"You can nibble, but save a wee piece because that's your ticket." The tickets are pretzels, good for a tour of the oldest pretzel factory in the country -- a mom-and-pop-and-son operation in an historic stone house in Lititz, Pennsylvania.

Here we learn the ancient art of pretzel-twisting. "Pretzels go back to the year 610," says our guide, Marie, who wears a long chintz dress and leads us to a twisting table. There are three adults on the tour and five kids, one so little that Marie has to bring her a metal pretzel barrel to stand on.

In another metal barrel is the pretzel dough, and while we wait for it to become just tacky enough to twist, Marie tells us everything we never knew about pretzels. It seems that an anonymous monk in either France or Italy didn't like to see scraps of dough thrown away from the monastery kitchen. He thought and prayed until he found a use for them. In fact, the prayers gave him the idea, says Marie, crossing her arms, pretzel-fashion, across her chest and placing her hands on opposite shoulders.

"The pretzel shape comes from the motions we make in prayer, putting our hands to our shoulders for the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit," she explains. "The monk called them pretiolas , which means 'small rewards' and put colored sugar on them and gave them to the children as rewards for things well done."

When pretiolas crossed the Alps into Germany, they changed not only their name but their flavor.

"The Germans like beer, so they put salt on their pretzels instead of colored sugar," says Marie.

How pretzels made their way to Lititz is another story. According to Marie, in the 1850s a hobo passed through the town and asked a baker for a free meal. In return, the tramp gave the baker a recipe for German pretzels. The baker wasn't interested but his enterprising apprentice, Julius Sturgis, saved the recipe and, in 1861, started America's first pretzel backery. Sturgis lived over the bakery with his wife and 14 kids, some of whom worked as apprentice twisters.

Now we are the apprentice twisters, Marie says, handing each of us a marshmallow-sized hunk of dough. Grubby hands, she assures a mother, are all right.

"This dough doesn't get baked," she explains. "It gets put back for the next tour . . .It's basic bread dough, with malt added for sweetness. Roll it out like a pencil."

Even the smallest kids, experienced in Play-Doh, get the idea, although the pencil shapes aren't perfect. The pencil shapes are made into U-shapes and the ends crossed over.

"Next we have to put in what every authentic pretzel must have," instructs Marie.

"A hole?" guesses a child.

"No, a twist," she says, making a turn in the dough and bringing the ends back to the body of the pretzel. Some of their pretzels look lopsided, but never mind. We all get an official diploma.

"Now we have machinery that does what we just did, but does it faster," says Marie, leading us to a room where a pretzel-tying machine is twisting a pretzel a second. "The machine turns out 60 pretzels a minute. A fast human twister can only twist 20 or 25 a minute."

The machine, called a pretzel-tying unit, doesn't work alone, however. Clyde Tshudy, whose grandmother was Julius Sturgis's cousin and who bought the bakery about 10 years ago, and his wife, Barbara, are in constant attendance, feeding the machine its dough and correcting its mistakes. c

"About 20 percent of our pretzels are still handmade, but this machine turns out 40,000 in a 10-hour day," says Tshudy, wheeling in a large barrel of freshly-made dough. "The dough is extruded about the size of a marshmellow between these two belts. They act like your two hands just did and roll the dough pencil thin. It comes out here and the twisting machine winds it around two disks and drops each pretzel, upside down, on this other belt."

The belt moves slowly, giving the dough a chance to rise before it is sprayed with a baking soda solution, which assures that the finished pretzels will be brown and shiny. While the unbaked pretzels are still moist, salt drops on them. Then the belt carries them into the upper over, where they're baked in 10 minutes. Baked but still soft, the pretzels drop onto another belt that moves at snail's pace through the lower oven for a three-hour drying at 200 degrees f. That's what makes the pretzel crispy.

"The total time is three hours and 20 minutes, from dough to pretzels," says Tshudy.

About a thousand soft pretzels -- which have only about a three-hour shelf life -- are also turned out every day, and these are made by hand and baked in the old brick ovens, as Barbara Tshudy demonstrates in another part of the bakery.

"The oven is gas-fired now," she says. "We used to use coal, but people minded the smell."

On the twisting board, made up of narow stips of wood with spaces between each strip, she quickly twists half a dozen large pretzels.

"With a board like this, you never have to add flour, because there's air underneath," explains Mrs. Tshudy. "If you add flour, the taste is different -- not good."

Pretzels are placed in a strainer and dipped in the boiling baking soda solution, then sprinkled with coarse salt and placed in the old-fashioned oven. After six minutes at 550 degrees F., they're done.

"They're good when they're fresh out of the oven," says the cook, inviting all of us to try a hot pretzel, with or without mustard.

As we eat, and buy some hard pretzels to take home, Barbary Tshudy talks about the pretzel business:

"It's a lot of fun, but it's hard work, too. My husband and I get here at 7 every morning to turn on the ovens. We have eight employes and we work six days a week, often till 8 at night. The pretzels are packed by hand. I just looked at a packing machine, but it cost $20,000, and we just couldn't swing it. Besides, it couldn't weed out the imperfect pretzels. And we wouldn't be able to use cellophane bags with paper labels. We'd have to use plastic bags. We'd be just like everybody else.

"But," she adds with grudging admiration, "you should see that little dickens pack pretzels."