Tag Archive | "New York"

Care for some brains?


“Katakat” (pronounced “Ka-ta-kat”) is a popular offal Pakistani dish served at Kabab King Diner in Jackson Heights, Queens. It’s a tantalizing, spicy mutton dish that is an assortment of kidney, brain and lamb chops, and the meaning behind the name, Katakat, is an interesting one.

As the offal is sliced and diced swiftly, the sounds that the knife makes as it hits the cutting board makes loud and clear “kut, kut, tuk, tuk, kut-a-kut” sounds.

Spiced with coriander, red chili powder, salt and green chilies, and fried in oil with onions, ginger and garlic, Katakat resembles a plate of fine mince once prepared and ready to eat.

Served with soft naan bread and fresh salad, Katakat remains a favorite Eastern delicacy among locals and foreigners alike.


Kabab King Diner
7301 37th Road.
Jackson Heights, NY 11372

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Brooklyn, chocolate and two bearded brothers


They’re tall, they’re bearded and they make chocolate. Artisan chocolate.

Meet the Brothers Mast: Rick and Michael. Their company, Mast Brothers Chocolate, is slowly gaining momentum in Brooklyn.

Covered by The New York Times  as part of Brooklyn’s new culinary movement, the brothers launched their company three years ago with the help of “our mother and credit cards.”

But it was only in February that they moved into their rather spiffy factory, with steel chairs and a wooden table, the air within breezy yet steady, with the aroma of warm chocolate churning away, being tempered in another room.

Photo: Lucy Hamblin

Michael and Rick Mast. (Photo by Lucy Hamblin)

The 120-year-old building used to be a spice factory. No wonder then, its rustic and rather earthy feel. But rather than having the appearance of a factory, both its interior and exterior makes it look like a sturdy warehouse.

Three years ago, while Michael was taking film courses at NYU and dabbling in different productions, Rick had an epiphany.

Working as a chef at different restaurants in New York City and at private parties, Rick, who had studied with the chocolatier Jacques Torres, began serving confectionery, such as truffles, that he made from scratch. The feedback he received was encouraging, goading him to finally decide to launch his own company with his brother.

From very little equipment, a small room and burlap sacks, Mast Brothers Chocolate has come a long way.

But it’s been slow and steady, just the way Rick likes it.

He is resolute about continuing the production of personalized, bean to bar, artisan chocolate-making. From choosing which regions to import their cacao beans to personally visiting the farms and then making the chocolate – the nine to 15 varieties of chocolate are custom-made, from start to finish. Flavors include the traditional — with almonds — to the more unusual — fleur de sel, or sea salt.

“We mainly produce dark chocolate,” says Rick, “We have a dedication to people who don’t eat dairy.”

But what makes their chocolate “artisan chocolate”?

“The whole process,” Rick (obviously the more talkative of the two) says. “One has to be at par with the whole process. Finding the best farmers, the best cooperatives, and going down to the regions and buying the beans ourselves.” This attention adds to the price, of course — a 2.5-ounce bar sells for about $12.

“We wanna be like the local butcher,” Rick states hopefully, adding that he’d like his customers to develop a certain level of trust with their product.

Walking over to the table where Stephanie Ault (one of six employees at the factory) is sorting out the cacao beans, Rick runs through the entire process, from the sifting to the husking, to the crushing and to the mixing, to the cooling and to the cutting. The aroma in the mixing room is stronger, as the mixers gently roll the mounds of thick chocolate over and over.

In the mixers, the chocolate being twisted and twirled is almost hypnotic. That, coupled with the aroma … and one is in a trance.

With cacao beans flying in from the Dominican Republic to Madagascar, and from Brazil to Venezuela, what do the Brothers Mast look for in a bean?

“That it’s delicious,” Rick answers intently, “If it’s delicious, everything else tends to follow.”

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‘Tis the (wettest) season: An apple orchard weathers the storm


George Vurno lives by the weather. The owner and manager of Masker Orchards, a pick-your-own apple orchard in Warwick, N.Y., checks hour-by-hour forecasts on his computer and turns to the Weather Channel, Channel 12, CBS, and NBC twice a day to answer a question that is constantly on his mind: Is it going to rain?

Whether it is growing season or picking season, he needs to know. Right now, it is picking season at Masker Orchards, located about 55 miles northwest of Manhattan, and people are coming by the thousands to pluck Vurno’s ripened apples.

To keep them happy and fed and spending while they pick, 69-year-old Vurno orders soda, hot dog rolls, hot dogs, cider, ice cream, pizza, and apple pie which he sells at the entertainment square at the bottom of the hillside orchard.  In the entertainment square, a collection of converted barns, visitors can roam a pumpkin patch, ride a pony, walk through a haunted house and gorge on apple pie, cider and strudel.

“The only way to order them,” Vurno says, “is to know what the weather is going to be.”

If it is going to rain, people won’t come, and food orders go to waste.

Vurno is a tall, broad shouldered man with a tanned and stubbly face. When he smiles, he could pass for former New York City mayor Rudy Guliani’s twin brother. He was fooled last week because he expected rain on Sunday and decided to place half orders. It didn’t rain and he was short on supplies. This week, Vurno wasn’t expecting rain on Sunday, so he put in a full order. Now, the weather is telling Vurno that it is going to rain and he doesn’t want to be fooled again.

“Maybe I’m better off only half ordering,” Vurno says, laughing wheezily.

Vurno will be doing a lot of weather watching between now and November, when he will begin pruning the trees in preparation for winter.

Warwick’s official apple season began Labor Day and, on a good weekend, 20,000 cars carry residents of New York and neighboring states through the tree-lined hillsides of Orange County to Vurno’s 200-acre orchard. Masker made the switch from commercial orchard to pick-your-own in 1971 and was the first to do so in New York. For no admission fee, pickers park their cars among the rows of 15,000 apple trees–McIntosh, Cortland, Empire, Red Delicious, Jonagold, and Ida Reds—and eat as many apples as they’d like. Upon entry, they recieve plastic bags that they can pack with apples they pick, but don’t eat, and they must pay $24.95 for every bag they fill as they exit the farm.

Vurno is nervous because the low temperatures in June and July broke records along the northeast, and rainfall is running 50 to 100 percent higher than normal around the region, according to AccuWeather.com.

“It was a lot more expensive,” Vurno says of this year’s growing season. “We had to do a lot more maintenance in the orchard because of all that rain.”

Two of Vurno’s biggest costs were mowing the excess grass and grading the rain-damaged roads that lead customers through the orchard—Cider Lane, Strudel Lane, Pie Lane, and Sauce Lane.

One benefit of a wetter season is bigger apples. They draw customer attention and give Vurno a chance to make back some of the money he lost re-paving roads and repairing damaged trees because fewer of these large apples fit into each of the half-bushel plastic bags customers receive upon entering the orchard. But customers won’t have a chance to be in awe of Vurno’s apples if the rain keeps them away.

It is a lack of control that frustrates Vurno, a former Brooklyn trial lawyer who bought into the farm in 1969.

“When I was a lawyer, I had the illusion that I was in control,” Vurno says. “Now that I’m a farmer, I know absolutely positively I am not in control. The weather and mother nature are in control.”

And so is the economy. Recession-struck suppliers have raised their prices for everything from fertilizer to machine parts to hot dogs. Three years ago, potash fertilizer cost Vurno $425 a ton; this year, he paid $950 a ton for 15 tons.

“That’s $7000 to $8000 just out of one little stinking item,” he says in disbelief.

And  medical insurance has increased for his six full-time employees, three of them named George, which Vurno pointed out means “farmer” in Greek.

The increased costs for Masker Orchards have been passed on to its customers. The price of a half-bushel bag that carries roughly 20 pounds of apples has increased since last year from $19.95 to $24.95. Now, because of higher prices and larger apples, customers are paying more than ever for less fruit.

“We saw $24.95 a bag and thought ‘Wow!’” says Keith Santos, whose family traveled from Brooklyn to visit Masker for the first time last year, and came back this year to picnic among the apple trees.

Keith’s mother, Stella, chimes in, “May as well buy the apple pie; it’s already baked!”

Tom Bakalis, who also traveled from the city to pick apples, says he definitely noticed the prices.

“I think the bags got smaller, too,” he jokes. “I’m going to see how many I can squeeze in.”

