The Way of All Flesh: Pretzel Rolls

I love food and I love to read. As a result, each month, I combine these two interests in a post about food from literature. I'll mostly be sticking with books from classic literature, so you're likely to know the storylines anyway, but just in case you don't: warning: there may be spoilers ahead.


The calendar may say it's spring, but we got hit with snow this week. Fortunately, most of it has melted, but I've been yearning for spring for so long that this cold, gray weather is making me grumpy. So what perfect timing to introduce a book that takes place in a cold, gray world: Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh.
Having previously published some essays and the then-popular Erewhon, Butler was already an established author when he began to write The Way of All Flesh in the 1870s. The book spans four generations of the men in the Pontifex family, and is semi-autobiographical; the Pontifexes are basically the Butlers. It was for this reason that Butler did not want publish until after his death; he knew that his frank and brutal depictions of the Pontifex family, with their faults, foibles, and petty piousness would reflect badly on the family members who survived him. (The book was published posthumously in 1903.)

There are few Pontifexes who escape the narrative unscathed--not just by the narrative, but by their surroundings. The Way of All Flesh is a harsh invective against Victorian society and morality, showing the hypocrisy and cruelty in the supposedly refined, well-mannered middle class, and it shows us all of this through its characters. The earliest Pontifex, “Old Mr. Pontifex,” is a poor but happy renaissance man, content with his simple life. It is the advancement into the Victorian era and into enough money to make them middle class that turns the Pontifex family sour. Each generation takes out its unhappiness on the next, in a vicious cycle of cruelty and repression. Butler attacks middle-class Victorian family structures and religious beliefs and shows that the only way to free oneself from this cycle is by completely cutting off communication with those who participate in it. The book has a bit of a happy ending, but none of it is especially cheerful.

Guys, I have to confess: I did not make the food item I'll be talking about in relation to the book this week; I bought it. But reading about the cold, gray world of Victorian England and living in the cold, gray early spring of Boston was seriously making me miss warmth. And sun. And flowers. And farmer’s markets. And the food I present to you is my favorite non-plant item to get at the summer farmer’s market: PRETZEL ROLLS!
Pictured here with a tofu stir fry, which is topped with micro greens from my container garden—and garnished with a nasturtium from said garden! I took this picture last summer. I miss plants. And I miss these rolls! They are made fresh daily at a Swiss bakery in Reading, MA called, appropriately enough, swissbakers. They come out to Boston-area farmers markets and sell their breads… which include pretzel rolls, pretzel baguettes, and of course, pretzels.

I know I’m going to have trouble conveying the amazingness that is swissbakers' Pretzel Rolls. My guess is that to make them, you make dough as if you are making pretzels, but instead of making pretzels... you make rolls. Delicious, pretty little rolls. The process may be basic (I mean, "basic" for people who make pretzels. I’m a klutz and am always a little worried about any process that involves dropping things into a large pot of boiling water, so it doesn’t sound too basic to me), but the result is AMAZING. The crust is shiny, smooth, and a little salty. The inside dough is soft and fluffy. And amazing.

Okay, sorry, I was depressing myself so much with the description of The Way of All Flesh that I stopped talking about it before I could mention how the rolls relate. One of the few joys young Ernest experiences at the boarding school to which his parents send him is sneaking with other boys to buy hot rolls from Mrs. Cross, a shopkeeper who likes providing food to the boys. Unfortunately, since they’re on tight budgets, the boys often buy the rolls on credit. Over Ernest's winter holiday, his parents find out about this "terrible" behavior (the sneaking and the debts, which, mind you, the boys pay off), they promptly notify the headmaster, and the boys are all cut off from any more hot rolls. Poor kids! I feel like them, cut off, for the winter, from delicious rolls...

Have any of you ever made a form of pretzel bread? How did it go?

Are you missing warm weather as much as I am? I'll close with a picture of marigolds from my garden last year. I'm thinking of doing marigolds again, but I'm not sure--maybe I'll stick with mostly herbs instead...?