Who knew idly researching The Producers online would introduce me to a new food? While looking up info on the film's co-protagonist, Max Bialystock (famously portrayed by Zero Mostel in the original movie), I hit the "enter" key a bit prematurely and landed on a page explaining the origins of the "bialy." I immediately wanted to try this funny circular bread but I was 17, living in Central Pennsylvania, and had limited access to a car. It hard enough to acquire decent bagels.
Living in bigger cities provided me with more chances to try bialys, but I'm ashamed to say I squandered my opportunities, caving usually at the last minute and ordering a bagel instead. I justified these decisions by telling myself (as I had been told by others) that a bialy is basically just a holeless bagel. So, I was really missing out on anything, right?
Then I read part of Mimi Sheraton's The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World. Like any good writer, Sheraton made her subject (the origins of the bialy) seem like the most fascinating thing in the world. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the bialy's storied history is that its production all but disappeared in its founding city (Bialystok, Poland) following a series of pogroms and then the Holocaust. One more thing to hate about the Nazis.
I decided then that not only did I need to try this intriguing bread that at one point faced possible extinction but also that, if I like it enough, I should try to spread the bialy gospel. Maybe one day it would be as ubiquitous as the donut.
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My next opportunity to have a bialy came during my last year in Boston when I was living in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Instead of my usual weekend morning bagel, I ordered a onion bialy, not toasted. The first thing I noticed about the bialy is its texture, which is softer and doughier than your average bagel perhaps in part due to the fact that the former is baked rather than boiled. In the absence of a hole, there is a depression that serves as an intense flavor repository for the theme ingredient (onions, poppy seeds, roasted garlic). Best of all, perhaps is the extremely chew and incredibly savory puckered bread surrounding that depression. The delicious border, if you will, to the well of fillings.
In Houston, I've had good bialys from The Hot Bagel Shop, also home of some luscious lox cream cheese. The first bialy I tried there I ate as is, but the second, upon the recommendation of a commenter (thank you!), I had it toasted with a lotta buttah. Good call.
The obvious next stop on my bialy research in Houston is New York Bagels. I almost don't want to go if only because I fear that will be the end of the line in terms of bialys in Houston.
Please say it ain't so. If you know of another establishment I can put on my bialy itinerary (and, yes, your aunt's kitchen counts), please let me know.