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The Amish & The Snack Capital of the World

PENNSYLVANIA - PART II

My friend, Nick Pironio, oft spoke of a marvelous land filled with as many pretzels as one could eat and where beer had only one name—lager. This marvelous land was Hanover, PA, and the only beer on tap was Yuengling. Unfortunately my travels wouldn't take me far enough north to go to the Yuengling brewery, but I would be able to make a few stops in the heart of the The Snack Capital of the World.

Heading west from Philadelphia on the shoddy (yet expensive because of tolls) Pennsylvania Turnpike, the air turned a little sweeter. This area has an abundance of companies making candies, baking pretzels, and salting chips. Utz, Snyder's of Hanover, and Wise are just some of the big names that can be found in the area, but there are scores of mom and pop chip and chocolate companies around each corner as well. Our first stop was the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Company.

The Julius Sturgis Pretzel Company is located in Lititz, a town small town in the Pennsylvania Dutch country. We chose the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Company because Utz and Synder's of Hanover tours didn't allow pictures or were not available Friday afternoon (not to mention that Sturgis pretzels are delicious!). Megan was also super-excited about the tour because they let you twist your own soft pretzel!

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We just about passed the bakery (you can't miss the giant pretzel out front) and went inside to inquire about the tour. Nobody was out on the streets, and it didn't look like anyone was inside the bakery. I got the feeling that tour was not taken very frequently, and that we had wasted time driving through Lititz. We found a lady serving pretzels from behind a counter and inquired about the tour. To my surprise she said the 2pm tour was full and we would have to wait until 2:30. Not only were the tours actually running, they were filling up with people! We wandered around the shop and lobby looking at old advertisements, newspaper articles, and pretzel making equipment to kill time until our tour started.

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Right before 2:30, a heard a herd of shuffling feet as they piled back in the bakery lobby. Our tour guide gathered those of us waiting for the next tour (another 15 people had joined us) and took us back into the bakery. After explaining a little about the history of the Sturgis family and how it spawned multiple pretzel companies (reminded me of how the Jim Beam family spawned multiple whiskey distilleries when we did the The Bourbon Trail), our guide started instructing us on how to fold the perfect pretzel.

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Our guide mixed in some pretzel history (stories about German monks and children's bedtime stories), some pretzel traditions (how "tying the knot" now refers to getting married), and some pretzel jokes (check out his shirt in the picture below, you can get a feel for his sense of humor wearing the "Old & Salty" shirt). Megan bragged about her pretzel being the best in the entire group, but we all got certificates indicating we passed pretzel twisting school.

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Next we walked over to the giant brick ovens that were used to bake the pretzels. The guide informed us that soft pretzels begin to go stale 30 minutes after they come out of the oven, so to truly appreciate one you need to eat it still warm (makes you think twice about the soft pretzels at sporting events that sit on the rack for hours at a time). Hard pretzels were made by baking them a second time by storing them on the second story to reuse the heat from the ovens located below. Based on the temperature and humidity outside, it could take anywhere from 1 day to a week for the hard pretzels to finish baking.

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Just as the guide was wrapping up the tour, our soft pretzels came out of the oven. I have NEVER had a pretzel this good. My mouth is watering just remembering how it tasted.

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I sampled a variety of the hard pretzels, including some of the "experimental" flavors (like garlic pretzels and hot cheddar pretzels, mmmmm). I could have stayed there for a week, especially if a beer had been available. Megan was eventually able to drag me back to the car so we could continue the trip.

As a mentioned above, we were not only driving through the Snack Capital of the World, but also through the Pennsylvania Dutch country, home to the Amish. Since we had left the turnpike and were driving on smaller roads, we frequently passed by the Amish riding in their buggies. Most of us are familiar with the Amish as the people who have decided to give up worldliness (electricity, tv, computers, cars) in order to strengthen their relationship to God. I was somewhat surprised at how frequently we saw them riding on the streets and working in the fields.

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The countryside was beautiful as we made our way further west. Rolling fields, silos, and barns stretched out in front of us. Philadelphia seemed a million miles away in this rural countryside.

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Our travel through Snack Central was not finished just yet. Having got a taste of salt, it was time to even it out with a taste of sweet. And what place is sweeter than Hershey, Pennsylvania?

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In Hershey, everything related back to the chocolate company. The street lights were Hershey kisses. The sign on every barn and silo was branded Hershey. Every street sign pointed towards the Hershey Theme Park.

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When I was a senior in high school, we visited Hershey on the way up to a Young Life Camp in New York. I remember having a good time at the amusement park, and remembered everything smelling like chocolate. Megan and I didn't have time to ride the rides, so we opted to take a tour of the chocolate factory instead.

Upon entering the Chocolate World, my excitement quickly drained. This place was way over-commercialized. You could make your own candy bar in the Chocolate Lab, you could ride a trolly through the chocolate factory, and you could participate in the 4-D theater—all for $25 a pop. The majority of the floor space in Chocolate World was dedicated to buying CostCo size boxes of chocolate (and even a 25 lb bar of chocolate), but the prices were higher than at the grocery store back home. I was briefly in my own personal heaven in the Reese's corner, but there were no free samples.

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They did have a free factory tour ride, which was supposed to simulate how chocolate was made. It matched the rest of Chocolate World in its commercial-ness, complete with singing cows and a picture your could buy of yourself on the ride upon completion. There wasn't anything authentic about Hershey, and I was about 20 years too old to appreciate anything in Chocolate World.

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Megan and I grabbed a handful of free white-chocolate kisses and got back in the car. We still had to drive halfway across Pennsylvania to get to our next destination, Latrobe (and then on to Pittsburgh)!

Posted by Mike.Flynn 13:26 Archived in USA Tagged museum tour local_food

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