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Keep on Noshin': Pennsylvania's Junk Food Trail

By Ellen Perlman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

You'd think the pretzel road would be a little more twisty. But no, the Pennsylvania highways that link so many snack-food factories -- the places that feed the mid-Atlantic's craving for pretzels, potato chips and candy -- are mostly on the straight side. And they're very tidy, not littered with the plastic bags, foil wrappers and half-sucked lollipops you might expect along the Sweet 'n Salty Trail, a string of food-factory tours clustered in and around Lancaster County, Pa.

Or you might call it the High-Carb Expressway, as a trip here is a yummy exercise in between-meal noshing: warm, soft, salted pretzels straight from a brick oven; chocolate Wilbur Buds (a squatter version of the Hershey's Kiss); penuche fudge; chocolate toffee crunch; peanut-butter cups nestled in a rich cookie coating. Those are some of the locally made diet busters that my niece, Amanda, and I consumed on an overnight factory-hopping binge that took us from Lititz to Lancaster to Intercourse and back.

Who better to take along on an eating escapade than a snack-food addict like Amanda, 16, who doesn't count calories or cholesterol and for whom "moderation" is simply an SAT word? Our goal was to pack in as much snacking as possible while seeing how some of our favorite indulgences are born. We skipped massive Hershey, choosing to travel the road less eaten on.

Pretzels were a mainstay. This twisted treat is to Pennsylvania what pizza is to New York or coffee to Seattle. The big bakeries, Herr's and Utz, offer factory tours only on weekdays, but some of the smaller names are open weekends. Inside the bright and modern Intercourse Pretzel Factory, we watched women rolling out dough, dropping it into hot water, salting the pretzels then putting them on trays into the large oven. In the summer, you can roll your own pretzel.

Entering the Sturgis Pretzel House in Lititz, on the other hand, was like leaving the 21st century and going into Old Mother Hubbard's cupboard, if Ma Hubbard had just stocked up for a Super Bowl party. There was a lot of snack food in the little 1861 stone house, with its creaky wood floors, small rooms and original ovens tucked into a brick wall. Julius Sturgis, we were told, established the first pretzel bakery in the "New World" in 1861, and we were in it.

We did craft our own pretzels there, on an old wood table. You roll out a log, shape it into a U, cross the two arms, twist the dough, pull the arms down and mush them into the round part, etc. But we weren't allowed to actually bake or eat our own pretzels -- health codes.

Less than a mile away, at the Wilbur Chocolate Co. and Candy Americana Museum, the air is filled with the rich, wonderful smell of chocolate. Inside, we watched a woman tend the huge chocolate pot. She coated pretzels with the dark and dreamy stuff one by one, tapping each several times to knock the excess chocolate back into the pot.

The museum is filled with chocolate tins, molds and boxes, copper kettles and marble slabs from decades gone by. I racked up a $20 bill buying chocolate-covered everything, including those sublime Wilbur Buds.

There are plenty of other chocolate, pretzel and hard-candy ops in this area, but we were getting full. (I was also distraught that none of the many potato chip factories was open for tours on weekends; I've yet to eat a warm-from-the-kettle potato chip.) We barely had enough room for the $20 chocolate fondue for two at Lititz's Cafe Chocolate.

Out came a big white bowl filled with seriously dark chocolate (60 percent cocoa) and a platter of strawberries, kiwi, banana, grapes, pineapple, marshmallows, pizzelle cookies, pretzels. It took half an hour of serious dip-and-chew work to drain the bowl and assume a major chocolate coma.

We sprawled amid black-and-white checkered floor tiles, shelves of travel books and comfy chairs. I thought of the coming drive home and, comfortingly, of the bag of pretzels in the back seat.

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