Paul Solman of WGBH Boston considers the bialy, a cousin of the bagel, as a piece of cultural history.
PAUL SOLMAN: New York City's lower East Side-- for decades, home to countless immigrants from Eastern Europe, and one delicacy from there that's been the object, lately, of food writer Mimi Sheraton's obsession.
MIMI SHERATON, Author, "The Bialy Eaters:" That spice...
PAUL SOLMAN: Reporter: Hot.
MIMI SHERATON: Right.
PAUL SOLMAN: Sheraton loves a good bialy-- an onion-flecked roll that's distantly related to the bagel-- and believes the bialys made here at Kossar's Bakery are the best in the city, the country-- quite possibly the world. She speaks with some authority, having spent seven years researching her new book, "The Bialy Eaters."
MIMI SHERATON: I almost never eat bagels because bagels have become so large and so doughy and so soft, they've lost their character. A bialy to me is much more satisfying-- the crunch, the aroma, and so on.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now, a bialy, for those who may never have had one, tastes a lot like pizza crust-- no surprise, since bialy dough is made from the identical recipe of flour, water, salt, and yeast.
MIMI SHERATON: The exact origin of the bialy is not known, but this is my theory...
PAUL SOLMAN: Sheraton believes the bialy was born of an accident in a Polish bakery sometime in the 19th century.
MIMI SHERATON: One day, someone dropped it on the floor. Someone else, not seeing it, came over and stepped on it. The baker, not wanting to waste it, picked up, smeared on poppy seed and onion, baked it, tasted it, and declared a eureka moment in bread history.
PAUL SOLMAN: You actually believe that?
MIMI SHERATON: I actually believe it. It's as good as anything else, and I think it will become seminal. I expect to see it in "La Rousse Gastronomie's" next edition.
PAUL SOLMAN: Since then, of course, bialys have been made under somewhat more hygienic conditions.
BAKER: You shape it with your thumb; that's how I... And you just hold your... You're getting there. You don't have to pull it out too wide. I can see a second career, you know.
PAUL SOLMAN: A second career? Oh, okay. Now, then you've got to put...
BAKER: That's called a shmear. We call it shmearing, when we place the onions in-- shmear.
PAUL SOLMAN: Shmear-- like to smear?
BAKER: Right, right.
PAUL SOLMAN: Of course, there's no way I could keep up with Fred Rosner, who shmears 400 bialys an hour. And even that's slow compared to a machine. But co-owner Debbie Engelmayer refuses to automate.
DEBORAH ENGELMAYER, Co-owner, Kossar's Bakery: We bought a family business with history, and to automate... There are other bialy places that automate, and they make fine bialys, but they're... They're not Kossar's bialys.
PAUL SOLMAN: Not many people in this world grew up on bialys. And though at Kossar's there are Scandinavians, Asians, West Indians who buy them, most Americans don't, including one local who did grow up on bialys.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now, what does bialy mean to you?
PAUL SOLMAN: Heartburn? ( Laughter ) so what inspired an entire book on bialys? Well, when Mimi Sheraton began her research, she was simply interested in foods named after places.
MIMI SHERATON: What is Danish pastry like in Denmark? Do the French eat something called French toast? I always loved bialys, and when I was going to Poland in 1992 to do a story on restaurants, I thought of going to Bialystok, just to see where they came from.
PAUL SOLMAN: Bialystok, Poland-- it's what gives the bialy story a larger significance. Nowadays, Bialystok is an all- Polish city of about 300,000, near the eastern border with Belarus-- white Russia. But up until World War II, about half the population were Jews, who owned many of the downtown shops, much of the booming textile trade.
MIMI SHERATON: It was a very active, prosperous town known as the city with the golden heart. It had hospitals for the indigent. It had homes for the aged. It had summer camps for poor children.
PAUL SOLMAN: It also had bialy bakeries-- one on nearly every street.
PERSON ON NEWSREEL: (speaking through interpreter) In Bialystok you must taste the local delicacies.
PAUL SOLMAN: The locals called the bread Bialystok kuchen...
MIMI SHERATON: From a little cake or a little bread.
PAUL SOLMAN: …which gave the Jews of Bialystok their nickname: Bialystok kuchen fressers.
MIMI SHERATON: ...A fresser, who is a prodigious eater. So it's a prodigious eater of these little Bialystok rolls.
PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, bialys were so entwined with prewar Jewish identity, they earned their very own joke in Leo Rosten's Jewish American classic, "The Joys of Yiddish."
MIMI SHERATON: A woman goes to a bialy baker, and he tells her the price of the bialys. And she says, "40 cents a dozen for bialys? The baker across the street is charging only 20 cents." And the baker says, "so buy them across the street." She says, "well, today he happens to be out of them." He says, "oh, well, when I'm out of bialys, I charge only 20 cents a dozen too."
PAUL SOLMAN: Mix Jews and bialys, and the jokes fly with the flour. You've already met Leon Schreiber, neighborhood buddy of Fred the baker.
LEON SCHREIBER: And during the holidays... My name is Leon, I spell it backwards-- it's Noel-- I get more presents.
PAUL SOLMAN: Schreiber graduated from the famed high school across the street from Kossar's, Seward Park, a veritable breeding ground for Jewish entertainers. Who else went to Seward Park?
LEON SCHREIBER: At the time I did?
PAUL SOLMAN: Yeah, yeah.
LEON SCHREIBER: Tony Curtis, that I know.
PAUL SOLMAN: Tony Curtis was in your class?
LEON SCHREIBER: No, no, he was six months behind me.
PAUL SOLMAN: Six months behind you.
LEON SCHREIBER: And three years ahead of me was Walter Matthau.
PAUL SOLMAN: And Zero Mostel also went to this school?
LEON SCHREIBER: Paul, it was way before my time. I remember him.
PAUL SOLMAN: Zero Mostel, bound forever to the bialy's birthplace through his portrayal of Max Bialystok, a Broadway producer so inept, when he tried to put on an outrageous flop to rip off investors, the show was a hit.
SCENE FROM "THE PRODUCERS": Springtime for Hitler and Germany ( bullets ricocheting ) (machinegun fire ) two steps are new steps today
PAUL SOLMAN: Mel Brooks' "The Producers" was over-the-top satire, laughing to keep from crying -- because what happened to the Bialystok kuchen fressers explains why the humble roll they fressed may well be worth remembering. On June 27, 1941, the Nazis marched into Bialystok and burned down the central synagogue. As many as 3,000 Jews were trapped inside. Over the next two years, thousands more died in mass killings. In August, 1943, the 40,000 Jews who remained were shipped to Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek; or, to save on transportation costs, shot in Bialystok itself. Half a century later, Mimi Sheraton found five Jews living in Bialystok, not a single bialy bakery, only dim recollections of the once-ubiquitous onion roll. She returned to New York's lower East Side, the center of a tight-knit but far-flung community.
MIMI SHERATON: This is the Bialystok center and home for the aged. When I wrote an article for their publication, I heard from Bialystokers all over the world. And as they talked about the bialys, they talked about their mothers and their fathers and their siblings and school. And then I would say, "and then what happened?" And what happened to about half of them was the Holocaust. Some had been in concentration camps, some escaped, some did as many did in... around Bialystok, was run across the border to Russia and join the Soviet army.
PAUL SOLMAN: Albert Sabin of polio vaccine fame, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir; they were among those who escaped early. Leo Melamed, the man credited with creating the options market, had childhood memories of being lifted up to watch bialys coming out of the oven. And Samuel Pisar, famed international lawyer, diplomat, and author of the 1979 bestseller "Of Blood and Hope," gave Sheraton this account.
SAMUEL PISAR: "When I was an adolescent in Auschwitz, lying on the hard shelf that was my bed and hallucinating from hunger, I would often try to recall the shape and savory aroma of the kuchen we used to eat at home in Bialystok. By that time I had lost all of my family and school friends. Years later, when I was in New York, I marveled at the whites, blacks, Asians, and Latinos as they munched on their bialys. I felt as though I was from another planet.
PAUL SOLMAN: Is there something that the people you interviewed for this book who came from Bialystok, and survived the Second World War, have in common?
MIMI SHERATON: Yes, it was a sense of loss: The lost bread, the lost words, the lost family.
PAUL SOLMAN: For me, as it happens, bialys were a much-loved breadstuff of my youth.
PAUL SOLMAN: Which ones are mine?
BAKER: These are yours. Look at them.
PAUL SOLMAN: Hey.
BAKER: These are shaina-- beautiful, pretty.
PAUL SOLMAN: Shaina. A shaina bialy.
PAUL SOLMAN: But to be honest, I'd thought even less about the bialy's roots than Mimi Sheraton had when she began her search eight years ago.
MIMI SHERATON: Wow, that's very good for a first try.
MIMI SHERATON: In doing this book, the bialy did for me, in a sense, what the Madeleine did for Proust, or at least did for the people I interviewed. It recalled a whole world and an entire way of life.
PAUL SOLMAN: It's a society that, like Marcel Proust's, has vanished. But in a sense, it lives on in the humble bialy.