Ask any New Yorker and they’ll probably tell you that Penn Station (tied with Port Authority) is the worst place in the city. Cramped and lit with piss-hued fluorescent bulbs, it’s packed with anxious commuters trying to get to New Jersey or Long Island. The food options are mostly newsstand snacks, a TGI Fridays renowned for its bad service, or the questionable “Freight Car of Nachos” at Kabooz’s. But somehow I find myself missing Penn Station In These Times. Because it’s only in its grimy depths that I can reliably find Auntie Anne’s.
Auntie Anne’s makes it its business to be in places that you don’t want to be — like the old Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport or the most depressing section of your local malls. Its Wikipedia page describes its 1,500 locations as thriving in “non-traditional retail spaces.” The brand is a major presence in shopping malls, but also in train stations, airports, rest stops, and Walmarts. These are places that exist out of necessity, not joy; the whole point of a rest stop is to not stay for long, and no one goes to a train station just to chill. But Auntie Anne’s is almost decadent enough to make you want to head to LaGuardia or Penn Station solely for the pretzel. It’s a reward when you’re stuck somewhere shitty with drop-ceilings and security checks.
The horny butter smell of the Auntie Anne’s pretzel counter is a hundred times more enticing than Subway bread smell, the type of thing that triggers hunger pangs where one may not have noticed hunger before. There are only a few basic products — standard-size pretzels, pretzel bites, and pretzel dogs — but the toppings and dips result in seemingly endless combinations. You can get a classic pretzel with honey mustard, or a bucket of cinnamon sugar pretzel bites with a sweet glaze, though it’s debatable whether those even count as pretzels anymore. The bread is impossibly soft, with brioche-like sweetness, though the butter usually forms a bit of a salty crunch where it’s been baked. Whatever you get is sure to leave a greasy residue all over your fingers, but also can either be carried in one hand, or in a bucket that can keep you company on your travels.
Choosing the right snack for travel is a difficult endeavor. It needs to be not so heavy that you worry for your gastrointestinal fortitude on a long-haul flight, but still substantial enough that, were the snack options on your train, or plane, or in your glove compartment totally inadequate, you’ll make it to your destination without snapping. A Big Mac is a meal. A granola bar is basically nothing. And while there are donuts and fries and smoothies, those are too common to feel special. The slight rarity and specificity of Auntie Anne’s make it easy to fetishize, like getting Dippin’ Dots at the amusement park, or a corn dog at the state fair.
Now imagine you’re in an airport at the bad terminal, the one you know hasn’t been renovated in 40 years, with stained carpets and no readily accessible outlets. There’s no shiny new Shake Shack or even a Starbucks. There’s a coffee counter at the Hudson News, along with pre-packaged egg salad sandwiches and a basket of red delicious apples that have been touched by approximately a million hands. But take a deep breath. Do you smell that? The scent that reminds you things aren’t great, but they will be fine. It’s Auntie Anne’s, not just cheap and filling, but actively enticing. In a place where you’re just looking for something to fill your stomach, what a luxury to eat something you actually crave.
Of course now, with interstate travel being mostly inaccessible and also a little shameful, Auntie Anne’s has taken on even more allure for me. It’s not just that I want a salty, buttery, impossibly soft piece of bread. It’s that I want to be somewhere where Auntie Anne’s is available, because that means I’m going somewhere else. Annie’s means I need to catch the 4:45 to Trenton. Annie’s means I’m waiting for my boarding number to be called so I can visit my niece and nephew in Florida.
I hope it stays that way. I don’t want Auntie Anne’s to be my go-to comfort food, available whenever I’m sad or stressed. I have no interest in their at-home kits. Instead, the real comfort will be, god help me, standing in Penn Station again, chewing on a sweet, golden pretzel, waiting to run to my train with melted butter coating my hand.