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From Barnes & NobleOur Review
For most, the bialy is the bagel's lesser-known cousin, with a scattering of onions and an indentation instead of a hole. For food writer Mimi Sheraton, it's an entree into the history of the Jews of Bialystok, many of whom she befriended over years of obsessive inquiry and travel. The stories she uncovered are a reminder of what food can mean to people living far from their homeland, and the many ways in which it can nourish.
On assignment in Poland, Sheraton takes a detour to Bialystok to sample the bialy on native soil. But she discovers that not only are there no bialys in Bialystok; only five Jews remain of the 60,000 who lived there in 1941, when the Nazis entered the city. More determined than ever, Sheraton embarks upon a project to trace the diasporas of both the bialy and the Bialystokers.
Sheraton finds the fullest expression of bialyness at Kossar's Bialystoker Kuchen Bakery, formerly Mirsky & Kossar, founded on New York's Lower East Side around 1920 by a handful of Bialystokers and Russians. She respectfully interviews the culinary pioneers (none from Bialystok) who've brought the bialy as far as Texas, Florida, and Arizona. But Sheraton doesn't mince words about the sorry specimens most produce; what passes for a bialy convinces her that they are an "endangered species." A real bialy, she insists, should be made with fresh, not dehydrated, onions, and should be crusty, not "pale, strangely damp, and rubbery."
Even Kossar's bialys differ from the ones Bialystokers remember: the originals, baked in a wood-fired oven, were bigger, with a flat, crispy indentation, and plenty of poppyseeds. Interestingly, when Sheraton tastes a Bialystoker-baked bialy in Israel, made with a coarse-grained flour, and certainly closer to the ur-bialy, she prefers the New York version. She explains, "Calvin Trillin once wrote that any man who doesn't think his hometown hamburger is best is a sissy. That may be true of bialys as well."
Sheraton interviews Bialystokers in Paris, Israel, Argentina, and Australia as well as the U.S. They recall bialys -- called kuchen, pletzls, kuchelach, bagels, and pie-cakes -- and how they ate them: unsplit and buttered, with herring or halvah, or, for the poorest Jews, plain.
They also relate stories of lost family, persecution (by Poles as well as Nazis), torture, starvation, emigration, and survival. All the background information about tracking down informants makes the book loose and rambling, but the life story of each interviewee is precious. Former Bialystoker Samuel Pisar hallucinated about bialys while in Auschwitz. Slim Schwartenberg, who could shape 90 dozen bialys an hour, recalls starting at Mirsky & Kossar at age 11: "I wanted a warm place to sleep because our apartment was cold.... If I carried in the coal and wood for the ovens, I could sleep on top of the flour sacks where the ovens were always hot. I loved sleeping there with the smell of burning wood and yeast."
One 101-year-old former Bialystoker, Ben Halpern, recalls the time a streetwalker snatched his bialy: "I still remember how hungry I was in school that day. Bialys in Detroit don't taste like a the real ones, so I'm still hungry." Sheraton may never find the authentic bialy she pursues, but she succeeds in evoking the hunger for it.