Small Differences: Pretzels

Pennsylvania is obsessed with pretzels.  

Perhaps all of America is but I feel confident in stating that pretzels are a big thing here in PA.  A really very big thing.  A cornerstone of Pennsylvanian culture indeed.  Pretzels originated in Europe, probably in Medieval monasteries, and according to good old wikipedia the distinctive form of the pretzel has often been used as a symbol of a bakery in Germany.  Nevertheless, despite their Old World origins, pretzels were not a big deal in Scotland.  We had ready access to the tiny hard ones that come in a bag but the baked soft pretzels were hard to come by.  Mr Pict would arrive home triumphant with pretzels in hand for the kids, as proud as any neanderthal father dragging home a side of mammoth from the hunt.  The Pict menfolk love pretzels.  I loathe the hard ones and feel very meh about the soft ones.

Pretzels emigrated to America with the Amish and Mennonites fleeing Switzerland and Germany so I guess it is the whole Pennsylvania Dutch thing that contributes to pretzels being so special here in PA.  Mr Pict is descended from a family of Mennonites who first settled in Pennsylvania so perhaps he and the boys are genetically predisposed to love them.  According to Wikipedia (again, because I cannot be bothered conducting in-depth research) “[t]he average Philadelphian today consumes about twelve times as many pretzels as the national average”.  They really are massively popular here, even statistically it seems.

My kids, who have always liked pretzels well enough, have been indoctrinated into loving pretzels.  They are not quite at fanatical levels of adoration yet but they love that the school has pretzel days every few weeks where they each get a soft pretzel to snack on, they love that bakeries sell varieties of pretzels they had never even imagined before we emigrated here and they love that pretzels are sold as street food here or at events in the way burgers and chips (as in fries) would have been in Britain.

Today I was on a field trip with my preschooler.  The kids were instructed to “sit like pretzels”.  Six months ago that would have meant nothing to my 4 year old.  No reference point.  Zero understanding.  Blank.  But today he tucked his legs under him into the lotus position without even pondering it.  Back in Scotland we used to instruct the boys to adopt lotus position by instructing them to put their “legs in a basket”.  I guess it is pretzel position from now on.  Indoctrination.  My kids are now officially part of the Pretzel Cult.

Small Differences: Eggs

We consume a lot of eggs in this house.  They are a great option for a quick but nutritious meal, however they are cooked.  We also use them in baking a lot, from the humble pancake to celebration cakes.  For some time, therefore, I have been pondering the fact that eggs here are uniformly white.  They have a chalky white look to them, opaque rather than a glowing alabaster that some eggs have, and the shells are thin and brittle.  Sure, they look all nice in a box with their uniform complexion but the nature of the shell means they fracture too easily and are, as such, a bit of a pain to use.  I am not sure whether this is to do with the breed of chickens being farmed here (do white chickens lay white eggs?) or if they have been selectively bred more generally so that chickens produce white eggs only.  It’s great for dying eggs for Easter, I am sure, but I am unclear as to what other reasons there may be for these peely-wally eggs to be preferential.

Perhaps it is not the case across the whole of Pennsylvania or the United States but here my local supermarkets do not stock any free range eggs – or at least none of the cartons I see clearly promote the fact that they are laid by free range hens.  That represented a bit of a culture shock to me since I have been buying free range eggs for my entire adult life and, indeed, I cannot even remember the last time I saw a batch of battery eggs for sale in Britain.  Battery farms still exist in Britain for the production of chickens for the meat market but I assume purchasing power led the way some time ago for farmers to produce free range eggs – at least for the domestic rather than food processing market.  I can absolutely tell the difference too: with some of the eggs I have bought here, the albumen spits a lot when being fried because of the water content and the yolk is thinner rather than thick, sticky and golden.

Definitely farming and processing practices differ between Britain and America when it comes to egg production.  Here, eggs are kept in the refrigerated section of the supermarket whereas back home in Scotland I would pluck them off open shelves.  What’s annoying to me personally about that is that it means I have to then store the eggs in the fridge too which was not the case in Scotland because the uniform temperature required to store them was just room temperature.  Indeed, it is actually an EU regulation that requires this because fluctuations in temperature – such as happens when refrigerated eggs are transported in a car and warm up just to be plopped back in a fridge – promote the growth of bacteria.  This becomes critical because, unlike British hens, most American hens are not vaccinated against salmonella, hence the need for refrigeration.  As a bit of an aside, American eggs are also washed and dried before they are packed for sale.  This is done for hygiene purposes.  The same motive is true in the European Union but, instead of washing and drying them, there the edict is that they should be left as they are since the assumption is that farmers should be operating at a high standard of cleanliness anyway and the natural cuticle that layers an egg when it is laid is believed to create an effective barrier between the environment and the interior of the shell.  It was not unusual, therefore, to open a box of free range eggs in Scotland and find tiny feathers or bits of chicken poop still stuck to the eggs.  I would simply wash them thoroughly just prior to cracking them.

So my note to self is that I need to educate myself as to American food labelling so that I can perhaps identify some free range, humanely reared and maybe even organic chicken eggs in the supermarket so that I can ensure I am buying the best possible eggs.  Even if they are all a boringly uniform white.  It is all these little things – the way I could instantly identify food labelling in Scotland but don’t have the foggiest here – that remind me of my “fresh immigrant” status.  I have so much to learn, so much, if even buying a humble egg can flummox me.