Most people, alas, don't even know what a bialy is, let alone how good a proper one tastes. A rarefied peasant cousin of the bagel, the bialy gets its culinary oomph from what goes where the hole goes in a bagel: a fragrant layer of shredded onion, sometimes accompanied by poppy seeds, baked into caramelized sweetness in a depression in the middle of the bread, itself a beguiling balance of fire-kissed crust and chewy innards.
The problem, as renowned food critic Mimi Sheraton notes, is that a really good bialy can barely be found outside of New York City, where what she deems the best are baked daily at Kossar's Bialystoker Kuchen Bakery on the Lower East Side. She ought to know: Sheraton traveled the world looking for a worthy opponent.
It all started when she decided to go to Bialystok, Poland, the bread's apparent place of birth, hoping to uncover its mysteries. Revelation number one: Bialys can't be found in Bialystok, which lost its Jewish population and culture, along with the bialys, to the Holocaust and its forced diaspora. "I then found Bialystok people all over the world, so my next idea was to learn how bialys differed in all these places," Sheraton says. "I thought that wherever there were Bialystok people, there would be bialys, too. That turned out not to be true.
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"Then I spoke to people about their stories -- how they ate bialys, whether they sliced them or didn't, what they put on them," she continues. "And then I spoke to them about what happened to them. Many left before the Holocaust, others were survivors. The stories began to be the thing -- memories of the things I was in search of." In her now-Proustian journey were the seeds of a book, and she'll be in town to promote the result, Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World,at a couple of luncheons featuring fresh bialys shipped in from Kossar's.
Sheraton's quest ended up being about much more than bread, although the bread was at the heart of her disclosures. "Bread can do that," she notes. "A good deal of the Old Testament is based on bread -- having it, not having it, rituals involving bread. Wherever there's bread, it's a staple, and then it's woven into all kinds of lore and superstitions."
Which bialy-related revelations stick with her the most now? "One thing that amazed me was that many people in Bialystok ate Bialystok kuchen (the seminal name for bialys) with halvah," she says. "I immediately went out and got some halvah and tried it, and it was a horrible combination."
She was also amazed to learn that there's an incredible Bialystoker network on the planet, stretching from New York to Israel to Paris to Argentina. "They all knew each other," she says. "Last week I got a call from Jerusalem [it was Arieh Shamir, a baker described in her book who had received a copy]. He said, 'My goodness, you wrote about people I didn't know they were alive.' Some were in the camps together, and they didn't know who had survived.
"I'm already getting mail from other Bialystokers asking, 'Why am I not in your book, too?'" she adds. Her answer? "Only because I didn't find them in time."
And incidentally, Sheraton is steadfast in her opinion: The West is sadly devoid of any bialys worth their onions. "I had only terrible ones in Santa Monica, though I found some pretty good ones at Sweetish Hill Bakery in Austin." And here? You might as well forget it: The best, she insists, are still in New York City. "Kossar's, at 367 Grand Street -- the best in the world."