It's All About the FoodChristmas Baking with SusieJ

Mimi Sheraton: The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World

People who love food, who live to eat, who search a city or a country for the best whatever often obsess over "authenticity" and "provenance." They will tell you the roll for a hoagie must be made with Philadelphia water, or Cheez Whiz is an acceptable cheese for a cheesesteak. For nearly a decade, following such an obsession off and on, food writer Mimi Sheraton searched the world for bialys, or Bialystocker kuchen as they are known in Yiddish, and almost found them.

Bialys are made from a lean dough (flour, water, salt, and yeast), shaped into four-inch rounds, covered in chopped onions and, ideally, poppyseeds, with a depression — but not a hole! — in the middle. They are a variation (but distinct from) pletzl, which Sheraton describes as larger, without the central depression. Before World War II, they were made only in the city of Bialystock, Poland, and were eaten with or for almost every meal by the Jews there.

The closest she came was in Israel, where one baker in the whole country would bake special orders of hundreds of bialys for one friend, former Bialystoker Lipa Avinadov, who shared them with Sheraton. But, as he described them, the bialys were only "95 percent like those I bought for my mother in Bialy stock when I was a child."

Not surprisingly, her quest started in New York, at Kossar's Bialy Bakery, which she had already determined to have the best bialys in the five boroughs, and took her to bialy bakeries in Florida, California, Texas and Arizona. Kossar's crown remained unchallenged, especially because the bakeries outside New York were catering to younger clientele, accustomed to toasted cinnamon bagels, who had never tasted a bialy. (Sheraton's own comment on that: "Toasting is as antithetical to the true spirit of the bialy as it is to the bagel, and belongs more to the aesthetics of the English muffin.")

She travelled to Paris, Argentina and Bialystok itself, meeting many Bialystokers who had survived the Nazis and the anti-Semitism of pre-war Poland, or whose parents had fled before the war. All of them said the bialys they could find, often from New York, were close, but not what they had enjoyed as children in Poland.

The Bialy Eaters is a powerful book that shows, through such a small subject, how much was lost to the world.

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