It is thought that pretzels originally spread from Italy to neighboring countries before becoming popular across Europe. But, according to J.H. Nannings in his book Brood- en gebaksvormen en hunne beteekenis in de folklore (Schiedam, Interbook International, 1974), the cookies could also possibly be a descendent of ancient sacrificial breads, which symbolized offerings of jewellery (bracelets, arm bands or necklaces) or braided hair, and were seen as burial gifts to the dead. These twisted breads were also consumed during funeral- and fasting periods. Nowadays, this cookie is enjoyed worldwide, and its distinctive shape is often used as a decorative motif in bakers' shop windows.
According to Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra in her book Het Nederlands Bakboek (Utrecht/Antwerpen, Kosmos, 2012) there used to be many varieties of Dutch pretzels - such as a Choux pastry version that was offered to funeral guests in some parts of Friesland - but many of these versions have disappeared over time. A recipe from the 18th century describes a dough made from flour, egg yolks, a little butter, ground coriander and rosewater, which was first baked in the oven, and then dried to create a crunchy cookie.
Until the 20th century, almost all pretzels were hard or crunchy, hence the name, which is derived from crakelin, which was borrowed from the French craquelin ('crispy cake') in around the 13th century. In Dutch, kraken means 'to crack'.
Use in Dutch folklore and art:
Pretzels can often be admired in old paintings, sometimes as part of a still life. In portraits of children they are said to portray innocence. According to art experts their form is symbolic for two hands folded in prayer. The pretzel takes on a more active role in some paintings, which show two people, each with a finger in one of the ends, pull at the pretzel to see who can get the biggest piece. Pieter Breughel The Elder's famous Netherlandish Proverbs painting is one example. The proverb se trecken om’t lanxte eind (translates roughly as 'pulling for the longest end') is illustrated through such a pretzel tug-of-war.
Bake your own:
Most Dutch bakery shops sell mechanically cut pastry pretzels nowadays, but there are still a few bakers who roll yeast dough pretzels by hand. This type of pretzel comes in both crispy and soft forms. The long, slender variety of soft pretzel is known as magere mannen ('lean men').