Tom Sturgis, 74, rolls a foot-long piece of dough on a wooden table at Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery in Lititz, Pa. (pop. 9,029). After shaping the dough into a U, he crosses its ends, twists once and presses the ends into the bottom of a jumbo pretzel.
For Sturgis, pretzel twisting is entwined with family and American history. "We're America's first pretzel-baking family," says Tom, whose great-grandfather opened the nation's first commercial pretzel bakery nearly 150 years ago.
According to legend, in 1850 Julius Sturgis was apprenticing at a Lititz bread bakery when a hobo stopped by looking for work. Julius didn't have a job for him, but offered him something to eat and, in return, the grateful man gave him a recipe for hard pretzels. With the recipe, Julius perfected the process for baking hard pretzels and, in 1861, moved his family into a 1784 stone house on Main Street and opened a pretzel bakery.
"Other bakeries made soft pretzels, but like bread, they were best when they were fresh," says Bruce, who works alongside his father, Tom, at Tom Sturgis Pretzels, which the family opened in 1970 in nearby Shillington (pop. 5,059). "Julius thought that if he dried the pretzel, it would last another week or two or three."
While Julius put the crunchiness in pretzels in America, an Italian monk is believed to have created the first soft pretzel in 610 when he took leftover bread dough and twisted it into the shape of a child's arms crossed over his chest in prayer. The little rewards, or pretiolas, were sprinkled with sugar and given to children who learned their prayers.
Nowadays, visitors to the historic Julius Sturgis bakery get a hands-on lesson and an appreciation for the pretzel-making process of the 19th century. During Julius' day, workers could twist 30 or more pretzels in a minute. Once twisted, pretzels were set on boards and allowed to rise, dipped in a lye solution for quick browning and flavor, drained, salted and placed in ovens with long-handled wooden paddles.
"The ovens got so hot that the salt danced," says Tom, opening one of the cast-iron doors on the brick hearths that produced the family's original pretzels.
After baking, pretzels were loaded into wire mesh trays and hoisted by wooden elevator to the second floor to dry from the heat of the ovens below.
Today, 29 employees of Tom Sturgis Pretzels make the salty snacks using the family's time-tested recipe, but now machines mix the flour, water, malt and yeast in 600-pound batches, and shape the dough into twisted pretzels, thin and thick logs, and bite-size nuggets. Pretzels bake in stone hearth ovens at 550 degrees for six minutes and dry for 30 minutes at 250 degrees. Toppings, such as cheese, are added and machines bag the pretzels.
About 4 million pounds of Tom Sturgis Pretzels are sold each year at retail stores, most within 150 miles of Shillington. Competing with national pretzel companies for supermarket shelf space is the biggest challenge for the family-owned bakery.
"We try to get on the store shelves the old-fashioned way, by selling a quality product," says sales manager Tim Snyder, 59, Tom's brother-in-law.
The Sturgis family takes pride in both its historic and modern bakeries, as well as its long tradition of filling America's snack bowls.
"The pretzel industry as a whole started right here in these four ovens," says Snyder, standing in the bakery where Julius Sturgis first twisted, baked and dried pretzels to crunchy perfection.