Going to a restaurant inside a shopping mall always feels weird to me. When I’m at the mall, I’m here to shop, not sit down for a big meal that’s going to make me tired and sweaty before I try on 47 different sweaters or brave the line at the Apple Store. I don’t want a feast, but I do deserve a little something for schlepping around for some new shoes and unnecessary trinkets. And so I head to Auntie Anne’s — or Wetzel’s, if that’s all that’s available — in search of a pretzel.
The origins of how the soft pretzel became retail’s default source of starch are somewhat muddy, but experts generally agree it was first made by monks in Europe, perhaps as early as 610 CE. There are a range of legends, some more improbable than others: One suggests that pretzels were invented by an Italian monk who folded them to resemble praying hands, while another insists the pastry was invented by bakers in Germany who were, for whatever reason, being held hostage, possibly by one of those extremely pushy salespeople found at skin care kiosks that are somehow at every mall. Regardless of what actually happened, now pretzels are a go-to snack, especially in places like Philadelphia, which boasts a rich pretzel culture that dates back more than a century. Unfortunately, I don’t live in Philly — or Europe, for that matter — which means treating myself to a soft pretzel almost exclusively coincides with a trip to the mall.
But the pretzel will remain my snack of choice at the mall because, simply, it is the ideal food for that specific experience. Sure, there’s pizza, but at the mall it’s typically mediocre. Dippin’ Dots aren’t exactly substantial enough fuel for a full shopping trip, and while a Mrs. Fields’s cookie is nice, it’s got a similar problem. Meanwhile, the pretzel is just carb-y enough to be satiating while not being so heavy that you’re going to need a nap after downing an entire doughy twist dunked into a tiny plastic cup of nacho cheese. It’s the right-size snack to perk you up after you’ve tried on a slew of disappointing shoes or to serve as a celebratory bite once you’ve found the perfect pair. In even the most stressful of shopping situations, a pretzel is only going to improve your attitude.
The mall pretzel’s main selling point, though, is its portability. Sometimes those wobbly tables outside of the pretzel stall are occupied or sticky after hosting a group of children who chowed down on cinnamon-sugar-coated dough. No matter: Your pretzel is conveniently served in a wax paper sleeve that fits inside a shopping bag or a generously sized coat pocket. You can eat it on the go, nibbling little bites as needed. It’s fine if it gets sorta cold or smushed as you shop — all that fake butter it’s doused in can fix virtually any problem.
If you want to be even more practical, you could spring for a cup of pretzel bites instead of the traditional twist. The cup will both protect your doughy bites from getting smashed while ensuring that butter and salt don’t accidentally end up all over the inside of your purse. You can also reasonably use it to transport your dipping sauces without too much mess — assuming that you keep a close eye on the open packet of mustard or the cup of sweet icing nestled alongside your doughy nuggets.
For me, shopping is often an exhausting and stressful experience. Even if I’m just browsing, being a good participant in capitalism by buying stuff I don’t need, I get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices found in an average shopping mall. There are just too many options. A pretzel cuts through that noise: always reliable, always consistent in taste, and pretty much always waiting for me along one of those fluorescent-lit corridors.
Pablo Espinosa Gutiérrez is a psychedelic illustrator with a lifelong dream of secretly living in a mall.
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein