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Mulling why bialys faded as bagels rolled along

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The bagel's path into America's food mainstream may be followed in trails of blueberries and chocolate chips, raisins, sun-dried tomatoes, even mango and jalapeno. Note the bagel's presence in such outposts as Salt Lake City and Boise, frequently interpreted beyond the recognition of anyone who knew it when.

What then of the bagel's Eastern European cousin, the bialy?

You may rightly ask: "The what?"

And there would be the point.

Once upon a time in New York, bagels and bialys were constant companions on the breakfast table. And why not? Differences in taste and texture notwithstanding, both went nicely with lox, cream cheese, a cuppa cawfee. Both could be sliced, slathered or shmeared. Sunday morning, leisurely schmoozing, brown bags filled with goods fresh from the baker's oven - all this was signified by what seemed to a child's ear one word: "bagelsnbialys."

Somewhere along the way, however, the bagel moved on. There was the dark day in 1962 when packages marked "Lenders" turned up in the supermarket freezer case. As no ultraviolet-light equipment was available to detect counterfeits, these were called "bagels." The emergence of franchise bagel operations in the late 1980s and early 1990s had Americans speaking bagel in Vermont and Georgia, much as they had learned to speak "tortilla," "sushi," and "focaccia."

Bialy - rhymes with see Ollie - remains to a great extent a foreign tongue, familiar mostly to folks who grew up in New York, New Jersey and other Jewish enclaves.

The word bialy is short for Bialystoker kuchen, or roll from Bialystok, a town in northeastern Poland where it originated, apparently in the 19th century. The bagel, on the other hand, is said to have originated in Austria in the 17th century.

The bialy is round like a bagel, but the resemblance ends there. Bialy dough is lighter, closer in texture to pizza dough. Where a bagel has a hole, the bialy has an indentation that accommodates a sprinkling of chopped onion and sometimes also poppy seeds. The surface patina is light brown, with a faint dusting of flour.

So what's not to like? Something, evidently, as the bialy has scarcely made it out of the old neighborhood.

Why?

Answers vary from the circular to the sensible. This American immigration story hinges on matters of taste, labor and economics, to say nothing of the question of what constitutes a genuine bialy. This last point has been known to cause fights in bagel stores.

One testy exchange has taken place inside Joan & Gary's Original Bagel Co. Inc. on Reisterstown Road in Pikesville. "I lost a bagel customer over it," says Gary Van Hoven, who prides himself on his deep roots in the business.

Van Hoven, who turns 63 this year, started baking bialys as a teen-age apprentice in the Bronx. Imagine his indignation when a customer expressed a preference for a competitor's bialys, and demanded to know why Joan & Gary's could not replicate it.

"His name is Irving and he's a nice man, but ... " But, well, he had to be set straight on this point, says Van Hoven. The competition to which "Irving" referred, says Van Hoven, fashions an approximation, a variation on the concept of bialyness.

Says Van Hoven: "I'm making a true bialy."

Well, this may also be a matter of interpretation, and testimony to the difficulty of finding a "real" bialy. Even in Pikesville, where a certain ethnic authenticity might be expected, the bialy emerges as the subject of a dispute bordering on Talmudic.

Stanley Drebin, owner of Goldberg's Kosher New York Bagels on Reisterstown Road, suggests a Proustian approach to the subject.

"The bialy is ... is," he says, closing his eyes for a visualization, "is how a person remembers it. ... A bialy is more of a creative interpretation of what it used to be."

A native of Seattle, Drebin makes no grand claim for the authenticity of his bialy, which is really not a bialy at all. Using the same dough he uses for his bagels - shipped frozen from a factory in New Jersey - he shapes something that looks sort of like a bialy and sprinkles it with chopped onion.

Bagel and bialy dough are different, as are the cooking methods.

So go figure how it is that Harvey Bernstein is sitting in Goldberg's one afternoon enjoying a "bialy" with cream cheese and kippered salmon and saying: "You can't get a good bialy anywhere but here."

He grew up in Baltimore, but says he has fond memories of visiting relatives in New York and eating bialys there, particularly a place "around the corner from the Plaza in Manhattan. ... It's funny, you don't see bialys very often."

Indeed, even when you "see" them. In Goldberg's, for example, where the "bialy" doesn't quite look the part. The bialys in Joan & Gary's appear to be the real McCoy, but perhaps there's a catch.

Van Hoven says his bialy dough is different from his bagel dough, but made with the same ingredients: high-gluten flour, water, yeast, salt and barley malt syrup. He says he's following the bialy formula he learned back in New York as an apprentice during the Eisenhower years.

According to Mimi Sheraton, the former New York Times food writer who followed the bialy to its roots in Bialystok, the authentic bialy was/is made with flour, water, yeast, salt. That's it. The dough recipe includes no malt, an ingredient in traditional bagel dough that sweetens the taste.

For what it's worth, Sheraton's book, The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World (Broadway Books, 2002, $12.95), gives the imprimatur of authenticity to the approach used by Kossar's Bialys on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Kossar's traces its origins to Eastern European immigrants who established their bakery early in the 20th century.

Juda Engelmayer, one of four co-owners of Kossar's, says in a phone interview that the dough recipe has never changed: high-gluten flour, water, salt and yeast. Nothing more or less.

"There's a very big difference in the taste" if you make bialys with malt, says Engelmayer. "I'm not going to knock them, some people like it. But they're not authentic."

Engelmayer reckons that the taste of the dough is the reason the bialy "always has been, and I believe always will be" much less popular in America than the bagel, even in New York.

"The issue is, I believe, Americans have sweet tooths," says Engelmayer. "The bagel is a fast-food taste. ... Bialys are more of an acquired taste. It's like chopped liver, you don't like it until you're 50."

Debra Engelmayer, Juda's wife and partner in the business, suggests another reason for the Bialy Gap: "It's a lot of work. It is labor-intensive. Bagels are much easier to just knock out."

That's because bialy dough is lighter and more difficult to handle. While most if not all the bagels sold by the franchise operations are machine-made, bialys are rolled by hand. Perhaps for lack of an economic incentive, no one has yet built a bialy-making machine.

New World Restaurant Group Inc., the country's biggest chain and franchise bagel operation with more than 740 locations under four company names - Einstein Bros., Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, Manhattan Bagel and Noah's - has had very limited success with its version of the bialy.

"We just can't sell them," says Chad Thompson, New World's senior director of research and development. "People just don't know what they are."

Using a "slightly altered version of our bagel dough," Thompson says, a few stores under the Noah's and Manhattan Bagel name produce a hand-rolled bialy. At the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery in Crofton, owner John Pilkins says the shop tries to accommodate the transplanted New Yorkers among its customers with a little bialy legerdemain.

"We do them but it's not really a bialy," says Pilkins. "We just take the bagel before it's cooked, squeeze the dough back in the hole."

On the West Coast, Noah's offers varieties meant to appeal to folks who don't like the traditional - some would say defining - topping of onion. It's a long way from the Bialystoker kuchen of northeastern Poland to the Oakland, Calif., interpretations featuring artichokes, spinach, tomato, rosemary and mushrooms.

Nowhere near an American household word, the bialy nonetheless may yet lose its foreign accent.

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