The precise origins of the bialy – the exquisitely delicious round, flat bagel-like treat with sautéed onions in the middle – remain elusive but as its name implies it is likely they were first created in the Jewish community of Bialystok, Poland. In her book The Bialy Eaters, former NY Times food critic Mimi Sheraton tells of her pilgrimage to Bialystok in search of bialy history. She brought a dozen bialys from New York City with her to describe what she was searching for in case of she had difficulty conveying the objective of her mission.
In fact, with the systematic eradication and expulsion of Jews from Poland, sadly there were few remaining Jews and no bialys to be found. However, during her visit she interviewed residents who recalled the Jews of Bialystok were nicknamed “Bialystoker kuchen fressers”, i.e., prodigious eaters of these oniony bread buns. Fortunately, the Jews who managed to get out and emigrate to the U.S. brought the recipe with them, kept it alive and soon New York City became the Bialy capital of the world.
But even today, if you order a bialy in Bialystok or in many locations outside of the NY metropolitan area, there’s a good chance you’ll get a blank stare in return. In NY of course, they are a widely available staple and are regularly devoured (usually lightly toasted) with a schmear of cream cheese, and/or with whitefish, lox, or even with just plain butter. While generally found at most bagel bakeries, a few NY bakeries such as Kossar’s (on the Lower East Side) and Slim’s (in Queens) have become famous for their bialy recipes.
On one of their periodic trips back north from their adopted home in Asheville, NC my brother-in-law and his family showed up with a bag of fresh bialys that he stowed in his carry-on bag. I still recall the incredulous look I gave him, thinking bialys from North Carolina were the culinary equivalent of bringing coal to New Castle. They were from a small local Asheville bakery called Farm and Sparrow and after one bite I understood why he went to such trouble to schlep the bialys to NY and present them as a special treat…believe me it was so worth the effort – I was hooked. We’re not talking “acceptable” or “decent” attempts – these are the real deal.
Like all good bialys, the dough was light, chewy, and browned to perfection in a brick oven. The center was oozing with the requisite onion and poppy seeds and the bottom surface lightly dusted with cornmeal. But what makes the Farm and Sparrow bialys unique and intoxicatingly delicious is probably (I’m guessing here of course, as the actual recipe is closely guarded) the incorporation of a small amount of extra virgin olive oil to bring the bread and onion flavors together in what can only be described as heaven scent, especially when toasted. In my usual dispassionate, humble, and objective manner, I soon declared these the best bialys in the universe. No small feat.
Inspired by Mimi Sheraton, I decided to embark on a bialy road trip of my own during our next visit to Asheville. Farm and Sparrow is a small but growing commercial bakery run by founder Dave Bauer, but they also sell retail directly to the community at the many open air food markets that are set up to enable local farmers to sell fresh produce directly from their farms. (www.farmandsparrow.com)
Dave is a big believer in using local and regional grains in his breads and since Asheville is a very “local foods” kind of town he has plenty of like-minded and loyal customers. He purchases local grains in bulk and produces his own stone ground flours for baking and for sale.
When he heard of my interest in his bialys, Dave generously agreed to meet with me and my brother-in-law. It turns out that, as good as they are, bialys are merely a sidelight and most of his business is baking loaves of delicious crusty rye and wheat bread and assorted delectable pastries. Dave told us his interest in bialys started on a whim to test his prowess and see if he could recreate their unique taste and consistency. He started with a basic recipe (in this case Dave confesses to using conventional “nice, all-purpose flour, but white flour nonetheless”), and as all craftsmen do, began to tinker until he was satisfied. Dave currently prepares about 150-200 bialys per week on Saturday mornings, mostly for his loyal customers who are either former New Yorkers or former New Yorkers by six degrees of separation.
Dave is not a native Ashevillian – he was raised in Milwaukee, WI and moved to Minnesota where he studied baking. He was offered and accepted a position in California at a fancy restaurant which was a good job and featured a view of the cooking staff behind a glass wall but ultimately he was not happy as the baker in the bubble. A baker-friend learned of an opportunity to take over an existing small brick oven bakery in Ashville NC and asked Dave if he was interested. Dave had never heard of Asheville or ever entertained thoughts of living in the South, but this was an opportunity to see if he could make it on his own as a baker. He decided to take the offer on a limited 10 month trial basis to see if he liked it. That was six years ago and since then Dave has built Farm and Sparrow into a thriving enterprise that is quickly becoming part of the local culture.
After several years, Dave’s business expanded and soon outgrew the brick oven he inherited. He then commissioned a new, much larger double insulated wood-fired brick oven which is installed in his converted oversized garage. Dave’s oven is capable of baking 50 -70 loaves at a time and up to 500 – 600 loaves a day. With its huge thermal mass, the oven usually stays hot 24/7. The oven has three sections and the breads are rotated about every ten minutes in each so that the moisture they generate can be used to help form crispy crust on the newer breads. Farm and Sparrow features 11 varieties of heirloom wheat and rye breads – seeded brick oven bread (from local whole wheat flour) is their most popular seller.
So I doubt Mimi Sheraton is a regular reader of Opinion8ed2, but I will do my best to alert her that her journey in search of bialy history is not yet complete. And while I suspect Dave Bauer is quite content with his move to Asheville and the success of Farm and Sparrow I will continue to try to entice him into establishing a northern branch in New York. Move over Kossar’s and Slim’s.
An Addition to the Late City Edition:
Wandering through the special food exhibit at the Museum of Natural History today I came upon this photo of a traditional Chinese Thanksgiving feast in NYC, which always starts with bialys from Kossars. Hmmm.