My stock of fond memories from grade school was, alas, never overflowing, and as the distance between that time of my life and the present grows longer, the memories grow ever fewer.
I’ve still got the time I kicked a grand slam in kickball, the A+ I got on my report on Franklin Roosevelt and the pink ribbons in Susan Abrams’ hair.
And there’s another memory too, perhaps the fondest and certainly one of the most vivid:
Once a week, every Friday, my school cafeteria was transformed into a city corner, the janitor (why him?) pressed into service as the pretzel guy. The pretzels weren’t warm, but they were fresh, and served just as if you were standing on the City Hall apron.
These were classic Philadelphia street pretzels, long and narrow, dense and chewy, covered with wet salt. I can’t remember what they cost, but it wasn’t much and they were, hands down, the best food served by our cafeteria (not a difficult achievement).
So my spirits were lifted the other day when I came home and, inquiring about the pretzel on the kitchen table, was informed by my son that he bought at school, on Pretzel Day. It still exists!
Curiously, this pretzel was in a plastic wrapping, on which was printed the name of the baker, net weight, allergen information and bar code. Meddlesome lawyers have forced us to take precautions and disclose information that’s made it necessary for each individual soft pretzel to live its short life in plastic. Wasteful, and terrible for the environment, but at least we’ve found a way to navigate Pretzel Day into the 21st century.
I then committed a critical error, the one thing you must never do if you want to enjoy a packaged food product. I looked at the ingredients.
To make soft pretzels, it is necessary to have four ingredients: water, flour, yeast and salt. Variations may also include eggs, sugar and oil or butter. But this plastic-wrapped pretzel sitting on my kitchen table, this modern-day manifestation of Pretzel Day, this physical link between my childhood and today, this pretzel contained 27 ingredients!
Now, you and I might be hard-pressed to find 27 different things to put into a pretzel, but you and I are not in the food-manufacturing business. So Ethoxylated Diglyceride, Calcium Stearoyl Lactylate and Polysorbat 60 aren’t on our kitchen shelves.
Food manufacturers have their work cut out for them. They must manufacture food that looks, smells and tastes at least somewhat like real food, but can also last an unnaturally long time without getting stale, moldy, discolored or flavorless.
The problem with a real soft pretzel is it begins to age immediately upon its removal from the oven. From the moment it’s born, the clock is ticking.
If you don’t eat it by the time the sun goes down, you’re too late.
It might seem simple enough for an elementary school to contract with a local baker, who could deliver a few hundred pretzels early in the morning for the school to sell to its students at midday. But such relationships hardly exist anymore.
Most schools have contracted their food-service programs to big corporations, which then squeeze their suppliers to find the cheapest way to feed the kids. The food-service corporations contract with the food-manufacturing corporations, not to deliver a few hundred pretzels to one school, but to deliver tens of thousands of pretzels to be warehoused until being distributed to hundreds of schools.
Manufactured food crams the aisles of America’s supermarkets and the cupboards of America’s homes. You can guess the impact this wretched system has on our health and the planet.
And does anyone think this sort of food tastes better than the real deal?
Yes, we sell manufactured food at the Co-op, though most of it is at least all-natural and much of it is organic. And the Co-op offers a disproportionate amount of real food, particularly in our fresh departments (produce, bread, meat and seafood, dairy), as well as a large bulk department of grains, nuts, seeds, dried fruit and spices.
And you’ll be relieved to know that the soft pretzels sold at the Co-op, baked by Greenberg’s in Oreland and free of plastic wrapping, contain only flour, water, yeast, salt and soybean oil. They’re not the classic Philadelphia street pretzel, but with a good slathering of mustard they’re pretty tasty.
So it turns out Pretzel Day ain’t what it used to be. At least my son had the good sense not to eat the damned thing. But he’s pretty excited about the rumored upcoming Donut Day. I can only imagine what’s in those.
See you around the Co-op.