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April 26, 2016

Celebrating the Philly soft pretzel: A cultural uniter

Tuesday is National Pretzel Day, which is the perfect time to reflect on all that snack means to Philadelphia

As most everybody knows, two Tuesdays back was National Grilled Cheese Day.

In honor of that holiday, I didn’t eat a grilled cheese – I’d had one the night before – but wrote a column expressing concern that way too many offbeat commemorative days have made their way onto the American calendar.

When I wrote that piece, I knew not that April 26 – aka today! – is National Pretzel Day, as apparently declared by then-Gov. Ed Rendell in 2003. It was his way of sharing the pretzel’s importance. I suspect he also thought – and still thinks – they were delicious.

RELATED: Philly Pretzel Factory president Marty Ferrill on growing biz, competing with 'donut-like' pretzels

Had I known that, the column most certainly would have included a caveat that went something like this: “These opinions do not apply to National Pretzel Day because, Lord almighty, soft pretzels are probably the best damn sub-$1 treat available on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Word of this annual commemoration made its way to my eyes and ears courtesy of an email from Auntie Anne’s, which will be giving away free pretzels to those who downloaded its “My Pretzel Perks” app by 11:59 p.m. Monday. It included this fun fact: “Pretzels were born when an Italian monk rewarded his students with twisted dough resembling arms folded to pray. He called them ‘little rewards.’”

Auntie Anne’s is not alone in celebrating this momentous occasion with its customers. The Philly Pretzel Factory has also put word out about free pretzel availability. There are others, too.

While Philly’s “Pretzel Museum” has closed its doors, soft pretzels are still part of what makes this fair city – and region – deliciously unique.

Conducting extensive research for this post, I stumbled across a remarkably awesome trivia tidbit: “As the story goes, sometime around 1850, bread baker Ambrose Roth obtained the recipe from a hobo as a thank-you for a hot meal and some hospitality.”

Hobos don’t generally get credit for their impact on America’s culinary evolution. After all, Sterno-heating and eating beans out of a can on railcars doesn’t qualify as fine dining. That needs to change (crediting hobos, not eating canned beans while sitting on hay).

I love each and every one of the 290 calories in a regular salted soft pretzel.

I fondly remember heading out to a food truck and getting a couple a day when I accompanied my mom Nancy in the 1980s to work at the American Express travel agency, formerly located where a 7-Eleven now sits near 16th and JFK. I would get those pretzels wit, but mustard is an acceptable topping as well. So is your everyday, run-of-the-mill plain pretzel.

You also probably have fond recollections of the impact of pretzels on your life and the lives of those you hold dear. Maybe it was the time Flyers Ice Girls twisted pretzels into the shape of the team's logo. Maybe it was the "V" shaped pretzels that commemorated Villanova's national championship victory earlier this month. Maybe you're a big Tim Tebow fan and long for the days when he was trying out for the Eagles.

That last paragraph just goes to show you that soft pretzels are not only a delicacy but can also be incorporated into issues that bring us together as Philadelphians and Delaware Valley-ians. 

They are more than a snack; they are a cultural uniter.

So, do your part to honor both Philadelphia and that long-dead hobo on Tuesday: Savor a soft pretzel and tell everyone you know to do the same.