by Gaetano Maida
Right up front, let me say that I’m not Jewish. I come by my yiddhishkeit sensibilities legitimately though: I was raised in the Bronx among a post war circle of fervent left-wing activists and artists, many of whom were Jewish or mixed in all manner of combinations.
(This brings to mind an old joke: A congressman was being given a tour of a prison at the height of the McCarthy era of anti-Communist hysteria. The warden asked him what he would like to see and he said, “Show me some of your political prisoners.” The warden brought him to a cellblock and gestured to a prisoner to come forward. The congressman said, “Speak to me some Communist.” And the prisoner looked at him and smiled, and said, “Kishmir en tuhchas.” But I digress…)
I can’t say how many bar mitzvahs and seders I attended before high school, but way more than any other social events for sure. My mother worked for the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, and my brother and I attended (and eventually worked at) a Jewish summer camp for several years running. I knew the barukha for meals in Hebrew and the joke was I could probably recite a haftora by heart.
My wife is a sabra, Israeli (I know, right?), brought up in New York and, like me, has an affection for the delights of the yiddishkeit table. (In fact, it was this sincere affection of mine that won her reluctant parents over to our traif romance: after many months of avoiding the subject of our mixed relationship, my future mother-in-law finally understood from her daughter that it was serious and that she had to meet me. She called, and in sweetly accented English invited me to dinner, which I happily accepted. She then rather timidly asked, “But what would you like to eat?” and I said, with enthusiasm, “Kasha varishka and flanken mit hrain.” And that sealed the deal, let me tell you!)
Anyway, we moved to the Bay Area after a few years of marriage, and while loving every bit of the life here (the weather, the fresh food, the community), we occasionally bemoaned the lack of real yiddishkeit (and other) culinary delights we took for granted in New York. We maintained a lot of work and friend connections back East of course, and traveling there often, found ourselves carrying back all manner of foods to Berkeley (counter-intuitive, I know—all due respect to Alice, but hey, that’s the way it was!).
One of these items was the classic Polish specialty bread, the bialy (do the name “Bialystock” ring any bells?). This is a small round baked item, flat on one side and slightly curved on the other, lightly browned on top, with a unique dimple in the center that held browned minced onion and a few poppy seeds. Not a bagel! Even in New York it was an endangered species, with the immigrant generation growing older and moving to Florida, etc., and the younger generations finding other delightful sources of carbs. There was just one bakery left in Manhattan producing a true bialy: Kossar’s, on Grand Street, way east of the Bowery, the real Lower East Side. They even made onion board, a true Old World fossil of a flat bread. Kossar’s bialys were available in packages of ten at the famous Upper West Side purveyor Zabar’s, but going to the bakery for fresh and fragrant batches was a personal preference.
Fast forward to last year: it’d been a while since the quality at Kossar’s had fallen, alas, and we couldn’t even find good bialys in Florida (don’t ask!). Oakland is experiencing a wonderful renaissance in several neighborhoods, with younger folks moving in, raising families and opening artisanal shops of all sorts to serve their friends and communities. One of these is Beauty’s Bagel Shop, in an area that is nisht ahir unt nisht aher—neither here nor there, but definitely in transition.
Beauty’s is the brainchild of two relatively recent arrivals from Philadelphia, Amy and Blake. Inspired by the classic Jewish bakeries of Montreal, they built a wood-fired oven and refined a traditional recipe and process including boiling the bagel dough in honey-sweetened water and using organic ingredients. They bake a mean bagel, not like the recent BSOs (“bagel shaped objects) we’ve seen all over the country, sort of bagels on steroids: large, plump and soft, perfect for making sandwiches (we blame the ‘70s fad chain Bagel Nosh for this), rather than the traditional chewy and flavorful (and smaller) versions the East coast yiddishkeit know and love so well. They also offer a full menu of breakfast and lunch items, often with daily specials. The place is packed on the weekends, with sidewalk and inside seating.
video courtesy David Brick of Brick Film
We live not too far away and were early customers, and delighted with their passion and energy (and the delicious bagels), we asked about bialys. They grinned and said they were working on the recipe to get it right but they weren’t ready to serve these yet. We volunteered to taste and comment if they’d like, and it was game on!
The first batches we sampled were tasty but not quite on the mark: too light and airy, not enough (or brown enough) onions, and no poppy seeds; too bread-like. We photocopied the recipe from the great Mimi Sheraton’s delightfully quixotic book, The Bialy Eaters (note to our filmmaker friends: would make a wonderful documentary…) and gave it to Blake and Amy, with love. The next batch had poppy seeds and a few weeks later a perfect rendition of what we longed for emerged from their oven, and we pronounced it ready for prime time.
There are two schools of thought on bialys: toasted or not toasted. I’m of the toasted persuasion and my wife is steadfast in her un-toasted approach, and she’s the Polish one, so there you go. We enjoy them sweet (with butter and perhaps some jam) or savory (with or without butter and some nice smoked sprats or salmon). They’re great right out of the oven of course: just take a bite and the warm baked dough and sweet onions will put a smile on your face.
Beauty’s bakes bialys only on the weekends, and if we’re in town we call ahead to reserve a dozen (they’re usually sold out by lunch hour) and pick them up. We now carry these to New York and Florida to feed our friends and family there. (Not coals to Newcastle—there are no bialys left there!) One recent trip didn’t go so well, though: I picked up a dozen in its brown paper bag, got them home and immediately placed the bag in a ziplock bag (remember, fragrant!) and stuffed it in a suitcase. Once we got to Florida and opened the bag, though, we discovered that the bialys were very different: very puffy, no dimple and not browned at all. The taste was good (and we ate them all, believe me!), but the relatives were not impressed.
I emailed Amy when we returned and noted the change in the bialys, asking if it was a new recipe. She quickly replied that for some reason (humidity? different crop of wheat? temperature?) the dough in that batch just didn’t behave properly (this happens in baking…). Anyway, she said the experience did help them understand the dough better and for us to please come in for another dozen on the house. (These guys are what are known as mensches…) We just enjoyed a couple with sprats before heading out to the farmers market, and bob’s yer uncle!
Gaetano Kazuo Maida is a media professional and strategic planner. He has owned restaurants and a tea shop, was a founding director of the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle, and producer/director of Peace Is Every Step, a film profile of Vietnamese Zen teacher/activist Thich Nhat Hanh, narrated by Ben Kingsley. Among his other films as director and/or producer are The Simple Life, On the Luce, Rock Soup, Milarepa, Touching Peace, and the forthcoming In Search of Green Gold. He is currently also the Executive Director of the nonprofit Buddhist Film Foundation and Tea Arts Institute. Additionally he is a principal of Maida+Associates, a consulting firm with media, hospitality/housing and nonprofit clients.