My grandmother Rose would disdainfully refer to anyone who still smacked of the old country—any old country—as a “greenhorn.” Conversely, anything that struck her as outside of her worldview was dismissed with a shrug and the Yiddish term goyim, i.e., not Jewish. Like a lot of Ashkenazi immigrants of the late-Victorian era, she lived in that difficult space between American integration and maintaining Jewish identity. It’s a story she shares not only with countless other families, but the food traditions they brought with them from Eastern Europe. Specifically, that of the bialy and the bagel; the greenhorn and the all-American success story.
Evan Giniger, owner of the Manhattan bakery Kossar’s, defines a bialy as “a Jewish English muffin.” He explains, “If you think of a round piece of bread and instead of a hole in the middle, it has a indentation, and in that indentation it has some sort of filling. Traditionally it's an onion or garlic filling.”
Additionally, bialy dough is placed straight in the oven after the mixing and rising process, rather than being boiled in between like a bagel, so it lacks the signature pneumatic interior and slick, shiny outer crust. The result is a bread that’s remained true to its ethnic origins—tough, resilient and fond of onions. Like most peasant breads, from Indian naan to French boule, it has a substance that’s slightly salty, yeasty, and chewy when fresh.
Its ideal state, according to some mavens (myself included), is toasted, which renders it crunchy, awakens the perfume of sautéed onions, and makes it an ideal carrier of toppings like butter, cream cheese, or whitefish salad. In fact, for most of Kossar’s 80-year history the formula and choices remained largely the same. So much so that the shop offered bialys almost exclusively for most of that time, adding bagels only about 25 years ago when they started becoming more popular. Spreads—which Kossar’s refers to as Schmears®—in flavors like olive and cinnamon-raisin cream cheese are an even newer phenomenon. Giniger believes this speaks to one particular population’s love of the little dimpled rolls.
“For a very long time there was enough of a Jewish population concentrated in the Lower East Side area that the store could survive on selling bialys. Just think about how a business could survive 80 years with such a limited product line, it's really pretty exceptional,” says Giniger.
The bagel, on the other hand, has had a complete Hollywood makeover. Starting with its introduction into the frozen-food aisle in by the Lender’s company in the mid-1950s. Like a lot of other convenience foods with possibly foreign origins (e.g., chow mein, tempura, tortilla chips), mainstream success meant adapting to blander, sweeter and richer American tastes. Moreover, selling this new avatar of a bagel meant making changes to both form and flavor.
One such step was an upgrade in size, which squares with what cultural critic Umberto Eco describes as driving forces behind Americans’ obsession with prosperity; our love of “more.” Mass-market bagels are—in both physical size and in terms of consumer spending habits—huge. According to the country’s leader purveyor of bagels, Dunkin’ Donuts, a Pepper Jack Supreme Bagel can clock in at over 400 calories and a plain at 310, compared to a bialy’s more modest 170 calories. Another adaptation was a range of flavors my ancestors would completely fail to recognize. (My family will passionately debate the legitimacy of the cinnamon-raisin bagels.) There were no equivalents to pretzel, blueberry, French toast, asiago, or green chili in the Russian Pale. These flavors are both purely American inventions and a grafting of new immigrant experiences onto already familiar flavor profiles.
According to Heidi Curry, Senior Manager of Bakery Research and Development for Dunkin' Brands, the way flavors are developed has a lot to do with the culture of busyness that envelops many Americans these days. “Our menu provides our guests with a wide range of choices, and we are constantly exploring new menu items in order to provide our busy on-the-go guests with even more options any time of day,” she explains. New flavors come not what is handed down from bubbe but from, “food and flavor trends, guest and crew feedback, and popular culture.“ That’s about as red, white, and blue as you can get.
In the end, while tradition is nice and necessary, market forces even affect the humble bialy. Giniger bought Kossar’s with his partners three years ago because it was so vulnerable to the both gentrification and a changing neighborhood population. Rescuing it, however, would mean changing it. It was a trade-off he willing to make. “We found an opportunity to save a little bit of iconic New York City history that was in danger of disappearing,” Giniger says. “There was an opportunity in this to save an existing business and reinvent it.“
With the past preserved under Giniger’s leadership, the future would have to make way for new flavors like apple cinnamon in order to spread the good word of the bialy to new customers beyond Grand Street. Perhaps a bit of a blasphemy to the purist, but time marches on, and if you’re lucky enough to find a good bialy at all, you should, as my grandmother would say you ess en gezunterhait—eat in good health.
As a writer, Ilise S. Carter’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the AV Club, Playboy, O Magazine, and other outlets. As the Lady Aye, she is one of fewer than three dozen living female sword swallowers, and has worked with everyone from Cirque de Soleil to Rob Zombie and been called one of “the masters of modern sideshow” by Sideshow World.