Even the price of a hot dog has gone up a few cents. Sean Dolan, who recently lost his job as a roofer and has been coming to the orchard from Pearl River, N.Y., for four years with his wife and two daughters, noticed the change.

“It’s like being at a Yankee’s game;  ”$2.50 for a 30 cent item” he said.

But Vurno insists that he has tried to keep prices low, and prides himself on carrying high quality products.

“We’re trying to hold the line,” he says. “We’re trying to keep it an economical day in the country.”

Vurno’s pies, strudels, and cider are made off-site using Masker apples. He meets cider delivery trucks and takes several gulps before accepting any bottles. Vurno spent years searching for a family that had the best recipe for his apples before offering apple pies at his farm.

“I wouldn’t serve crap,” he says. “I needed something special.”

The customers come back year after year.

“We’ve been coming here a long time,” says Cheryl Cacioppo, of Kinnelon, N.J., who has been returning to Masker with her husband, Paul, for 16 years.

Paul started coming to Masker 30 years ago and now brings his young son and daughter each year to share with them a tradition that was passed onto him. He remembers knocking apples down from the tops of the highest trees with bamboo poles the orchard once supplied.

Nicole Cosimano also started coming to Masker Orchards when she was a child and started working there at age 12. She is now 31 and the office manager of the farm, overseeing 100 mostly teenage workers who direct traffic, sell food, and operate the entertainment square during the picking season.

“We used to just have apples and we had three lanes,” she remembers.

Newcomers to Masker enjoy it, too. Leila Franklin of Patterson, N.J., brought her two teenage children apple picking for the first time this season because she picked apples as a young girl.

“I am teaching them what we used to do,” says Franklin. “There’s clean air, it’s safe, everybody is enjoying themselves.”

At the top of the hill, near where Franklin is standing, you can see parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. The orchard is surrounded by green, rolling hills and tall trees blushing red and orange. But at the bottom of the hill, at the corner of the entertainment square, Vurno sits in a little blue house that serves as his office, and he continues to worry. After the expensive, rainy growing season, he needs the sun to shine so that people will come to Masker. But Vurno doesn’t know what to expect this season.

“In ‘05 we had a beautiful crop and it rained every weekend in October,” says Vurno. “We had this one system that kept coming back and forth. It would go out to sea, then it would come back, and it seemed to come back every weekend. We had half the number of cars and a crop that went to waste.”

Vurno’s outlook changes as often as the weather, and there is only one thing that he knows for sure.

“It’s supposed to rain tomorrow and that is going to kill us.”

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Athletes mind their diets as they age

Peter May, 48, ran the New York City Marathon in about four and a half hours. Nov. 1, 2009. (Photo: Daniel Woolfolk)

Peter May, 48, ran the New York City Marathon in about four and a half hours. Nov. 1, 2009. (Photo: Daniel Woolfolk)

Peter May walked down the street to his apartment in Chelsea wearing a metallic marathon cape, shorts, a medal and a huge smile, the kind of smile a 48-year-old man would have right after running the New York City Marathon.   He ran it in four and a half hours.
For the past 20 years, he’s been running “sometimes serious, sometimes not so serious,”  And the past two years have been serious.
“In order to do this race, I really, really had to focus on my diet,” said the Sydney, Australia, native who works in New York as an accountant. The bean counter doesn’t count calories, but he has been watching his portions. “I had to drop a few pounds as well so I can do the race,” he said.
That’s one of the biggest challenges to athletes as they age, said registered dietitian Marissa Lippert.  For every decade  after 30, a person loses 1 to 2 percent of their rate of metabolism, she said.
Another big challenge is calcium, Lippert said.  As athletes age, they become more prone to broken bones. It is especially true in women.
That’s why Carl Taeusch, 64, eats yogurt every night with his wife, Chizuko, 64.  He also takes calcium supplements.   The lifelong rower gets on the water about three times a week with the New York Rowing Association on the Harlem River during the warm season.  As it gets colder, he rows indoors and at the gym.
This type of physical activity can take a toll on a person’s body over time, Lippert said, so the body needs to recover.  A well-balanced meal with plenty of whole grains is the way to do that.
Taeusch is very aware of what he eats, partly because he is a borderline diabetic.  He’s the athlete, but his wife takes care of the diet.  She meticulously plans his meals and makes sure there is always water on the table.
When he’s not running, May eats a lot of fish and chicken combined with “really good veggies” such as broccoli and carrots.  He makes sure to eat brown rice, which is whole grain.
Aside from limiting his sugar, May’s diet hasn’t changed a whole lot in the past two decades.
“The big change is about awareness really,” he said. “I just wasn’t really aware of what I was eating 20 years ago.”
That’s typical, according to Lippert, the dietitian.
“At that age, most of us are more cognizant to what we put on our plate,” she said.
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Day of the Dead starts at the bakery


