Thursday, July 26, 2007

And bialys aren't yellow

Unlike the bagel - which most everybody at least thinks they've seen lately - the bialy is pratically unheard of outside greater NYC. But even within the city, I haven't actually seen a convincing bialy in recent memory. This is a complete mystery to me. What has happened? Before I get into that, though - perhaps a brief explanation in case there's anyone who wants to know what I'm talking about.

From Mirriam Webster:
bialy, (n): Yiddish, short for bialystoker, from bialystoker of Bialystok, city in Poland
: a flat breakfast roll that has a depressed center and is usually covered with onion flakes
This is a thoroughly inadequate definition, but it's a place to start.

I take no exception with the suggested derivation, nor with the morphology, usual meal of consumption or vegetable garnish. Hmm - that doesn't leave much to quibble with then does it? ON THE CONTRARY! That word 'roll' - it suggests all that is wrong with most present day pretenders to bialydom. I admit, the word roll covers a lot of ground and I suppose one could rationalize its use - but it leads us down the wrong path and is best avoided. For example, a roll might contain egg in the batter and thus be somewhat yellow. Bialys are not yellow. Put another way - if that thing you're looking at or holding is yellow - it is not a bialy no matter what the store or manufacturer may claim. Take it from me - I'm obsessed...I am noshstalgic. Well then, what better word? (I'd be grateful for suggestions).

A bialy is dry. Really dry. They are generally dusted with flour that remains beyond baking, and assures, should there be an errant molecule of would-be moisture nearby, complete dryness. Bialys, when sliced and toasted, have irregular holes and fissures in their structure. The dough surrounding some such bubbles can be very thin. When toasted, these create edges that can lacerate the unwary. A bialy is not dense throughout, nor even primarily (which observation gives rise to one of my numerous objections to the product from Kossar's (who seem to be nice people and emphatically claim to make them as they used to since 1936)). I have no idea if the Kossar's Biali of 1936 resembled the 6 in a bag I got at Zabar's two weeks ago, but if it did, then I would not have been buying them from Kossar's back when. But I digress...

A bialy is oniony - but not throughout. The onion is confined to the dimple (thumb depression) in the middle - and somehow its influence is (while present) very attenuated beyond the immediate center. It's a subtle onion effect. Perhaps the dryness contributes to the extreme inertness of the onion flavor?

Now this next observation (as distinct from my usual) is a matter of opinion, but: As I remember them from my youth, the bialy seemed custom made for sable. Not lox, not sturgeon, - sable.

Now in recent attempts to enjoy a bialy, I have purchased product from various bagel makers (at one time a reasonable strategy as the bagel people were also often capable bialy people), I have tried the Kossar's product, and I bought some larger, fancier product from Zabar's. Some of these offerings have been pleasant flat breakfast rolls with depressed centers and covered with onion flakes (and occasionally things like poppy seeds) to paraphrase Mirriam Webster - but sadly, none has been a bialy. Which do you suppose came first? The non-bialy bialy, or the non-definition definition?

Does anyone know where I can find a real bialy like they used to be? I'll bring the sable.


Anonymous said...

Have to confess, I'm personally not at ALL experienced with the "bialy".

However, I do recall that odd name on the menu at the Detroit Bagle Factory back in the late 70's. Guess what? They still do mention them, check out:

Down on the page, they state:

"Ask about our New York Bialys (no sugar, malt, fat or preservatives)"

Perhaps a road trip -- or mail order -- is in order?

Dan said...

Thanks for that suggestion. Sounds like there's at least two reasons for a visit to Detroit. Assuming they still make Werner's that is. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you meant "Vernors"? As in the ginger ale? It's certainly still available, but of course not the same, what with corn syrup the dominant sweetener and other changes. The company was bought out some time back by Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Inc., the American subsidiary of Cadbury Schweppes.

Here's some comment on the present-day product (circa October 2005):

Wood-Aged Vernor’s Ginger Ale Was ‘Deliciously Different’
and this continuation:
Is Vernors Still Aged Four Years In Wood? No Answer.

Here's a nice history about Vernors along with a recipe (haven't tried it yet):
Ginger Ale Recipe
(FYI, I used "Print Preview" to view that page -- too faint a text color was used on it.)

Dan said...

I did indeed mean Vernor's - it was a distinctive product and very good. I was introduced to it by my boyhood friend (now Rabbi) Steve Vale when he moved to NY from Southfield, MI back around 1970+-. I'm sorry to hear it's gone the way of the new and improved. Another one bites the dust. This is exactly what I'm ranting about.

michael edelman said...

Remember Boston Coolers (Vernor's and vanilla ice cream)? A Detroit classic. I remember touring the plant with my Cub Scout pack (MacDowell School) back in the 1960s.

I used to live just a few blocks from the Vernor's bottling plant in the 1980s, just before they closed it down. A dark day that presaged worse things to come for Detroit. The new version just doesn't have the zing of the original.

BTW, love your blog- I do one with a similar mission at and was just writing a remembrance of Vernor's when I found this post- and I was writing about bialys a few days ago!