Food for Thought

Life, Death & Bialys

Review of a book and a lecture series that ask us to ask why “taste matters”

On September 7, 2006, the Judah L. Magnes Museum of Berkeley inaugurated a year-long lecture series exploring the role of food and drink in Jewish culture. Ron Hendel, a UC Berkeley professor of Jewish Studies, led the series with his talk entitled “Food is Good to Think: Altar and Table in Biblical Religion,” looking at the laws and symbolism of food that have been passed down from Biblical times.

It was a lively hour, during which Hendel laid out a set of questions that could be useful in any discussion of food and culture: The oft-asked “What do we eat?” was joined by “With whom do we eat?” “How do we eat?” and “Where do we eat?” These questions help us understand who we are as individuals and as members of society, and will no doubt be relevant throughout the series.
Lecture number two, which takes place November 30 at 6:30 p.m., is a reading and discussion of Life, Death & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story by Dylan Schaffer, a professor at Hastings College of Law and an East Bay resident. In his book, Schaffer interweaves the story of his tumultuous childhood (his mother was severely depressed and suicidal, and his father was absent) with the often-humorous account of a week spent with his dad, Alan “Flip” Schaffer, in New York as his father dies of cancer.

It is Flip’s idea that the two should enroll in an intensive bread-making class at the French Culinary Institute. For Dylan, it is a final opportunity to come to terms with Flip before he dies—to get answers to questions his father has long evaded: why Flip left his wife and four children, why he gave up on his potential career in writing, and why he waited until this late stage of life to reach out to his son. The book portrays the poignant path to forgiveness that so many of us must tread with family members who continue to exasperate us until the end.

In the midst of the story, I could imagine Dylan Schaffer addressing Hendel’s four questions—what, with whom, how, and where?—in the context of this visit to New York City, where food culture, and Jewish food culture in particular, are so vivid. In this case, the “whom” is a very strong and unabashed personality. Dylan’s father is an ex-New Yorker, whom Dylan describes as looking like a “Jewish Humpty Dumpty.” Flip eats lustily and talks with his mouth full, likes simple food (but is very opinionated about it), and “has a bit of a crush on Jacques (Pepin).”

The “what” is the classic French breads father and son learn to make at the Institute. Schaffer gives a detailed, funny, alternately enticing and agonizing description of the whole process as the class learns about preferments, baker’s percentages, friction factors, scaling, kneading, shaping, retarding, scoring, and the astonishing daily chore of tending a levain in a commercial bakery. The book is a great read for anyone who is interested in baking. But Flip’s passion is for bialys, which are not part of the school’s curriculum.“What the heck is a bialy,” you may ask?

As Dylan defines it, a “bialy—short for bialystoker kuchen—is a small roll named for the city of Bialystock, Poland. It’s about the size of a bagel, but rather than a hole, it has a depression in the middle that houses a mixture of diced onions and poppy seeds or, in some cases, garlic.” Flip gives his own description, butting in on the conversation of another customer at Kossar’s Bialystoker Kuchen Bakery on the Lower East Side, when she tells her friend that, “It’s just like a bagel, but without the whole.”“With his mouth full, (Flip) shakes his head a few times and says, ‘Not a bagel, darling. Totally different animal. Baked, not boiled. You see the onions in the middle?’”Near the end of the book (and his father’s life), Dylan bakes bialys for his father, and he gives us the recipe he used that day, which ends with the directions: “Cut a bialy down the middle and spread the halves with enormous quantities of both cream cheese and butter. Make grunting sounds while eating.”

—Cheryl Koehler