``Forty cents a dozen for bialies,'' protested Mrs. Becker. ``The baker across the street is asking only twenty!'' ``So buy them across the street.''
``Today, he happens to be sold out.''
``When I'm out of bialies, I charge only twenty cents a dozen, too.''
-Leo Rosten in ``The Joys of Yiddish''
THE leading culinary real estate in the nation may well be a three-block strip along East Houston Street, on New York's Lower East Side.
At the corner of Forsyth Street is Yonah Shimmel's knish bakery, where a single cheese bagel for breakfast can make lunch superfluous, and possibly dinner, too.
That's too bad, because Ben's Cheese Shop is just a block ahead. Ben's baked farmer cheese, in blueberry and other flavors, is like cheesecake without the guilt.
At Katz's delicatessen, aficionados linger behind the sandwich line until the counterman comes to their preferred spot in the pastrami. ``People never had a good sandwich until they come in here,'' one says.
Amid this gustatory splendor, the bialys at Moishe's bakery are easy to overlook. Actually, they'd be easy to overlook anywhere. ``A flat breakfast roll, shaped like a round wading pool,'' is how Leo Rosten describes them in ``The Joys of Yiddish.''
The shopkeepers at Lower East Side bialy outlets such as Moishe's are not the sort to hype this fare. Jewish women of a certain age, they sit by the window, making sure life's sufferings do not go unlamented. Reporters they greet with enthusiasm usually reserved for city health inspectors.
``They come from New Jersey, all over,'' allows the woman at Moishe's, still looking out the window, speaking of her bialy customers. ``They buy them to take to Florida, all over.''
Those customers know something most Americans don't. A humble little bialy, warm on a brunch platter, is a decidedly happy experience. ``Second only to the bagel as a base for cream cheese and lox,'' Rosten calls them. Others go further. Sam Katz, owner of Johann Sebastian Bagel, in Memphis, says, ``I enjoy them much better, myself.''
``Ham and cheese on a bialy with a little mustard - it's delicious,'' says Gary Schwartzberg of Bagelmania in Miami.
Ham? ``As long as you aren't kosher,'' Mr. Schwartzberg adds.
In the 1960s, bagels emerged from the ethnic ghetto into the supermarkets of America. Bialys have yet to make the leap. ``If they're gonna get a good piece of bread,'' says Leo Taubenfeld of Ben's Cheese Store, ``they gotta buy it [down] here.''
The center of the bialy trade, in Manhattan anyway, is Kossar's Bialystoker Kuchen Bakery, on Grand Street five blocks below Houston (say ``HOUSE-ton'').
Kossar's block looks like a strip shopping mall, an oddity that somehow suits this polyglot neighborhood. Earlier in the century, the Lower East Side was the first stop after Ellis Island. Its teeming streets, once the most densely peopled in the world, were captured in the movie ``Hester Street'' and in such novels as Chaim Potok's ``The Chosen''and Henry Roth's 1930s classic, ``Call It Sleep.''
Investment bankers and fashion moguls trace their commercial lineage to pushcarts on Orchard Street. Henry Street Settlement was here, and the Jewish Daily Advance.
There are still vestiges of that era. The signs - some in Hebrew - on Essex Street for shops like Guss' Pickles and Leibel Bistritsky's Kosher Gourmet.
But during the '70s, the blocks North of Kossar's turned into a bombed-out drug zone. Chinatown is spilling over from the west and south, as Chinese flee the transfer of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997.
The Garden Cafeteria, once ripe with smells of pea soup and challah, has become a Chinese restaurant. Next door to Kossar's, the Essex Theater shows kung fu movies.
BUT bialys haven't changed much over the years, and neither has Kossar's: long rolling tables, cooling racks, an enormous oven, and a little sales counter in front. Florence Straus, who was born in the neighborhood, has worked the counter for 21 years. She remembers when people didn't bother to lock their doors.
Flour is everywhere. Early one Monday, Daniel Scheinin, the owner, was sweeping the floor, a Sisyphean endeavor that he approaches with resigned good humor. In white T-shirt and baker's pants, Mr. Scheinin practices what the business magazines call a ``hands-on management style.'' He takes off for delivery runs in his Lincoln Town Car.
Kossar's is the ``oldest continually operating bialy bakery in the United States,'' Mr. Scheinin says, a claim that nobody seems to be contesting. Bialys came originally from Bialystok, the second-largest city in Poland. His father-in-law bought the bakery in 1936.
There are machines for making bagels. But bialys are made entirely by hand, pretty much as they always have been.
Behind him, three bakers are shaping dough, making little puddles in the middle and filling them with the onion-poppy seed mixture that gives bialys their distinctive taste. They go into the oven 50 dozen at a time, 2,500 dozen a day (Scheinin computes on a brown paper bag).
A regular bialy is 30 cents. Mediums are 75. An onion disk, about the size of a small pizza, is $1.10.
Scheinin uses high-gluten flour, the same as for bagels, but with more water and ``a lot more yeast.'' This makes them lighter and - to many - more appetizing. Malt and sugar, commonly used in bagels, are out.
``I use fresh onion,'' for the filling, Scheinin says, ``mix it with water, and just shmear it on top.''
AS far as Scheinin knows, Kossar's is the only bialy bakery left in Manhattan. There are two in Brooklyn and two in Queens, one of which sells to supermarkets under the name ``Slim's.'' Not one to romanticize a piece of bread, Scheinin does show a certain pride. In today's typical white-bread bakery, he says, ``you don't see anybody working. It's all machines. These are shaped by hand. It's all by hand.''
Will he pass the bakery along to a child? ``I got one son,' Scheinin says. ``He's a doctor.''
At one time, probably half the bakers in the US were Jewish or German, says Ron Wirtz of the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan. A major journal was published in Yiddish and German, as well as English. But the Jewish baker's trade association folded not long ago, Mr. Wirtz says. ``All they have is a lawyer's address.''
There are numerous theories why bialys haven't followed bagels into Middle America. The plain shape is less a novelty, for one thing. The bit of onion is perhaps too ethnic. Sam Katz suggests that ``the name is harder to pronounce.'' (It's ``BYAH-lee.'')
But the main problem is on the production side, says Marvin Lender, who with his brother Murray took the bagel national back in the '60s. Originally, the Lenders made frozen bialys, along with bagels. But they never figured out how to mechanize the process. ``It sold very well,'' Mr. Lender says. ``But we didn't support it marketing-wise. We could not overcome the manufacturing constraints.'' The Lenders sold out to Kraft Foods, now operate two restaurants in Connecticut.
Bialy mavens aren't giving up. Schwartzberg of Bagelmania (``Slim's'' son, as it happens) is trying to ride the health wave, calling them ``Bialy Gluten Rolls.'' But for now, the bialy remains a Jewish specialty.
Which poses occasional problems for gentile fans. During Passover, in New York's Garment District, a man was seen poking through the pastry tray at a lobby coffee stand. ``Why aren't there any bialys today?''
The attendant shrugged. ``When they don't eat bread, we don't eat bread.''