Sue Eisenfeld’s essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, Potomac Review, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, Hunger Mountain, Under the Sun, Ars Medica, Virginia Living, Blue Ridge Country, and other publications. Her essays have been listed twice among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays (2009, 2010). She is the recipient of the 2010 Goldfarb Family Fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a 2011 residency as well. She holds an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, where she currently is on the teaching faculty. www.sueeisenfeld.com.
We hadn’t thought to look for bialys. We were in Manhattan primarily to visit the Lower East Side, to learn about the Jewish immigrant experience and how I imagine my great-grandparents once lived. After spending nearly three hours on tours of old tenements, where thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe made their new home in America, and strolling through the neighborhood for a taste of the unique Jewish culture that’s so absent from my life in Northern Virginia, we were definitely ready for lunch.
Scanning my Internet printout of restaurants in the area, my husband spotted what I think God intended us to find: standing out amongst descriptions of notable Jewish delis and specialty pickle shops was a listing for Kossar’s Bialys—“one of the last bastions of homemade, classic New York-style bialys.” We made a beeline to the oldest bialy bakery in the United States.
Two women worked the otherwise empty store at a makeshift counter while a man in the back spread flour on baking boards. Rows of fresh bialys and bagels lay waiting on stacks of large metal trays. Having never eaten a just-out-of-a-brick-oven bialy, I salivated while waiting to try a hot one on the spot. After one bite of this sort-of like-a-bagel, sort-of-like-an-English-muffin yeasty roll—so fresh, the ground onions patted into the center were still moist—we took a dozen to go in an unmarked brown bag.
My first bialys (and all bialys thereafter) were consumed in my grandparents’ Florida kitchen during my yearly winter visit, beginning circa 1980, when I was about 10. Grandma would call from the bedroom—she was handicapped by a stroke many years earlier—with her raspy Brooklyn-accented voice, giving me instructions on where I could find the bialys, how to use the toaster, and a list of all the condiments I could spread or melt on them.
“We have butta!” she shouted in a slow, strained voice.
“We have cream cheese!”
“We have muenster cheese!”
“We have whitefish salad!”
I had already determined that butter worked best—moistening the bialy adequately, but not drowning out its subtle flavors. I re-tested my hypothesis several times a day, though, in between trips to the clubhouse to visit my grandfather, who would be playing cards with the men.
My grandparents knew well to stock up on these bready treats whenever I came to visit; they knew I couldn’t get them anywhere else. Originally baked in Bialystok, Poland, the bialy was brought to New York City by Jewish immigrants. Because Jews tended to move to Florida later in life, the sunshine state became the bialy’s second home. Not even baked anymore in Bialystok—home to only five Jews, down from more than 60,000 before the Holocaust—the New York bialy apparently differs from the original creation in Eastern Europe, but in ways that only a few historical Epicureans know.
They say bialys are meant to be eaten whole and within six hours of baking, but my family has always eaten them sliced like a bagel and toasted. Because of their asymmetrical shape and center depression, one bialy becomes two different bialys when sliced: the top half acquires a hole with a thin inner circle of onions surrounding it that browns and crisps when toasted. The bottom half still retains a smattering of onions in the center but is otherwise flat and dense. It is hard to say which half is better.
So there we were in New York City with my treasured bag of bialys: the smell of my grandmother’s kitchen wafting under my nose, her warm memories tucked under my arm. I loyally carried this bag, separate from our suitcases to protect them from getting crushed, through town on our way back to the hotel at Washington Square, in the cab to Penn Station, through the train station at rush hour, on Amtrak all the way to DC’s Union Station, to the red line metro train headed home.
When we reached Metro Center and began transferring to the orange line—the last leg of our trip—amidst our returning-home slump, suitcases heavy on our shoulders, the realization came: we were empty-handed. The cherished brown bag remained sitting on a Union Station platform, not destined for our toaster at all. I had left them behind in a moment of absent-mindedness.
The immigrants brought the bialy all the way to America from Poland and kept the tradition alive for nearly 100 years, but I couldn’t manage to bring them back to my house after less than 12 hours of discovering Bialy Central. Trying my best not to explode, I mustered up the most positive attitude I could: perhaps some homeless person would find them—breakfast, lunch, and dinner for four days, just like I used to eat them at my grandmother’s place.
After a few “goddamits” and “oy veys,” I realized that I had invested a bit too much faith in my bag of bialys, with notions of reinvigorating my interest in the Jewish religion, bringing a piece of my New York Jewish heritage into my below-the-Mason-Dixon-line home, and reliving part of my childhood with my late grandmother. Though I can still hear her deep voice shouting from the other room, I can’t expect that a dozen bialys would have given me back all that I have lost and missed.
So I did the next best thing any grieving, bialy-poor Jewish granddaughter would do in this day and age: I got online to Kossar’s web site and ordered a dozen: “baked fresh daily” and shipped overnight. Six bucks for the bialys and twenty-five dollars for the shipping, at the time. But what’s money? And when they arrived, I did what I knew how to do: I sliced one in half and popped it in the toaster. And in my heart, I heard the voice telling me to slather on the butter, to eat three a day if I feel like it, and to revel in these soft, round relics of our history.