Everyone knows that pretzels are delicious, but there's a twist to the origin of this salty treat.

The pretzel was thought to have been invented by monks in the Middle Ages to resemble a child folding their arms in prayer. Early Christians also ate pretzels, as they were not supposed to consume meat or dairy products during Lent.

Catholics of today are asked to refrain from eating meat products on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and every Friday during Lent, so the simple ingredients of the pretzel make it an appealing snack.

It seems there has always been a spiritual significance to the pretzel, which is why one local monastery is observing the Lenten season with an event centered around the snack and its meaning to Christians.

The Sisters of St. Benedict at St. Mary Monastery in Rock Island will host Pretzels for Lent on April 4, at the Benet House Retreat Center. Organizers Steve and Kathy McDonald, of Dubuque, have a strong connection to the monastery — their daughter, Stefanie McDonald, is a Benedictine sister there. The couple also have taught at Catholic grade schools. 

"I enjoy baking, and over the years, I have made pretzels with my own daughters and grandsons. During Lent, I started making pretzels for my students in second grade as well," Kathy says.

"One very old prayer tradition is to cross one’s arms over one’s chest while praying, thus making a pretzel shape. Our younger students, before they receive their First Communion, cross their arms in the shape of a pretzel to receive a blessing, so it was easy to teach the students this gesture for prayer." 

Kathy also has written a children's book, "Pretzel," to help share the story with a new generation. She and Steve hope the Pretzels for Lent event does the same.

"Seasons play an important role in almost all religious traditions. Lent falls in late winter, the time when we all long for the warmth and new life of spring. The same is true of our spiritual and behavioral life; we sometimes get caught in February and March, so to speak," Steve says.

"Lent gives us a time to take stock of our lives, our relationships with each other and our relationship with God, and move from the winter doldrums into the bright light of spring; to move from betrayal, conflict and crucifixion to joy, new life and Easter. This is a path we all should take, children and adults alike, and Lent gives us this opportunity."

Steve says pretzels are an easy way for kids to connect to the Lenten season because they are something every child is familiar with. "Children can understand the pretzel. It is a visible, tactile, eatable symbol of prayer, of connecting ourselves with what is greater than ourselves — of connecting ourselves with the needs of humanity and with God," he says.

"These are complex concepts to teach children, but the pretzel helps these topics take on reality." 

Pretzels for Lent will offer a chance for families to make their own pretzels, as well as a story about the creation of the first pretzel. Treats and drinks will be served.

The McDonalds say the event is aimed toward families with preschool- and elementary-age children, but all are welcome to attend. 

Pretzels for Lent will take place from 5:30 to 8 p.m. April 4, at the Benet House Retreat Center,

St. Mary Monastery, 2200 88th Ave. W., Rock Island. Admission is $15 for families of two to three people, and $20 for families of four or more.

For more information, contact Sister Roberta Bussan at 309-283-2019.

For those who are unable to attend the event, the McDonalds have shared a pretzel recipe.

Makes 16 pretzels (or 8 thicker pretzels, as pictured) 

1 1/2 cups warm water

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 package quick dry yeast

1 tablespoon brown sugar

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 large egg

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

Shortening, to grease a mixing bowl

Combine warm water, oil, yeast and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl. Stir with wooden spoon until sugar and yeast are dissolved. Watch as the mixture turns foamy, about 5 minutes. 

Add flour and salt to the yeast mixture. Stir well until the mixture is smooth. (Add the last part of the flour about a tablespoon at a time.) You can always add more but you can't take any away.)  

Place dough on a surface covered with flour, knead until dough is smooth, about 3-5 minutes. Add additional flour until the dough doesn't stick and you can form a soft ball.

Grease a large mixing bowl with shortening. Put the dough into this bowl, turning it over so the dough is covered with the shortening.

Cover the bowl with a slightly dampened kitchen towel and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour. 

Punch the dough down and turn out onto a floured surface. Separate the dough into 16 pieces. Roll each piece into a long thin rope, then form a U shape with the rope. Take each end of the U, cross over and press down into the U to form the traditional pretzel shape. 

Place each pretzel on a parchment sheet-covered baking sheet. Make sure the pretzels are about an inch apart. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Beat the egg and brush each pretzel with beaten egg and sprinkle with salt.

Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from baking sheet and place on wire rack to cool. 

Natalie Dal Pra is a regular Radish contributor.

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