Respectable Pretzels: How Snacking Became Okay in America

In the final stretch of the work day, between lunch and dinner, it’s hard to imagine not having something small to munch on. The body’s energy dips so those extra calories help power through the day. While it’s considered totally normal today, in 18th and 19th century America, snacking was viewed with some suspicion.The first widespread snack food in America came via slaveships: Peanuts. From Southern plantations, they spread north through Union Soldiers. Eventually they became a mainstay with beer at baseball games

“…and became a symbol of the cheap and often rowdy upper balconies, dubbed “peanut galleries,” in vaudeville theaters. Associations with vaudeville, sports, and the working class didn’t lend the legume a very prestigious image, nor did its inherently messy nature. Because peanuts only came in shells, one could identify a peanut-lover by the sound of shell-scrunching and the typical trail of peanut jackets left in his wake.”

Popcorn became popular in the 19th century. While a tasty snack and not as dirtying as peanuts, popcorn wasn’t sold in theaters till decades later.

Peanuts and popcorn also bore the stigma of being sold by street vendors of questionable hygiene. Sometimes referred to as “squatters,” these vendors were known for roaming sidewalks and parks as well as swarming early tourist sites such as Niagara Falls. The shrill of the peanut vendor’s steam whistle drew the ire of many a quiet neighborhood, and the fare itself, often sold uncovered and dust-exposed, was prone to draw the public’s suspicion.

Pretzel Cart: Lunch hour NYC Exhibit

Snacking began to gain acceptance with the start of mass production in the 1860s. Prior to this time, pretzels were often sold uncovered by immigrants of “foreign” places like Germany. An association with saloons didn’t help. Pretzels and beer were often sold in conjunction. To break this “negative” association pretzel makers began advertising them as “healthy and mineral rich.” They were produced in kid friendly forms like half-moons and letters. The pretzels were now sealed in cellophane rather than open crates. See also previous post, Lunch Hour NYC.

Companies collaborated to design pairings, the most successful of which was pretzels and mustard; pretzels and ice cream was a hit in the 1930s. Companies also promoted recipes for pretzel soup (touted as a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition) and pretzel-crumb pie crust (perfect with a lemon meringue filling). Eventually pretzels even made their way into salad dressings, casseroles and Jell-O. Source: Wall Street Journal

In short, marketing and better packaging changed the reputation of snacking from “lower class “ and “unhygienic” to acceptable. When time allows one of my favorite snacks to make is a variation of the potato pancake. I eat packaged goods like tortilla chips, and Indian crunchies most often and usually a piece of fruit. What are some of your regular snacks, packaged or not?

2 comments on “Respectable Pretzels: How Snacking Became Okay in America

  1. Greek yogurt with sea salt and pepper. With a spoon or with kevli rye crackers.

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