How far would a sane person travel to find an onion roll? I'm afraid that I know the answer. While researching my book The Bialy Eaters (Broadway Books, 2000), the search for the roll known as a bialy took me to Poland, Israel, Argentina, Australia, England, France, and various cities in the United States. For those not yet privileged to know it, the bialy is a squat, squashy bagel alternative characterized by a slightly crackling yet softly puffy rim encircling a crisp center well, all mantled with pungent golden brown flecks of caramelized onions and crunches of poppy seeds.
Since then, it has become ever more difficult to find convincing examples. For decades, New York bakers turned out excellent bialys, but with changing times and tamer palates ("What? Me eat burned onions for breakfast?"), the old standards declined. Today, the bialy is returning to fashion, but mostly in bizarre guises with toppings such as squid ink and roasted red peppers, or a slice of cheese that melts in baking. All might cause traditionalists (including me) to lose their appetites altogether.
Fortunately for devotees of the classic bialy, the flame is being kept alive by a few new-generation bakers. In my former searches, I never would have thought to look for great bialys in Manhattan's Spanish Harlem, or at ultrachic Barneys in New York and Los Angeles, or, least of all, in Asheville, North Carolina. But bakers in these places are proving that sometimes the best things don't need updating.