Mexican bakeries all over New York City are preparing pan de muerto, Spanish for bread of the dead, for the Day of the Dead celebration on Nov. 1. But Panaderia Caotzingo on 76-11 Roosevelt Avenue in Queens is anything but dead during the week before the holiday as customers bustle in and load trays with pan de muerto fresh from the oven. Baker Sergio Rodriguez, 22, makes 270 pieces of dome-shaped ‘’dead bread’’ each day, sized as small as the palm of a hand for $1.50, or bigger than a grown man’s face for $12. The sweet, cinnamon-infused bread is decorated with bits of cooked dough shaped like bones.

Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos) has been celebrated by Mexican Indians for centuries. To them, it is the day the dead come back to visit the living–friends, relatives, and loved ones. Often, Catholic families make offerings at the graves of their loved ones, leaving them their favorite food, or even their favorite vice, be it cigarettes or alcohol. But they always leave pan de muerto, says bakery worker Yessica Rodriguez, 23, who is originally from the 300-person Southern Mexican town of San Jose Chilipa.. Rodriquez’s grandmother on her mother’s side died six years ago; each year, her family back home takes the 25-minute walk to the local cemetery.

When they arrive at the cemetery, located between mango trees and a cornfield, they make a velvet shrine and lay offerings of bean and chicken tamales, chocolates and purple flowers—any kind, as long as they’re purple. Her late grandfather gets a single Marlboro Red cigarette. When Rodriguez dies, she says she would like to have an offering of bean and chicken tamales, just like her grandmother. But she’s too busy to think about death right now—she must finish a sale to Cristian Moran, 26, from Guerrero, another state in Southern Mexico.

Moran has lived in the United States for six years. His grandfather died one month ago, but instead of going to Mexico, he sent $200 to relatives back home. He said people don’t celebrate Day of the Dead in New York City as much as they did in his hometown.

Bakery manager Sergio Najera, 54, agrees. Most Mexicans who die in New York City have their remains sent home, he says, so there is little reason to celebrate in local cemeteries. Adults tend to honor the dead privately, and children have another tradition to enjoy: Halloween.

Zeltzin Rosendo, 10, is excited for the 31st of October.

“They give you candy on Halloween and you get to get dressed up,” she says, standing next to the window displays that shows off piles of pan de muerto to people who walk past. She is not a fan of putting food on graves.

“That kind of creeps me out a bit,” she says.

Her brother died in the womb this past year, and this will be the first time they lay an offering to him. They will leave him pan de muerto.

Some people prefer neither Halloween nor a Day of the Dead in America. Queens resident Enrique Jimenez remembers his childhood experience with pan de muerto as he makes a quick visit to the bakery.

“I would buy the bread when I was little, or my mom baked it, but not too much anymore,” he says.

This year he will gather with his cousins and his brother, who is bringing pan de muerto from Mexico.

“This bread has a different flavor,” he says. “The original flavor is from Mexico.”

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Ed Koch on eating your way to Gracie Mansion

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch is back to work at his Manhattan office near Times Square after undergoing a quadruple bypass surgery in June. (Photo: Daniel Woolfolk)

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch is back to work at his Manhattan office near Times Square after undergoing a quadruple bypass surgery in June. (Photo: Daniel Woolfolk)


In time-honored New York style, the mayoral candidates are eating their way to the campaign finish line.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is leading the charge, racking up votes with hot dogs at Nathan’s, a second helping of pickles at the Queens County Fair and even a “Mike Bloomberg sandwich” at Lioni’s Italian Heroes in Bensonhurst. “Next time, put some hot peppers on it!” was the incumbent’s verdict on the pastrami, mozzarella and mustard sandwich.

