfort food.

Has anyone else seen similar labeling on packaged foods? It’s the first time I’ve noticed it, but I’m curious if this is happening enough to be considered the beginning of a trend.

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Beer In Ads #364: Nobel’s Appetizers Are Just An Excuse

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Friday’s ads are for a Brazilian beer (where I’m heading next week) from Primo Schincariol. The brand of beer is Nobel and this series of ads is from 2008 and uses the slogan “Appetizers Are Just An Excuse.” Each ad shows a beer glass filled not with beer, but two appetizers that, from a distance, make it look like the glass is full of beer. The first, given that today is the beer and cheese Session, is filled with cheese and eggs.

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A second shows French Fries — my favorite — in the bottom with white onions on top.

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And a third uses popcorn, both popped and unpopped.

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There were at least two more of these ads, peanuts and cashews, which you can see at Coloribus.

Super Bacon Dogs For The Holiday

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To celebrate International Bacon Day I modified a decadent comfort food my wife came up with a few weeks ago. She takes a hot dog and slices it down the middle, filling it with cheese. Then it’s wrapped in a Pillsbury crescent roll and baked in the oven. I call them “super dogs” for no particular reason other than it rolls off the tongue nicely. Today I added a slice of bacon to each one to make “super bacon dogs.” I ate five of them, boy were they tasty.

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My daughter Alice slicing the hot dogs.

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Ready to go in the oven.

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Fresh from the oven and ready to eat.

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Afterward, my wife Sarah had a special bacon treat for dessert.

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Chocolate-covered bacon on a stick, which a friend of my wife’s from work discovered at our local candy shop (thanks Brian). They come in both milk chocolate and dark chocolate.