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The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost Worldby Mimi Sheraton
"When I was an adolescent in Auschwitz lying on the hard shelf that was my bed and hallucinating from hunger, I would often try to recall the shape and savory aroma of the kuchen we used to eat at home in Bialystok. By then I had lost all of my family and school-friends. Years later, when I was in New York, I would often watch those street-corner wagons that sell coffee and bread in the morning. I marveled at the whites, blacks, Asians, and Latinos as they munched on their bialys. I felt as though I was from another planet. To each of them, it was simply a tasty snack. How could they know they were partaking of something sacred--a bread that evoked bittersweet memories of a cultured and tragic corner of eastern Poland? A bread that, in my psyche, summons up even today the mystical dream world of Marc Chagall and Isaac Bashevis Singer."
--SA M U E L P I SA R
On a gray and rainy day in November, 1992, I stood on Rynek Kosciuszko, the deserted town square of Bialystok, Poland, and was suddenly overcome by the same shadowy sense of loss that I had felt in the old Jewish quarters of Kazimierz in Cracow and Mikulov in Moravia. To anyone who knows their tragic history, these empty streets appear ominously haunting, especially in the somber twilight of a
wet, gray afternoon. The damp air seems charged with echoes of silent voices and ghostly wings and the minor-key melodies of fiddlers on rooftops.
As a slight chill went through me, I had vague intimations that I was at the beginning of an adventure. I could not guess, however, that what had started as a whimsical search would lead me along a more serious path that I was unable
to forsake for seven years. Even now I am not sure my quest is over, nor that I want it to be.
The story began with my passion for the squashy, crusty, onion-topped bread roll known as a bialy and eaten as an alternative to the bagel. Widely popular in New York City and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in the United States, the small, round bialy is characterized by an indented center well that is ringed by a softer, higher rim, all generously flecked with toasted onions and, at its most authentic, with a showering of poppy seeds. I cannot remember when I first ate one of these fragrant rolls, but surely it was addiction at first bite, starting with the mouthwatering scent of onions and yeast and the crisp bread's affinity for sweet butter and fluffy cream cheese.
Knowing that the bialy's full and official name was Bialystoker kuchen and that it originated in Bialystok, a city in northeastern Poland that belonged to Russia until 1918, I wanted to make a pilgrimage to that town and sample the roll on its native ground. A fortuitous assignment to report on Polish food for the Conde ´ Nast Traveler magazine made such a side trip a reality in 1992.
My desire to learn what a bialy might look and taste like in its place of origin was one of many such quests I have made during the past forty years. What some might consider gastronomic obsessions are partly a sort of hobby, prompted by simple curiosity. But, inevitably, there are professional concerns, for as a food critic, I look for the best and most authentic products and preparations to serve as benchmarks. As exhausting as such doggedness can be, I value these culinary treks because they lead to people and places I might not otherwise have encountered.
My interest in authenticity began in Copenhagen in 1953, when I suddenly realized that the flaky yeast puff pastries served with breakfast coffee at the Hotel D'Angleterre were the originals of what we in the United States mean by
Danish pastry, never mind that the Danes called that buttery miracle wienerbrød, Vienna bread. Soon I went on to France, where I couldn't resist ordering pain perdu to see how the French made French toast, and, later to Istanbul, where I sampled the colorful, gummy candy we call Turkish delight and was stunned to find that the native product actually tasted of the fruits that colored it instead of just plain sugar. (My interest, to be clear, is in prepared foods, not in simple ingredients, such as Scotch salmon or Parma ham.)
As an adjunct pursuit, I also look for varying interpretations of ethnic classics as they emigrate from native grounds. It was in Paris, also in 1953, that I first saw gefilte fish elegantly done as a whole, stuffed, aspic-glazed fish instead of as the round dumplings we know, the French spin being a revelation. And I have found that even a so-called New York bagel is vastly different in Los Angeles, to say nothing of Italian pizza as rendered in Paris, Munich, Hong Kong, and Dallas.
The result of my initial quest for the bialy in Bialystok is described in detail in the pages that follow. My reports on that search appeared in several publications and brought forth dozens of letters from Bialystoker émigrés around the world. Some had left their homeland in the early part of the twentieth century, understandably disheartened by years of prejudice and pogroms, but most were Holocaust survivors. All were eager to share memories of the kuchen that was the literal and figurative staff of their lives, the icon that recalled home, family, and childhood friends and evoked an unrequited yearning for a lost world. Many also said proudly that throughout Poland and neighboring Lithuania and what is now Belarus (formerly Byelorussia or White Russia), they, the Jews of Bialystok, were nicknamed Bialystoker kuchen fressers, prodigious eaters (fressers) of those oniony bread buns.
So, although I first wanted to seek out the original bialy in Bialystok, later, as I learned of the far-flung landsleit (countrymen) in Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv, and Paris, I wondered how bialys would differ in such disparate outposts.
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