But shrewd as Bloomberg is, few know their way to New York’s heart through its stomach — or enjoyed getting there as much – as well as Ed Koch, New York’s mayor from 1977 to 1989.

“Not as many politicians enjoyed food as much as Ed,” says Koch’s former press secretary and former New York Post political writer George Arzt. “He ate a lot more than Bloomberg does.”

Bill Richardson attempts to scarf some votes at The Varsity restaurant in Atlanta during the Democratic primaries.  Oct. 5, 2007. (Photo: Mike Schinkel)

Bill Richardson attempts to scarf some votes at The Varsity restaurant in Atlanta during the Democratic primaries. Oct. 5, 2007. (Photo: Mike Schinkel)

For Koch, eating on the campaign trail, whether stopping at a street vendor or taking a slice of pizza offered by a local shop owner – and always smiling for the cameras – was not just about scoring votes. It was about being polite.

“You’re there, you’re campaigning and if someone offers you a pizza, to turn it down is plain rude and stupid,” says Koch, now 84, in his Midtown office at law firm Bryan Cave. It was also simply about eating.

A gourmand who these days twirls capellini pasta at high-end diners like the West Village’s Il Mulino and Trattoria Dell’arte on Seventh Avenue, Koch says he relished the pizza, deli sandwiches and hot dogs “with the real casing” that he ate while campaigning for mayor in 1977, 1981 and 1985.

Unlike some candidates, who may discreetly pass half-eaten knishes or pizza slices off to an aide before moving on to the next photo op, Koch boasts: “I ate the whole thing.”

It was a way of showing respect to voters, says Koch. “People want to show their community at its best,” he says. “The best and quickest way to do that is by offering some food that the community feels especially proud of.”

Joyce Purnick, who covered New York politics for 35 years for the New York Post and New York Times, agrees with Koch’s food philosophy. She says it’s particularly important for politicians to have a big appetite in the Big Apple.

“Favorite dishes are a matter of ethnic pride, or even regional identity in the politics of New York,” says Purnick, over the telephone. “It could be pizzas with Italians, burritos for Latinos or the hot dogs from Nathan’s. We all grow up eating certain foods on certain holidays and it’s very much a part of our culture.”

Former White House chef Walter Scheib, who served Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush from 1994-2005, puts it more bluntly. “You want a political debacle, turn down a regional specialty and watch the fallout from that one. It’s just like kissing babies: You’ve got to do it.”

Koch says he never turned down a meal on the campaign trail. Running for governor in 1982 against Mario Cuomo, whom he beat out for mayor in 1977, he was asked to milk a cow in upstate New York. He was then asked to drink the milk. He did.

“Milk directly from a cow is not so good because it’s hot,” says Koch. “I like cold milk, but not direct from the cow. You just try not to show discomfort.”

His discomfort did show once, but not while campaigning. At a Bedouin feast he attended traveling between the Sinai desert and Israel, Koch was given sheep’s eyes, a local delicacy. “You’d take it and then secretly throw it over your shoulder,” he says. “The eye looks at you – very intimidating.”

Koch’s enthusiasm for food photo ops back home sometimes worried press secretary Arzt, particularly at dessert time. “You have to beware of chewing on camera, you have to beware of getting chocolate all over your face, you want the less messy foods when you’re going out,” says Arzt.

But Arzt says that the greater danger for politicians at food stops is the people they’re eating with. When a person approaches a hot-dog-chewing politician for a photograph, Arzt says, “The one thing that goes through the aides’ minds is, ‘Is the guy part of the mob?’”

To ensure he wasn’t snapped with a mobster, Koch would joke with anyone approaching, asking them to raise their right hands and swear they weren’t “a member of la Cosa Nostra.”

Eating your way to power can be more dangerous still for out-of-towners, as South Dakota Sen. George McGovern discovered while campaigning in New York for the 1972 Democratic presidential primary. McGovern ordered a kosher hot dog from a street vendor in Queens, along with a glass of milk. The Jewish community he was courting slammed him for the non-kosher combination.

More recently, President Obama was mocked by conservative pundits when he ordered a cheeseburger with spicy or Dijon mustard at an independent burger joint in Arlington, Va. Sean Hannity teased on Fox News, “I hope you enjoyed that fancy burger, Mr. President.”

