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Hello Bialy 

A rare Jewish delicacy appears in North Idaho.

click to enlarge Edward “Bear” Weiner has brought the bialy to North Idaho. - JANE FRITZ
  • Jane Fritz
  • Edward “Bear” Weiner has brought the bialy to North Idaho.

Vicki Reich used to pack light for flights to the East Coast to visit family. A food columnist for Sandpoint’s weekly newspaper, the Reader, and a merchandiser for a natural-foods market, she wanted to leave plenty of room in her carry-on luggage to stash a couple of dozen freshly baked, New York-style bagels to bring back home to North Idaho. Inevitably, she would wind up apologizing for the onion-y smell coming from her overhead compartment and wafting through the plane’s passenger cabin. She just couldn’t help it. Bagels had long been a part of her life.

“There were always bagels in my house. It was weird if there weren’t bagels,” Reich says. “You would have one, if not every day, certainly on the weekends and for Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur, where you fasted all day long. That was the way you broke your fast.”

But bagels were more than a staple in her family’s kitchen in New Jersey. The practice of eating bagels evolved into an unusual, intergenerational family ritual.

So it was truly remarkable when Reich discovered the Old Icehouse Pizzeria and Bakery in Hope, Idaho, two years after moving to Sandpoint. She had been bemoaning the fact that most of the bagels that she found living in the Northwest were huge, fluffy imitations — what she calls “the Wonder Bread of bagels.”

But after biting into one of baker Edward Weiner’s dense, chewy, thick-crusted bagels, Reich remembers thinking, “This guy must not be from around here.” She was right.

Edward Weiner, who goes by “Bear,” was born in New York City and, like Reich, grew up in New Jersey. He also was raised Jewish. His father immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine, and his mother is of Polish heritage. Poland is actually considered to be the birthplace of the bagel, where it first was eaten by the wealthy in the 15th century. It eventually became a peasant’s Lenten bread and later was adopted as a daily bread for the Jews. We commonly think of bagels as Jewish, but it’s only because the bread came to this country with Jewish immigrants in the late 1800s.

It wasn’t his ancestry that transformed Bear into a North Idaho bagel baker, however. Oddly enough, it was his interest in forestry. He came west for college in 1973 and found that the back-to-the-land lifestyle of the times resonated with him — so much so that he made the Northern Rockies his new home, building a cabin in the wooded mountains surrounding the small village of Hope.

But since he had enjoyed baking bread most of his life, he decided to try making a living with the dough in Idaho. In 2001, he bought the building that had once been Hope’s icehouse and began offering New York-style pizza. He soon expanded the business to include artisan breads. Before long, he began crafting the ethnic breads of his heritage: old-style bagels and New York sourdough rye.

Convinced that certain foods have the power to evoke childhood memories, last year Bear began offering another Polish-Jewish roll of even rarer occurrence in Idaho: the bialy, a flatter roll, made with sourdough, that has a depression in the center that is filled with grated onion sauteed in olive oil. Bear suggests it tastes like a cross between an English muffin and an onion roll. He admits that people are hesitant to try them, but once they do, they usually become return customers.

Perhaps it’s the history of the bialy, rather than its simple and delicious nature, that makes eating them such a rare and precious gift.

According to Mimi Sheraton’s 2000 book, The Bialy Eaters, bialys originated in Bialystok, a town located near Treblinka, in eastern Poland. The rolls became a staple in Jewish homes throughout eastern Europe. By the 1920s, they had made their way to the United States, settling primarily around Jewish immigrant communities in Los Angeles and New York City. The bialy is even considered by some people to be sacred, since it survived the Holocaust, when most of the Bialystok townsfolk didn’t. Only five of the formerly 50,000 Jewish residents there escaped a tragic and horrific end.

“Bialys are one of my favorites, and finding them here in Idaho is really lucky,” says Vicki Reich. She claims Bear’s bialys are some of the best she’s ever eaten. Her last trip to the East Coast a couple of months ago left her largely disappointed as far as the staple goes.

“They were so small — silver-dollar size — and barely had any onion,” Reich says. Since discovering Bear’s bagels, she no longer schleps bagels from New York west across the continent. But she may still need to make apologies to fellow passengers for the onion smell on her trips the other direction. She’s seriously thinking of packing a couple dozen Hope, Idaho, bialys in her carry-on to share with her East Coast relatives. 

The Old Ice House Pizzeria • 140 W. Main St. • Hope, Idaho • oldicehousepizzeria.com • (208) 264-5555

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