Life, Death & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story

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Bloomsbury USA

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When Dylan Schaffer’s father, Flip, asked him to take an intensive bread making class at a fancy culinary school in New York, the idea seemed considerably less than half-baked. Dylan hadn’t seen much of his father—not since he left Dylan and his siblings in the care of their crazy mother thirty years before. Neither knew the first thing about making bread. And Flip’s cancer was expected to kill him long before the class was set to begin. But Flip made it. The pair spent seven days at the French Culinary Institute becoming artisanal bakers and seven tumultuous nights in a shabby Bowery hotel getting to know each other. As moving as it is irreverent, Life, Death & Bialys is about how an imperfect father said goodbye to his son and to his city and how a reluctant son discovered the essence of forgiveness.


Dylan Schaffer
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Life, Death & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story
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I read that the life expectancy of the average, American male is 76. As I come up on 35, I am approaching half-way. And, quite honestly, that really does mean the glass is half empty. Not pessimistic, mind you, just pragmatic. I know, I know 38 is just two years shy of forty and forty is the new 30. So, without trying to do the new math, half-way is half-way. Not lamenting, just taking inventory. What do I want to do with my life?

Well, I would like to jump from an airplane, work as a long-haul truck driver for a week, pet a lion on the head and live in Italy for a month. The list is not complete, but there are some realistic goals, nonetheless. I would like to become a proficient bread baker, as well. And we have some great bread bakers here, so my efforts around the bench pale in comparison. Kyle, resident bread baker extraordinaire, would fling flour in my face if he should see my benign baguettes, frumpy foccaccia and cataclysmic ciabatta. Alas, one day I would like to embark on that journey to boldly go where no unbromatted, unbleached flour has gone to travel to the land of wheat berries and whole grain to seek out strange new rolls and pullman loaves.

And so, too, did Dylan Schaffer's dad, in Life, Death & Bialys. Only, as the title implies, bialys were the object of his passion. Schaffer offers a realistic glimpse at how he, his dad, and the bake shop at the French Culinary Institute brought a dieing man and his son together over the education that is artisinal bread baking.

Schaffer explains the abnormally dysfunctional family dynamics that make most our own family drama look like five nights and six days in Disney World. Schaffer's mom, he explains, with her darkening gray eyes and tyrannical outbursts, was a clinical case in need of more care than the patients for which she was entrusted to care. Dad opted to spend the formative years of Schaffer's life building his own existence outside the constraints of the family he had fathered.

So, as Flipp Schaffer, with his witticisims, came face-to-face with his unrelenting illness, he made a head-long foray into learning bialy making and, perhaps, the making of a relationship with his son. Flour covered and in New York, Schaffer takes stabs at family life, dilettante culinary students, the frustrations of shaping baguettes and reconciling with a family that is more Griswold and Simpson than it is Brady and Cosby. 

Bread can be life. It is, after all, an amalgam of unrelated components that, as individuals, bring obscure contributions to the party. But together, they create life. There can be a metaphor that Dylan Schaffer's dad was making one last leap towards immortality (and embracing his son) with those few days at the French Culinary Institute. Or was the calling a higher one? Life, Death & Bialys is a candid look at the kitchen as a healing ground, center for celebration and, yes, even a death bed. Dylan Schaffer paints a picture with flour and yeast that tells a story not only of fantastic bialys, but how gluten may, very well, be the bond between father and son.


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