Between photo-op pizzas, burgers and an on-the-run campaign diet of hot dogs, takeout, ice cream and soda, Koch struggled with his weight while in office. “It’s always easy to put on weight when you’re campaigning and eating junk food,” he says.

After his quadruple bypass surgery, Former NYC Mayor Ed Koch is 4.5 pounds into a 10-pound doctor-mandated weight gain. (Photo: Daniel Woolfolk)

After his quadruple bypass surgery, Former NYC Mayor Ed Koch is 4.5 pounds into a 10-pound doctor-mandated weight gain. (Photo: Daniel Woolfolk)

Scheib, who as White House chef fed Hilary Clinton and Laura Bush, says the photo-op foods and gala dinners, sometimes 5 or 6 meals a day, also

took a toll on the first ladies. “They were thrilled just to get back to the White House and get back on a more low-cal nutritional diet, get their vegetables, lettuces and soups back in,” he says. “They’d come back off the campaign trail and get into a purge type of thing to get ready for the next wave of all this food.”

Since leaving office, Koch has used the private gym at Rockefeller Center most mornings to manage his weight and is comfortable giving advice to others on staying in shape. Visiting Ariel Sharon at his home in the Negev, in southern Israel, he told the former Israeli prime minister, “You’re getting too fat and you’re going to die prematurely.”

“He said, ‘I hardly eat,’” Koch recalls. “And, of course, that wasn’t true; he ate like a horse. He came to Gracie Mansion, where I lived, and he ate off everybody’s plate. I was amazed.”

But Koch himself has not been dieting lately.

From June to July, the former mayor spent five weeks in the intensive care unit of New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he underwent quadruple bypass surgery and had his aortic valve replaced. Slimmer than he’s ever looked, with suspenders holding up too-large pants, the older, more somber man than most New Yorkers remember, says he does not need to worry about what he eats for now.

“It was touch and go because of complications,” he says of the surgery. “I lost 26 pounds in the hospital and the doctor said that until I gain 10 pounds I was under no restriction. I left the hospital at the end of July and I’ve only gained back about four and a half pounds. I have six more pounds to go, during which period I can eat whatever I want.”

Ever the New York politician, Koch thanked the team of 20 hospital staffers who worked on him with a food stop worthy of a thousand Post flashbulbs – a dinner at Brooklyn’s 120-year-old Peter Luger Steak House.

He ordered a slab of steak, medium rare, and told his guests, “If any of you order anything other than steak, I am going to make it public.”

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Famous Fat Dave looks to expand food tours in his Checker


When Dave Freedenberg was a cabbie some five years ago, every time he dropped someone off he would ask where the best local food joint was. After several years of driving up and down New York City, he knew a lot of the local food secrets.

Three years ago, he decided to use that knowledge to start his own food touring business, driving people to some of the most delicate tastes the city has to offer.

Today, he’s now better known as Famous Fat Dave. Famous? That’s something he earned from his appearances on the likes of National Public Radio and Anthony Bourdain’s TV show on the Travel Channel. Even though he’s from SoHo, on a recent tour he was recognized by school kids in Harlem.

Freedenberg doesn’t drive a yellow cab around town anymore, but a mint condition cream-colored 1982 Checker A12, the iconic 60s taxi.

“Kids love the Checker,” he said. “It’s like a toy to them.”

After getting his master’s from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs last spring, the 30-year-old plans to focus on his business full time, with aims of landing his own TV show.

He gets smiles all around from people pulling up next to him and asking him about his Checker or just passers-by on the street.

“The Checker really brings people back,” Freedenberg said. “Sometimes I feel like it gets added respect while I am driving.”

He always makes sure to give anyone stopping him his business card and talks about his tours or points to the Web site name stickered on his car door. He’s continuing to look for ways to get more business for his food tours, which mostly comes from word of mouth and his Web site, where he also writes about his food adventures.

The base rate for a tour starts at $200 for two people for two hours, and that includes the food. Each added hour or person costs $100, unless they’re kids, who eat for free. And of course, the tours are all customizable to the eater: vegetarian, meat lover, experienced foodie, New Yorker. Sometimes people will go to fewer places because they simply enjoy seeing the city in a Checker, while others are on the tour to try as much food as possible.

