few days before I visited baker Arnd Erbel in his southern German bakery, a Hamburg newspaper described him as a “bread god.” Erbel’s breads are renowned among baking connoisseurs and served in many of Germany’s best restaurants, but he was not comfortable with deification. “I’m not a bread god,” he told me in his bakery kitchen after I arrived. He sees himself more as bread’s humble servant: “My being is here to help with sourdough.” With his bald head and round glasses Erbel appears more monkish than almighty. It was fitting, then, that he was baking Breze (as they are called in Bavaria), German-style soft pretzels, a baked good that originated in European monasteries in the Middle Ages. While Americans tend to see soft pretzels as a simple snack eaten at ballparks or mall food courts, Germans cherish them as a national symbol. Pretzels were once so special that Medieval painters would dab a few on the table of the Last Supper, and for centuries, pretzel-shaped signs were the emblem of bakers and their guilds, hanging above doorways as a symbol that you could find fresh-baked breads inside. Today, you can find them at the counter of any German bakery or beer hall, but also around the world: No other German food item has traveled as far and wide as the pretzel. Erbel rolled 25 pretzels by hand, twisting them effortlessly into knots, like a school kid playing cat’s cradle, and left them to rise for two hours. He then put on rubber gloves to prepare to dunk each uncooked pretzel in lye, a strong and caustic alkaline solution that has the power to burn flesh. (Edward Norton’s hand in that grisly scene in Fight Club was lye at work.) The chemical evaporates from the pretzel’s surface in the oven, but not before speeding the Maillard reaction that gives so many foods their crust, aroma, and distinct flavor during cooking. In Germany, there is a whole family of baked goods with a smooth dark-brown crust known as Laugengebäck (literally, “lye bakes”). Erbel bakes some in his shop, like the Laugenstange, a long roll resembling an oversize cigar.