Pretzels in cookies, gluten-free versions and even pretzel bars at wedding receptions might be the current crazes but this food favorite started out as something else altogether. Its storied past is religious and includes many monks, from those who originated the shape to reward students to heroic pretzel bakers who helped save Vienna from Ottoman Empire invaders. You don’t have to belong to a church to eat these crunchy or soft twists or enjoy the unexpected tale of pretzel evolution, though. Just grab some mustard and some twists, sticks or rods and get ready for an inspiring tale of an everyman food.

The first monk to create pretzels

While big soft pretzels are usually considered more of a hearty German or Pennsylvania Dutch treat, they probably originated in Italy or maybe Southern France. To be honest, the legend of the monk creating pretzels has a few variations. But most folks believe that the earliest recognizable forms of the food were designed in about 610 A.D. by a monk intent on rewarding his students. He shaped bread dough in little bits that looked a little like children with their arms folded in prayer. The students got to eat them as snacks when they did good and a fad was born. The religious connection may have also involved the three holes in the traditional shape. Many believers of the day and even into modern times consider them representative of the Holy Trinity of the Christian church, God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Spirit.

There are other possible explanations for the shape, of course. For one, the loops on the big soft pretzels made them easy for old-school bakers to carry around on poles. That way, a baker could carry fresh bread to market or customers in outlying areas without involving an extra person. They’d just tip the bread right off the end of the pole and into a customer’s waiting hands. Modern-day music and Brewfest fans have adopted this principle. They thread small traditionally-shaped crispy pretzels on necklaces that attendees can wear and snack on, while still having their hands free for two mugs of beer.

Pretzels become a Lenten tradition

Scholars also debate whether pretzels were invented and then became a desirable food to have on hand for Lent, or were invented solely so Catholics could eat them during the period of intermittent fasting before Easter. There’s no denying that pretzels would be a great option for the prohibitive Lenten noshing. Back in the day, meat, dairy, and eggs were forbidden to a believer in the days leading up to Easter. Pretzels of the time were made mostly of flour, salt and water with lye for leavening. The monks or bakers would form them into the loosely-knotted praying hands shape, boil them briefly and then bake them. Some soft pretzels get an egg wash ahead of baking, but not during old-time Lent.

Some storytellers go a little farther with this holiday legend. They claim pretzels were even hidden on Easter morning in those long-ago times, but everyone knows the Easter bunny hides eggs. Perhaps these storytellers had a little too much of the favorite pretzel accompaniment and decided to make up a whopper? A lot of the history of the pretzel is like that, though: Charming, but not entirely believable. There is a documented portrayal of a pretzel in the 1111 A.D. baker’s guild crest, however. It’s also memorialized in Hortus Deliciarum, an encyclopedia of sorts from Herrad of Landsberg. She was not a monk, but a nun.

Nowadays, pretzel-making is less spiritual and more for fun. While modern Trappist monks still brew artisanal beer that pairs quite nicely with pretzels, the twists themselves are a huge industry. In the U.S. alone, pretzels tally up around $550 million each year. The overall salty snacks market is predicted to grow almost $5 billion between 2017 and 2022,, from $24 billion to $29 billion, which is kind of surprising given all those ketogenic diets that prohibit carbs.

Viennese pretzel baker heroes

No modern-day pretzel maker (and most of them are in Pennsylvania) can lay claim to saving a society. But the monks who baked pretzels in the 16th century were humble war heroes. When Turkish soldiers tunneled beneath Vienna as part of an attempt to grow the Ottoman Empire brand, monks came to the rescue. Seems the burrowing soldiers were getting into an attack position in the early hours, which was the same time the monks rose to start making the pretzels. Several of the bakers heard the commotion above the monastery’s basement and alerted the city’s military. They’re credited with saving many lives and earned a coat of arms from the grateful Austrian emperor, to boot.

Love me some pretzels

About the time of the 17th century, that shape took on an extra meaning. The loops became synonymous with love. Swiss myth (not to be confused with the instant drink mix) says royalty sealed their union with pretzels. This may explain why we use the phrase “tying the knot” to this day. (It could also be another byproduct of the premier storytelling that accompanies beer and pretzels.)

In a loosely unrelated but still amusing anecdote, the hat that Princess Beatrice wore to the Royal Wedding of Kate Middleton and her prince was shaped like a pretzel. But don’t fret that the daughter of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson felt awkward when this was pointed out. In fact, a Facebook fan page devoted just to that hat gained at least 79,000 likes. Which only proves something we all kind of know. When something emerges in a pretzel shape, even without a beer or mustard, we’re gonna love it.