Today, pretzels are a humble food. Simply, salty, and greasy, they are a fixture at ball parks and airports across America.
But back in the day—like way back in the day, before baseball—pretzels were the food of royalty. By all accounts, the first pretzel goes all the way back to the 6th century, either to France, Italy, or Germany.
And while the country of origin remains unclear, the first image of the pretzel makes it pretty clear that it was a important food, reserved for the fanciest and most lavish of parties.
Just check out this wild scene from the Hortus deliciarum. Look at how Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus are presiding over this v v lit Biblical party; their table is filled with fish, fancy cutlery, and a solitary, salty, badass pretzel.
The Hortus deliciarum is an illustrated encyclopedia (the first to be compiled by a woman) from the 12th century containing the first known depiction of the pretzel. It gives us a glimpse into the cultural weight once occupied by everyone's favorite baseball food.
Its coveted place next to fish in this religious painting is no accident. The folds are supposedly meant to symbolize hands in prayer, and the three holes are the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—it was basically the most Christian food that humans could conceive of. Apparently, they were even hidden from children in an early incarnation of the Easter egg hunt.
But pretzels had a more earthly significance as well; they were the emblem for baker's guilds across Europe for centuries and their iconic loops provided the perfect method for bakers to store and handle large quantities with their baker sticks.
According to Danielle Joyner, author of the book Painting the Hortus deliciarum: Medieval Women, Wisdom, and Time, it's not surprising that the pretzel was featured so prominently in the Hortus. "The other details of the banquet goodies and tools, such as the fish, the knives and spoons but lack of forks, are all representative of 12th century practices, so the pretzel may be as well," Joyner recently told Atlas Obscura.
So next time you're at a baseball game or a movie theater, say a little prayer for the diligent compilers of Medieval encyclopedias who can help us better understand a food that so often gets written off as low-brow.