LONG BEFORE I got to know Mimi Sheraton's feisty restaurant
reviews in The New York Times in the '70s and early '80s, I remember reading
her paean to New York street hot dogs in Family Circle. She introduced all of
America to her favorite Cypriot hot dog vendor at 12th Street and Seventh
Avenue in Greenwich Village.
Sheraton told of hot dogs she had eaten all over the world, and even
wheedled out of the hot dog man the secret of an onion sauce that put Sabrett's
to shame. You go, girl!
So it is no surprise that the intrepid Sheraton, now in her early 70s,
spent more than seven years, on and off, in hot pursuit of the lineage of
bialys, those crisp, indented, oniony yeasted rolls that have survived in a few
places, most notably Kossar's Bialystoker Kuchen Bakery, started by natives of
Bialystok, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
On Long Island, my personal favorite bialys are baked at Bagels & Bialys,
which has stores in Albertson and Roslyn Heights. (I am not saying for sure
that these are the best bialys on Long Island, just that I like them the best.
Besides, owner Danny Savary uses real onions.)
Bialys are everything a bagel is not. Most of today's bagels are fat, puffy
and overblown. Let's not even start with weird, unbagel-like flavors.
Sadly, bialys had not, at the time of Sheraton's 1994 trip to Bialystok,
Poland, survived there. Their city of origin had belonged to Russia until 1918.
It was, at the time of Sheraton's visit, a place of utter desolation, in ways
culinary and otherwise.
That journey led to Sheraton's book "The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread
and a Lost World" (Broadway Books, $19.95), for which the official pub date is
Now, Sheraton said in a recent telephone interview, Bialystok is reviving a
bit and even has some bialys, courtesy of a bagel shop from-where else?-New
York. For much of the past century, however, Bialystok was bereft of bialys and
Elsewhere, too, the beloved bread was little-known.
"Bialystoker kuchen fressers," German words that have come to stand for the
Yiddish expression meaning prodigious eaters of bialys, had only the memory of
the bread of their homeland. And that is a poor substitute for the taste of a
fresh, hot bialy in the mouth. (Kuchen is a broad term for many small breads
The foods of childhood inspire nostalgia, writes Sheraton, because they are
"reminders of the joyful security of home and family." For Bialystokers, that
security was shattered.
"In June, 1941, the Nazis came to us and since then there are no more
bialystoker kuchen and no more kuchen bakeries and no more of our Bialystok
Jews," wrote Pesach Szmusz, a Bialystoker, in a letter to Sheraton.
"Kuchen were always warm from the oven" in Bialystok, reminisced Felix
them-breakfast, lunch, and dinner, even with meat. We did not believe in eating
meat without bread."
Slim Schwartzberg-nobody knows him by his real name, Hyman-of Pembroke
Pines, Fla., started working at Kossar's, New York's original bialy bakery,
then at 22 Ridge St., when he was 11 or 12. He is 82 now, and he still would
find a day without bialys incomplete. He goes to breakfast, lunch and dinner at
stores that belong to his family in Florida. He eats bialys, of course.
Schwartzberg, whose family came from Bialystok and lived across the street
from Kossar's, asked if he could sleep near the oven at the bakery, where it
was warm. "They let me sleep on the flour sacks," said Schwartzberg, whose
family owned a bagel store in Bayside until a few months ago and used to also
own some Long Island stores called Slim's.
The boy carried 140-pound flour bags, tended the coal and wood fires ("not
like today, where they press a button" to start the oven), fetched coffee for
the bakers, and, before long, started learning to make bialys. Schwartzberg,
who used to live in Woodbury, could turn out 1,080 an hour, all the same size,
without weighing or measuring.
As a boy, Schwartzberg was happiest when he used to make a "5-pounder," for
his mother and "I would walk through the streets holding it. I was proud,
holding it. It wouldn't fit in a bag." To this day, he goes now and then to one
of the Florida bakeries run by Gary, one of his three sons, and turns out a
dozen garlic bialys for his wife, Bea.
Sheraton, who now feels a distinct kinship with Schwartzberg and all bialy
eaters, writes a hymn of praise to the bialys' "mouthwatering scent of onions
and yeast," and its "affinity for sweet butter and fluffy cream cheese."
The Bialystokers she encountered, Sheraton writes, were "a tough,
resilient, streetwise bunch, cynical for the best of reasons yet full of broad
humor, the very qualities one might expect of those whose palates are strong
enough to tolerate a tough, charred roll topped with browned onions first thing
in the morning."
freelance assignments in Bialystoker "outposts," which is why the 160-page book
took as long as it did.
Evidently, others have found the search as absorbing as she did; Sheraton
is booked at Jewish book fairs in 25 cities in November and December. (On Oct.
24 at 6:30 p.m., she will speak and sign books at the Jewish Museum in
Sheraton had me from the time I read of her preparations for the trip to
She bought bialys at Kossar's on Grand Street so that she could show them
instead of trying to describe them, hoping to jog a few memories. To preserve
the rolls, which would act as translators of a sort, she dried them in a low
oven for about half an hour and then set them on a rack to let moisture
evaporate. She packed them loosely in paper towels and slid them into a brown
paper bag that went into her suitcase, worried, she writes, "that the onions
would act like a perverse sachet." During 10 days of traveling before arriving
in Bialystok, she unwrapped the bialys and "aired them on the dressers of hotel
rooms each night, probably puzzling the cleaning staff." Richard Falcone,
Sheraton's husband, was unperturbed by this activity, however.
By the time the couple arrived in Warsaw, the bialys had been to Moravia
and Prague, and also to Cracow in Poland. In Warsaw she aired them a last time.
Sheraton did find people in Bialystok who recognized bialys when they saw
them, though they remembered them as being larger and having "lots of mohn," or
poppy seeds, which are seldom found on bialys here and now. Still, Sheraton
was off and running.
Accounts of her trip in the Jewish Forward and the small newspaper,
Bialystoker Shtimme, brought helpful letters filled with sweet and sad
recollections. Danny Scheinin, the son-in-law of Morris Kossar who was a
partner in Mirsky & Kossar, the original Bialystok bakery, and who took over
the business in 1956, sent Sheraton to the Bialystoker Center and Home for the
Aged nearby. There, the now-deceased Izaak Rybal, then executive director and a
Bialystok emigre, was perplexed when Sheraton told him she was going to
"Why go so far?" he asked. "Kossar's is only two blocks away. Delicious
Sheraton recommends baking bialys a little bit extra at home just before
serving, to get them to the desired degree of brown.
Bialys may be ordered by mail from the epicenter of bialy culture, the
aforementioned Kossar's, now owned by Judah Engelmayer and Danny Cohen,
212-473-4810, or via the Web site www.kossarsbialys.com, or by e-mail:
On Long Island, Bagels & Bialys is located at 1152 Willis Ave., Albertson,
516-621-9520, and at 113 Mineola Ave., Roslyn Heights, 516-484-3245
Gloria Kossar Scheinin, daughter of Morris Kossar and wife of Danny
Scheinin, told Sheraton: "Who slices a bialy?" This is how true Bialystokers
The Correct Way
To Eat a Bialy
Butter or cream cheese
Do not slice bialy, bagel-style. Spread a fresh, hot bialy with either
butter or cream cheese, either on the bottom or over the top of the roll. If
underneath, take care not to shake loose the onions and, if there are some,
poppy seeds. If spreading butter or cheese over the top, stuff a little extra
spread into the well to form an especially luscious mouthful. Makes 1 serving.