“Sometimes if you’re from Manhattan, you don’t venture much into the other boroughs to try those foods,” Freedenberg said. “This lets you do that.”

So what are those foods? Everything from jerk shrimp to coal oven pizza to broccoli rabe to cannoli to you name it. And often times, he knows the story behind the name of the place too. Like the Murder Burger in the Bronx. “It either got its name because it’s supposed to murder your hunger or someone was murdered there,” he said.

The restaurants are either places he’s come across in his work as a cabby or recommendations he gets from locals.

This is the appeal to many of his tasters, many of whom are out-of-towners looking to get a glimpse of the big city through its food.

Matt Vinnola, who lives in Colorado, toured with Famous Fat Dave during a guys’ weekend to the city with three of his friends last summer. He found the tour after seeing Freedenberg on the Travel Channel. Their tour lasted for about four hours and ranged from Caribbean food to key lime pie, he said.

Vinnola said Freedenberg brings a lot to the table with his knowledge of the city and the stories behind the food. “It’s something that everybody can do,” he said. “I could do this with my wife and kids.”

Jennifer Kepler was visiting the city with her husband and decided to do the tour after hearing about it on NPR.

Kepler said the places they visited weren’t ones that she would have found on her own, but would have to live in the neighborhood to find out about it.

“Most of these aren’t in the tourist book,” she said.

Freedenberg said customer favorites on the tour include Fratelli’s Pizza Cafe in the Bronx, a small place with a big taste, which he said has the best broccoli rabe.

The tasty green dish was an off-the-menu item, but has become a favorite with patrons, said Joe Fratelli, owner of the cafe. Fratelli, 45, uses many family recipes.

“There’s no special secret,” he said. “We don’t premake our stuff and use the best recipes. We don’t cheat. It’s all made right here.” The pizza brings in celebrities like Busta Rhymes, Fratelli said, showing a recent picture of the rapper eating at the cafe.

Despite the exposure from Famous Fat Dave’s tours and visits from celebrities, Fratelli said the cafe is still not that well known.

“Only if you know someone who’s been here, they would bring you here,” he said.

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Bronx schoolyard garden leads tween locavore movement


Teacher Kelly McLane picking herbs in the garden at Bronx Green Middle School. (Photo: Joel Meares)

Teacher Kelly McLane picking herbs in the garden at Bronx Green Middle School. (Photo: Joel Meares)

Five years ago, school principal Emily Becker and teacher Kelly McLane visited the Edible Schoolyard, Alice Waters’ one-acre school garden and outdoor kitchen at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif.

The two foodies, who met while teaching at West Side Collaborative Middle School in Manhattan, were impressed by what they saw. Seventh- and eighth-graders churning soil, pruning branches, collecting eggs from a lively chicken coop and cooking meals in an outdoor wood-fired oven. Becker says, “It was a marriage of my two passions: teaching and letting kids know how to eat healthy and where food comes from.”

The pair were so impressed that in 2006 they replanted Waters’ idea in the Bronx — creating an urban edible schoolyard, Bronx Green Middle School,  just blocks from a McDonald’s, Popeye’s, White Castle and Dunkin’ Donuts in the Allerton neighborhood. Along with math, social studies and ELA, the public school’s sixth- to eighth-graders take class in an outside garden classroom similar to Waters’ — a cluster of tomato plants, herbs and raised flowerbeds at the rear of the school.

Four years after opening, Bronx Green is at capacity. Every school day, 450 green-thumbed tweens work the soil and chew over buzzwords like “permaculture” and “sustainability” in class.

“Interest in school gardening is growing across the board in New York,” says Leslie Boden, a food consultant who this year released a free school gardening resource guide through GreenThumb, the Department of Parks and Recreation’s community garden development arm. According to GreenThumb, there are now at least 100 outdoor school gardens, mostly in Brooklyn, in the city’s 1,600 schools. Thirty of them have registered since the beginning of the year.

In New York City, where the Department of Planning says three-quarters of a million people live in areas with little access to fresh produce, that growth is critical. “Children growing up in neighborhoods without access to fresh food haven’t had exposure to fresh fruit and vegetables, the very sustenance of life,” says Boden.

