As my friend Sara Dickerman wrote in 2007 in a fascinating piece in Slate, pretzels don't get much love in the snack-food world. When was the last time you saw a television commercial for pretzels? Don't answer that: right after I wrote the previous sentence I remembered Jason Alexander's Rold Gold commercials from the 1990s. In my defense, I don't even think of the ultra-sweet Rold Gold as pretzels. Also, those commercials stopped airing something like 15 years ago.
Apparently Snyder's of Hanover, number two in American pretzel sales behind Rold Gold, also runs television commercials (hat tip: YouTube), which I might have known if I hadn't cut off my live viewing of USA Network in 2008 after they stopped showing the U.S.Open. Turns out Snyder's is a sponsor of Psych and even finagled a Wayne's World-like product placement in a recent episode. The writing staff must have loved that contract provision.
Snyder's is basically the Dallas Cowboys of pretzels. It calls itself "America's Pretzel Bakery," but while the pretzels are indeed popular, most of the people who buy them simply don't know any better. (Is there anything sadder than a Cowboys fan who's not from Dallas? Discuss.) And there are so many better options out there. Unfortunately, at most grocery stores Snyder's is the "alternative," which is like calling Pepsi edgy and artisanal.
In Houston, Central Market stocks a fine selection of south Pennsylvania pretzelries, including multiple choices from Tom Sturgis, Unique, Utz, and Benzel's. But at other stores, it's either the store brand or Snyder's (again, not counting Rold Gold). But is the store brand any good, even at a higher-end store? To answer this question, let us turn to today's Food Fight: Whole Foods vs. Trader Joe's store brand pretzels. Yes, I realize that Houston does not have a Trader Joe's yet. But it's coming. And TJ's is justifiably well-known for its snack food.
To the judging!
Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value Crunchy Pretzel Twists ($1.99 for 16 oz.)
"Everyday" is exactly the right word. The pretzels are standard machine-extruded twists, not quite as small as the mini pretzels you'd find in a cocktail mix but almost. They're thin, salty, and surprisingly crunchy. Maybe not too surprisingly, given the name. But because they're so thin, there's not much there there. Apologies to Gertrude Stein. And Oakland. One crunch, and it's just wheat flour and salt in your mouth. Acceptable, but nothing special.
Trader Joe's Multi-Grain Pretzel Nuggets with Sesame Seeds ($1.39 for 8 oz.)
Granted, a multi-grain nugget with sesame seeds is a far cry from a standard wheat-and-salt pretzel. But Trader Joe's doesn't sell any regular twist pretzels, so the multigrain nugget was the closest thing to apples: apples. (Other options included honey wheat, peanut butter-filled, dark pumpernickel, and dark/white/milk chocolate-covered. I really wanted to get the milk chocolate covered pretzels, because they are amazing, but that would have been cheating.) As a rule, nuggets are underwhelming because they lack the intrigue of the twisted pretzel with its knobs and joints and various ways to break it apart. All you can do is crack it open with your teeth like a sunflower seed and then eat the two halves. And so it is with these. But because they are more oblong and irregular than most nuggets, they have a bit more personality, with some variation in the size of air pockets inside. The multigrain factor gives them a fuller flavor, which is further enlivened by the odd sesame seed and a bit of charring. The main knock on these nuggets is that they don't have much salt. I don't mind, but I can imagine it'd be a problem for some. This is an interesting, worthwhile pretzel.
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Trader Joe's, as a nice change of pace. But if you want a traditional twist, skip the store brands and go to the pretzel aisle at Central Market.