Tomorrow at noon local time, the lord mayor of Munich will tap the first keg of Oktoberfest beer, signifying the beginning of the German city's 200th Oktoberfest. For two weeks thousands of locals and tourists will gather in giant tents and drink liter-size steins of beer (for the metrically challenged, that's nearly two pints), and occasionally wine, as they rock out to traditional oom-pah-pah music. It's never a good idea to drink a lot of beer on an empty stomach, so Brotfrauen (bread women) are on hand to sell pretzels the size of a briefcase.
I've never been to the official Oktoberfest, but I did become acquainted with Bavarian-style pretzels when I spent a summer in Munich during college. As part of my German language studies, I went on a work-exchange program and was placed as a chambermaid at a luxury hotel in the center of town. I was a vegetarian at the time and, if I had done a little culinary research, I would probably have chosen to study Italian or Hindi instead of German. I survived the summer in that meat-loving land eating mostly ice cream, the little chocolates I was supposed to be putting on hotel guests' pillows, and pretzels.
There are two kinds of pretzels most Americans are familiar with—the hard-baked packaged ones and the warm, squishy salt-encrusted kind sold at baseball games and carnivals—but neither is anything like Bavarian Brezeln (as pretzels are called in German). In fact, the difference between an American soft pretzel and a Bavarian one is about as stark as between a Lender's bagel and an Ess-a-Bagel bagel (or a Montreal bagel, for that matter). The secret, according to a recent New York Times article (which also notes the recent fashion for artisanal pretzels in New York), is lye. Lye is a caustic substance traditionally used to make soap. It also imparts a unique, almost glossy, finish to the exterior of a German pretzel, resulting in a bread that is crunchy outside and soft inside (the causticity of the lye disappears when the pretzel is baked). These specimens are a deeper brown and a lot more flavorful than their American counterparts. They can be eaten with mustard but, again, we're talking a whole different substance than daffodil-hued French's. Bavarian mustard can be spicy, sweet or both, sometimes with the whole grains of mustard seed still intact.
Many sources say the pretzel was actually invented by a medieval Italian monk, who used scraps of leftover dough to fashion a treat shaped like a child's arms crossed in prayer. This explanation didn't make any sense to me, since I had never seen anyone cross their arms in prayer, but apparently this is the traditional way for children who are not ready to receive communion to receive a priest's blessing. (Some Mormons also pray with crossed arms, but pretzels have been around a lot longer than Latter Day Saints.) The English and German words for pretzel may have ultimately derived from the Latin word brachiatus, meaning "with arms."
Fans of the TV series Seinfeld remember the episode where Kramer earnestly rehearses his single line in a Woody Allen movie—"These pretzels are making me thirsty." Utter that line in an Oktoberfest tent, and someone might just hand you a liter of beer (or at least point you in the direction of the Kellnerin, or beer seller).