It's funny how different seasons are associated with different foods. As a lifelong swimmer and swim coach, buying a soft pretzel from the swim meet snack bar has been one of my most consistent culinary joys. Since the end of the winter swim season, I've all but forgotten this delicious doughy pasttime; that is until recently, when I've been seeing the summer swim team kids practicing for their first meet.
For the rushed eater or the uninitiated swim fan, eating a pretzel may seem like an ordinary task that can be done in no particular order. Not so. To truly maximize the flavors lying beneath the crispy, brown, salty crust of a Philladelphia style soft pretzel, the snacker must take his time. Thanks to the slow, rhythmic pace of swimming and diving meets, I have learned this eating secret. And now having enjoyed it so much, I feel the responsibility to pass it on.
Step 1: Get The Nubs
For lack of a better term, sometimes a Philly soft pretzel will have nubs on the side, or leftover pieces from the pretzels it was next to in the row. With an eye for symmetry, one must appreciate the unique form of the Philly pretzel, which differs from other kinds. Any true pretzel crafted in the Philly area is elongated into an oblong shape, making it thicker and softer than other soft pretzels. Sold in conjoined rows, a buyer is often asked to break his own pretzel from a warm batch fresh from the bakery. Any true connoiseur of the pretzel knows that it is not uncommon to break off your pretzel and "accidentally" get a few nubs from its neighbor. These stolen bits should be consumed immediately. First, they come with the added flavor of a guilty secret. And second, eating the evidence quickly removes any tangible suspicion the snackers in line behind you may harbor against you.
Step 2: Offer The Sides
Many a time I have found myself sitting poolside, ready to dig into a newly bought soft pretzel, when a mooching swimmer or fan will plop down next to me with hungry eyes fixed on my pretzel. Of course, it's common courtesy to offer a piece, but that doesn't mean you have to give away the best parts of the delicious baked good. In my experience, it's best to offer the long sides of the pretzel. Since the most taste resides in the curves, give the straight-aways to pacify any freeloaders.
Step 3: Savor The Bends
While they are short on dough, the bends at the ends of the pretzel are big on crispy flavor. Just take a look at the deeper shade of golden brown apparent at the apexes of the pretzel. The texture here is wonderful, but shouldn't be rushed into. Work your way up one side of the pretzel, getting a taste for the coarse sprinkles of salt along the way. Then take a drink to cleanse your pallette, enjoy the oven-toasted smokiness and crunch at the bend, and repeat until you reach the other end.
Step 4: Finish With The Knot
Under no circumstances should you give away the knot of the pretzel! The knot is hands down a pretzel's treasure trove of taste. Combining all of the pretzel's best flavors, the knot has an abundance of dough coupled with the crisp twists and turns of crust. Personally, I believe the saltier the pretzel, the better. I've seen some brush extra salt off, but I like saving every last bit. Since it is so thick and doughy, the knot is perfect for catching the final morsels of whatever pretzel topping you like best. Tear the knot open and use it to dab up any salt or mustard remnants that remain on your napkin. Wash it all down with a gatorade or a fountain soda, and know that you have saved the best for last.
Unfortunately, there are no more parts of the pretzel left to eat, but at least you can feel satisfied that you correctly enjoyed this Philly original. But wait! As often does happen, the swim meet might be running a little late tonight. And at so small a price for such a large flavor, it couldn't be wrong to get another pretzel, could it? Nah, it's summer time, so treat yourself to a second helping.