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9.1.17

Pretzel Logic

Sometimes you’ve just got to roll on.

As is often the case on the Island, one has to periodically reinvent him- or herself. Two years ago, in the midst of a cold winter, work was slow; funds were dwindling. I had to figure out how to keep occupied and possibly make some spending money when a thought occurred to me one day after my third nap with Murphy the calico, out of the blue, as if a spirit had spoken it: “Pretzels!” So I decided to start making and selling authentic German pretzels. After some twists and turns and help from friends, pretzels were indeed made and sold.

Reinvention is perhaps the wrong term; it was more like resurrecting an earlier incarnation of myself. My initiation into pretzel world happened in 1978, when a friend in high school mentioned that the bakery in nearby Northampton, Massachusetts, where she had a job as counter help needed someone to make giant pretzels. I went and applied, hoping that my experience as a pizza maker throughout high school at a local pizza shop would help me get the job.

The bakery was called the Susanne Naegele Bakery and my interview was with Susanne herself. She had escaped from Poland during the Second World War and her shop was well known around the region for making German sourdoughs, classic French breads, and all sorts of European baked goods and pastries. Long before the term “artisan” became popular, Susanne was making artisanal baked goods with the help of her staff, mostly Europeans or European-trained bakers. The pretzels that she had learned to make in Stuttgart, Germany, after she escaped from Poland were big sellers. My pizza past did the trick and soon
I was learning the pretzel trade with her.

Roll, roll, roll, flip! Roll, roll, roll, flip!

The basement door opened and you could hear Susanne coming up the stairs.

Roll, roll, roll, flip! Roll, roll, roll, flip!

“Joe, we have to talk!” she shouted, climbing the back stairs with the delivery baskets.

“Here we go,” I thought. “I was worried about this, the pretzels from yesterday didn’t rise this morning... damn!”

Roll, roll, roll, flip! Roll, roll, roll, flip!

“Joe,” she said as she came toward the pretzel table, “these pretzels are shitty!”

“Hi, Susanne,” I said, getting ready for the blow of words. “I think I under-raised them.”

“You have to pay attention. Baking is an art and a science, but you have to be disciplined!”

“I’m sorry, Susanne” – roll, roll, roll, flip! – knowing it was useless.

“Sorry will not pay the bills,” she said as she stormed off. “Guy!” she shouted, and I realized that the pastry chef was next.

On Saturdays, however, Susanne invariably showed another side of her indomitable character – that of host. The baking was mostly done by nine o’clock and all of the bakery staff would participate in a major cleaning of the kitchens and shop. When we were almost finished she would hand me some cash and tell me to go get some quality cheese and cold cuts from a nearby store. I would return and the bakers would already be seated at the best table in the café. There would be warm fresh bread and pretzels, which would be slathered with sweet butter, mustard, cheese, and smoked ham and washed down with good beer. And, of course, good conversation among confederates, artisans.

That was my world for four years – thirty-five years ago or so – where I learned from a master the art of handmade German pretzels.

Reinvention, reincarnation, repetition. Roll, roll, roll, flip!

The following recipe was originally published with this article:
Pretzel Recipe