Controversy In Bialytown!Posted: August 1, 2012
Its 1996. I’m a college freshman straight from Bumblefart, Washington that’s been transplanted to a much different New York City than what we know today. I remember vividly being frustrated trying to find a mop with a sponge head (not a deck mop, who uses those?) at one of the 8 million sheisty looking mom and pop stores, buying rotten soda (it happens) and how neverendingly dirty every thing was. I was homesick. I had an awful roommate that hated me, I wasn’t used to the abruptness of New Yorkers and nothing was convenient. In a word, it sucked. New York City just sucked.
Fortunately for me, I had some relatives in New Jersey and I would go to visit them as often as I possibly could. One time they were nice enough to drive me back up from Laurenceville to my crappy dorm in Brooklyn, where I made an unusual food discovery (accidentally): The Bialy.
Now keep in mind, on top of having the cosmic prison sentence of my first out of the house experience in mid-nineties Brooklyn, I didn’t know directions in the city to save my life. Trains were one thing, but if we were in a car we were dead in the water. So the one time that I got a ride it resulted in me further hating my life in New York while my uncle kept asking me “Where are we going?” as if I were Rand McNally or something.
Somehow, we stumbled upon Kossar’s Bialy’s on the Lower East Side, which was a welcome respite from my teen angst and everyone’s frustration for being lost. We got a dozen and ambled off into the rapidly growing night, eventually back to the hovel I called home in Clinton Hill. I believe that this was the last time that I actually ate a bialy, but I have heard about how good they were for the last 16 years or so.
But this doesn’t explain what a bialy is or why there’s controversy with it. (I just thought you might get a kick out of imagining angsty, art school me.)
A bialy is a short term for bialystoker kuchen, a Polish roll native to the town of Bialystock. They look like a bagel but are really more like a hard roll in texture and have no hole in the center. Bialys, unlike bagels, aren’t boiled before baking and usually come with little bits of minced onion or poppy seeds in the indentation.
Bialys hit New York with waves of immigrants in the late 19th century, who didn’t seem to widely export the baked good to their American adopted towns as they spread out (also because the rolls have an extremely short shelf life). In the early part of the 20th century bialy bakeries were a dime a dozen but today only a couple still exist.
The most popular bialy bakery is clearly Kossar’s, which also claims to be the oldest operating bialy bakery in the city. In 1936 Isadore Mirsky and Morris Kossar threw open their doors and started peddling tasty carbohydrates to the masses on Clinton Street. The shop moved from its original home in the 1960′s to the current location on Grand and Essex after an extensive building fire.
That’s all well and good, right? Kossar’s is probably the oldest bialy bakery in New York. Wonderful! Article done!
Except.. they’re not. Kossar’s is not the oldest continuously operating bialy bakery in New York. That title would technically go to Ross’ Bialy’s of Coney Island, which is oftentimes overshadowed by the glitz and glamour of the Manhattan bialy.
The Coney Island institution has been in operation for over 90 years almost continuously, serving chewy, oniony baked goods to the masses. The bakery was founded in 1920 by Morris Rosenweig and was kept alive by his son and later grandson until 2011. Steve Ross, Morris’ grandson, decided to close the business that summer because of a changing breakfast demographic which resulted in loss of business. That closure, however, was a temporary one. Only a few months after Ross shuttered the iconic store two neighborhood men (both Pakistani Muslims) bought the business and revived it. Sales have been reported to be strong and tradition is kept alive.
So! Should you happen to get lost in Manhattan or Coney Island and need to refuel, I highly suggest trying the highly localized bialy. You may not find direction, but at least you’ll be in a happy carbohydrate coma.