Taking a tasty tour of pretzel bakeries in Lancaster and York, Pa.

By James F. Lee
Friday, April 16, 2010; WE19

At Martin's Pretzel Bakery in Akron, Pa., I stand behind a large picture window and watch as Fannie King, a young Amish woman in a beautiful purple dress, takes a lump of dough in her hand, rolls it into a 12-inch length and, in the bat of an eye, twists it into a perfectly formed pretzel.

King is one of about a dozen Amish and Mennonite women working at the twisting table at Martin's, a one-room business that the Martin family has run in this Lancaster County town since the 1930s. Clarence Martin, King's boss, says that a skilled twister can twist about 10 pretzels a minute. That means King and her co-workers can produce more than 1,200 pounds of pretzels a day. Pretty impressive.

I'm on my own private pretzel tour of Lancaster and York counties, the epicenter of the pretzel industry in Pennsylvania, a leading producer of the crunchy goodies. On an early Monday morning, I'm the only person visiting Martin's, and Clarence Martin gives me a tour. He's a bundle of energy covered in flour dust, constantly stopping to check machinery or have a word with a worker as we walk to the back of the bakery.

He shows me the mixing machine churning a 150-pound batch of dough made from flour, water, salt, yeast and sourdough. After it's mixed, one of the workers will run a thick roll of it through a hand-cranked cutter, which spits out bulletlike pieces. The ladies will work their twisting magic on these. Then the pretzels will be placed on racks to rise, before being dipped in boiling water and caustic soda.

After that, the pretzels are ready for baking. Over at the oven, a baker places batches on a long-handled flat paddle called a peel, salts them and slides them into the oven. The pretzels bake for 10 minutes at 550 degrees. Then they're put in a drying oven, where they bake for an hour at 170 degrees so the insides get hard and crunchy, but the outsides don't burn.

Perhaps sensing my hunger, one of the ladies reaches into the drying oven and hands me a pretzel. I take a bite, experiencing the delightful crunch of the freshest pretzel I've ever eaten.

The day before, I'd learned the art of pretzel-twisting myself in the nearby town of Lititz, at the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery. Started in 1861, Sturgis claims to be the oldest pretzel maker in the country; 149 years later, the Sturgis family still runs it.

Guide John Comerford lined up our tour group on each side of a twisting table, where we each got a lump of dough. Following his instructions, we rolled it into a 12-inch length (mine was more like 16) and twisted. First you form a U shape, then cross the two ends over each other, twist and press the ends to the bottom of the pretzel. Voila! The perfect shape. Well, perhaps not perfect -- mine looked like a piece of string somebody had dropped on the floor. Many of my younger "classmates" clearly were more adept than I. But we each received a certificate of completion.

Family ownership is the hallmark of another small pretzel maker I visited, Hammond Pretzel Bakery in Lancaster. In 1931, out-of-work William Lichty started this business with his grandfather William Hammond in a garage on residential South West End Avenue. The business is still there, amid tidy brick houses.

Karen Achtermann, Hammond's vice president and the fifth generation of the family in the business, said the human touch is essential to the quality of the company's product. Once they tried twisting the dough with a machine, but the taste and texture weren't the same. They've stuck to hand rolling ever since.

That wasn't the case at my next stop, Snyder's of Hanover, a giant in the pretzel and snack-food industry located in the small York County town of Hanover. Here, a winding corridor with viewing windows ran the length of the company's sprawling facility, giving a bird's-eye view of the operations on the floor below. My tour guide, Pat Martin, told me that at full capacity, the plant's seven pretzel ovens can produce 14 tons of pretzels every two hours, more than Martin's, for instance, can produce in a day.

An endless stream of pretzels moves by conveyor from the baking ovens to the dryer ovens and then on to the bagging machines. Instead of hand-twisting, the dough is spread into pretzel-shaped molds, 40 to a sheet, before baking. In the warehouse, a giant machine picks up boxes of pretzels as they emerge into the warehouse and places them on palettes to be loaded onto trucks for shipment around the globe.

The contrast in size and operation between this factory and the other places I visited was marked. But some things remain the same. As Pat Martin proudly pointed out, "Snyder's is still family-owned since its founding in 1909."

Big or small, in Pennsylvania, pretzel-making is a family affair.

Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University.

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