Bob Schwartz

Month: July, 2013

In Praise of the Bialy

Time for a little geo-chauvinism, at least as it concerns a particular food.

Living and travelling around the country and the world, you experience the delightful variety of foods that have been cultivated in all those different places. Some have spread nationally and globally, others have remained relatively local.

Bagels seem to be almost everywhere now, though the versions served are like the variety of things called pizza: some are special, some are seriously questionable. But growing up in New York, we ate the bagel’s eccentric sibling, a breakfast roll known as a bialy.

The bialy not only didn’t evangelize the world; the number of bialy bakeries in New York is actually shrinking. To understand what you and much of the world are missing, this description by Bell Bialys in Brooklyn:

Named after Bialystock, Poland, which was made famous through the musical Fiddler on the Roof, a bialy combines the flavors of an English muffin and a bagel. This flat, round baked product is low in calories, fat and cholesterol, with no sugar or oil added. The texture of the top and the bottom of a bialy are distinctively different. The top is light and crunchy while the bottom is heavier and chewy.

The creation of a quality bialy takes great skill and consistency. Following over 50 years of tradition, the Bell Bialy is still “pulled” by hand with the middle indented by thumb, and freshly grated onion mixture spooned into the indentation before the bialy is placed into the oven.

Of course writing about bialys is like dancing about art. We are all adults here, so look at it this way: if a bagel is like satisfying but routine sex, a bialy is like the act or position so simple yet sublime that you wonder why you’ve never tasted it before—and wonder when you can do it again.

Flour, water, onions.Unlike bagels that are more dressed up than Barbie, you would no sooner put cranberries in a bialy than you would put them in a communion wafer. It’s not that it would violate any dietary laws, but it would be culinarily trayf—an affront to God and your taste buds.

Find a bialy. Eat a bialy. They are sold by Bell and other bakeries to distributors and retailers in the Northeast, Florida, California and elsewhere. If you don’t find it, ask, even if you have to explain what a bialy is—no small task if you yourself have never had one. It is worth it. Breakfast will never be the same. Once you’ve had bialy, well…

Should We Test Our Elected Officials?

IQ Curve
There is currently a right to have an abortion in America during the first trimester of pregnancy. This is one of the most divisive moral and legal controversies of our time. Some who support that right make clear that it is not necessarily a right they would exercise personally. Many who oppose the right would like to see it disappear entirely, whether through reconsideration by the Supreme Court or by constitutional amendment.

In the absence of constitutional reinterpretation or change, a number of states have passed laws to circumscribe that right, or at the very least to reduce its exercise. One of the most common laws, signed a few days ago in Wisconsin, requires pregnant women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound. This is aimed at emphasizing to these women that they are carrying a fetus—as if they had forgotten—in hopes of deterring them from going through with an abortion. The states just want to be sure these women are well and fully informed.

Great examples of conditioning a right are the sorts of literacy tests that were used in the Jim Crow South to keep black people from voting. Questions were often so difficult that even government officials would have trouble passing. From the Alabama literacy test of 1965 (68 questions):

19. Who passes laws dealing with piracy?
30. Of the original 13 states, the one with the largest representation in the first Congress was _____________.
39. If it were proposed to join Alabama and Mississippi to form one state, what groups would have to vote approval in order for this to be done?
41. The Constitution limits the size of the District of Columbia to _____________.
66. After the presidential electors have voted, to whom do they send the count of their votes?

The use of these sorts of literacy tests for voter suppression was challenged and ultimately outlawed.

Still, there may be the germ of a good idea here. A correlate of the right to vote is the right to hold public office. Sometimes, just sometimes, it seems that this right is being taken for granted by our elected officials. Perhaps there are some of the executives and legislators, at the state and national level, who might benefit from having their ability to hold office tested. Maybe they need to be tested on the arcane intricacies of how government works. Maybe they need to be better informed.

So the proposal is for all public officials to be tested before they are allowed to take office. No ultrasounds. Just the sort of knowledge assessment that prospective black voters had to undergo in 1965. Just the sort of test to see if these officials really understand what rights are and how, in America, we allow change to happen, and what to do lawfully if we don’t like the direction (we don’t terrorize people to make rights painful or impossible to exercise). We will see just how many of them can pass that test.

Answers to above questions:

19. Congress
30. Virginia
39. Congress and the legislatures of both states
41. 10 miles square
66. Vice President (President of the Senate)

Thank You Mask Man

Thank You Mask Man
The release of the new Lone Ranger movie is an opportunity to introduce some readers to Lenny Bruce, very nearly the most significant comic of the modern comedy era.

In the 1950s and early sixties, there was nothing that Bruce wouldn’t talk about—in language that you could hear anywhere except on stage or screen, in attitude that was mercilessly satirical and uncomfortable for a lot of people. Most of all, it was funny. It wasn’t that he didn’t care and was only doing it to be sensational. He did it because he cared painfully about hypocrisy and self-righteousness that ended up hurting people deeply (just like today). He held up a mirror, and if what people saw looked ridiculous and less than complimentary, he was just the observer.

He has been called the Elvis of stand up, and that applies in a few ways. First, he was a groundbreaking talent who did what others had not done before and made it wildly popular. Second, his work was controversial and resulted in reaction. In the case of Bruce, it was not only social or media reaction; it was legal. Elvis was never busted for his hip shaking. Third, each of them had certain personal demons that contributed to a sad and untimely demise.

Lenny Bruce continued the long tradition of telling truth to power in a funny way. In his later years, after numerous busts for obscenity, a certain bitterness colored his attempts at comedy, “attempts” because to be honest much of it wasn’t funny. But at his height, there was a sweet honesty that made his arguments hard to resist.

Thank You Mask Man is a comedy bit about the Lone Ranger. In 1968, it was made into an animated short, with Bruce’s routine as the soundtrack. The premise of the bit is that the Lone Ranger never stops to accept “thank yous” from the people he helps. When he finally does agree to enjoy appreciation, it turns out to be something the townspeople don’t expect. Be aware and warned: Bruce manages to work small-mindedness, homosexuality, and even religion into the goofy mix (i.e., we won’t need the Lone Ranger after the Messiah returns).

Enjoy Lenny Bruce and a Lone Ranger you’ve never seen before.