Soft pretzels, a Philadelphia comfort food

You want mutard,” the Pretzel Man would ask as he took your nickel and broke off three little “figure eight” soft pretzels. “Yes,” I’d say, mouth watering for a topping that would make Philadelphia soft pretzels one of the great snacks of the Western World. 

He was a small man, old beyond his years, wearing rumpled clothes that seemed two sizes too big for him. Always wore long sleeve shirts — dark colors — and a crumpled hat with sweat stains at the band. 

His face was all gnarled up, like a flower with petals not ready to bloom. Kinda pinched together. Wrinkle upon wrinkle stretched across his dark and  tanned weathered face. 

Hands always appeared dirty. Particularly, the fingernails. Black gunk encrusted beneath the nails. They matched the black lines that branched out over old, calloused palms and across the inside of his wrists. 

He couldn’t pronounce the word, “mustard.” Would leave off the “s” sound. Not sure if it was due to some injury or to a native language he spoke which could not easily adapt to and match our English sounds. Kids are cruel. We’d joke about the way he spoke; mimic him when he’d pass by, pushing his pretzel cart, with us parroting the words: “you want mutard, you want mutard.” 

The cart was a wooden one with two wooden wheels and “push” handles at the front. Wooden legs protruded from the bottom of the cart extending down from the handles above. 

Glass encased the four sides of a “box-like” container. Looked like a big fish aquarium — only taller — with slats of wood attached to the four corners and the wooden top and bottom. 

3/per nickel for small pretzels

This enabled us to “see” the pretzels. More importantly, it helped our Pretzel Man keep his products fresh and “moist,” protected from the dry heat of summer. There’ ain’t nothing like a good soft pretzel with lots of wet chunks of course salt that blend into that unique pretzel dough flavor. The moist, the better! Fresher! Like they just rolled out the oven! 

There’s a number of foods Philadelphia has laid claim to: cheese steaks, scrapple, cream cheese, TastyKakes, Herr’s Potato Chips and hoagies. In my opinion, none compare to good old soft pretzels. 

Never learned the nationality of our Pretzel Man. He walked the length of Brewerytown, returning to places like 30th and Stiles streets, meandering from Girard to Thompson streets, and northwards to the St. Ludwig’s Catholic Church at 28th and Master streets. All places where he could find customers like us, willing to overlook what would become today’s standards of health and safety. 

The Pretzel Man has gone the way of the ice-man, the guy that delivered big “cinder block” sizes of ice with tongs to houses with “Ice boxes.” He was joined by the coal-delivery man, who poured little chunks of the black stuff into “coal bins” that stored the heat-producing resource in sections of cellars in our old row homes.  

But, what I wouldn’t give to see that Pretzel Man again, stopping his cart when he spies me and other neighborhood kids run up to him clutching nickels, dimes and quarters, in hopes of exchanging them for little pieces of good old-fashioned Philadelphia comfort food. 

God bless those German monks that accidentally discovered how to make pretzels a few years earlier! 

(Uh, that’s actually a few centuries earlier, Michael J. And the monks may have been Italian, not German. Enjoy your memories. though. Enjoy the pretzels. You never did let facts get in the way of a good story — WordPress mngt)

11 comments on “Soft pretzels, a Philadelphia comfort food

  1. Barbara Jean says:

    I’m 63 and bought pretzels from Tom as a child. They were three for a nickel. I saw him on Broad Street still selling pretzels when I was in my 20’s. He had to be in his 80’s or older. He must have been worth millions!

    Like

    • contoveros says:

      Pretzels . . . three for a nickel. They must have been the little ones. I believe the nuns charged us a full nickel for one of the larger ones that had thousands of rich, chunky salt clinging to ’em one bit after another. Now, you’d be lucky to buy one for fifty cents each!

      Thanks for your memories. It stirred some of my own . . .

      Like

  2. John Donaghy says:

    How i miss those pretzels with mustard, having grown up in Darby and often gone into Philly, almost always buying a pretzel with mustard. Hard to get them here in Honduras! My mouth is watering.

    Like

  3. Chris Rost says:

    If he is the same Pretzel Man I recall, I am 45 from South Philly. His name was Tom Muldoon. He said pent pent as he walked. As well he had a Charlie Brown doll on his cart and rang a bell……

    Like

    • Lisa Ward says:

      I am 48 and my grandparents were from South Philly I bought pretzels from Muldoon every weekend. I ran out when I heard that bell ring. I even remember the Charlie Brown doll in his cart. Those were the best pretzels!

      Like

  4. Helen T says:

    Me, too!
    Helen.

    Like

    • contoveros says:

      Helen T,

      We’d eat ’em for lunch in the courtroom. Judge included. Two soft pretzels and a soda. Then back to trial work carving out chunks of justice the old Philly way. It worked a great deal of the time. No matter what side of the Big Pretzel you put your mustard on.

      micahel j

      Like

  5. tobeme says:

    Thanks for sharing the memory. I love soft pretzels. It was funny over the years as I traveled when I was outside the Philly area if I did find a decent soft pretzel people thought is strange to put mustard on it. I never could understand eating a soft pretzel without “mutard”.

    Like

  6. Phil says:

    Oh, I wish I could find a pretzel cart right now!

    Like

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