But it’s not easy being green. While GreenThumb and other organizations like it offer support — arranging workshops, supplying soil and tools and, now, guides — Boden says there is still no single, centralized, source of support for people in schools who are doing gardening with students. “It depends largely on there being a champion or principal at the school, support groups and fundraising for it to happen.”

Enter Becker, McLane and their ilk. The pair wasted no time championing a school that addressed these problems when they returned from Berkeley. Becker enrolled in the city’s yearlong Aspiring Principal’s Program and the pair began meeting weekly to discuss everything about the dream school they were planning: From the curriculum to how to elect the PTA president and whether the children would wear uniforms.

Months before launching IS 326 in the fall of 2006, they were at the school from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, ordering books, cleaning classrooms and drawing up schedules for staff. GreenThumb and Bronx Green-Up, at the New York Botanical Garden, supplied much of the garden tools and plants.

“Our school is all about making wise choices,” says Becker, 35 and every the inch the principal with her hair tied back, sensible slacks and button-up blouse. “It’s easy to default to the choices that are right in front of you. The corner store with the chips, the cheaper fast foods.”

McLane, 30, who wears her dark hair long and loose on either side of an unfading smile, and has a tattoo of a spider crawling across the top of her chest, says she’s loved food since growing tomatoes and raspberries in her parents’ home in Matawan, N.J. She helped Becker design the garden-centered syllabus that won them funding and an administrator’s license from the Department of Education.

In the syllabus, sixth graders learn to use gardening tools, transplant perennials, test soils and make worm-composting bins in a special course called Field Studies. The garden permeates the curriculum even when the children are inside. For ELA, sixth graders read assigned books such as “SeedFolks” and “Chew on This.” According to McLane, the latter is like filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s McDonald’s exposé, “Supersize Me.” “We’re pretty intense here,” she laughs.

The first year culminates with a garden design class over winter. The students learn about perfect path width and which plants to place on slopes, to catch flowing water. Then, in pairs, they draw up new designs for the garden, which are exhibited to the parents in a Garden Design Exhibition. Next year, the exhibit will be April 16.

Each student votes, in a secret ballot, for a garden design, and the school transforms the existing garden into the winning design. The lavender, strawberries and tomatoes in the garden today come courtesy of last school year’s winner, Semina Radoncic, 13, and her design, “The Maze to Find Love.”

Bronx Green Middle School students Marco Herrera, 12, Edgar Pineda, 12, and Kimberly Dang, 12, reading a book about gardening. (Photo: Joel Meares

Bronx Green Middle School students Marco Herrera, 12, Edgar Pineda, 12, and Kimberly Dang, 12, reading a book about gardening. (Photo: Joel Meares)

The children at Bronx Green savor the program. Radoncic says she came because of the garden and loves using the extendable “telescope rake” to scratch lines into the earth. Marco Herrera, a slight 12-year-old who lives two blocks from the school, says he enjoys “learning about the nutrition inside the vegetables.” In a cafeteria they share with students from two other schools in the MS 135 building on Wallace Street, the Bronx Green children mostly chose pears over nachos on at least one day.

Armella Ujka, 11, says she likes to eat the fruit from the garden. Students take produce home or eat it at school during spring as part of the city’s new Garden to School Café initiative, where student-grown food is prepared for the cafeteria and kids are given workshops in food preparation. “With the ones from the store,” Ujka says, “you don’t know if they put chemicals in them.” Ujka, now in grade seven, became quite attached to the Bronx Green garden in her first year. “I used to pull out the weeds. But once, I got to this flower that smelt good, the lemon balm. We had to get ride of it and I felt bad for it because it smelt so good.”

The 30 teachers and 15 support staff have been tougher customers. McLane and Becker say some teachers have struggled with controlling classes outdoors and with the heavily specialized curriculum. Some teachers have quit. “We’re constantly changing, we’re figuring things out,” says McLane. “If you don’t have that entrepreneurial spirit it can be really tough for you.” When they do lose staff, Becker and McLane often don’t know whether to advertise for licensed health educators or science teachers.

The shortage has unearthed problems with the seventh grade Field Studies class, which adapts the curriculum from the Columbia University’s Teachers College. “Our second-year Field Studies class has not quite worked,” admits Becker. “We have not been able to staff a strong person for the seventh grade.” The eighth grade has no Field Studies component, but Becker hopes to eventually create one with a final project included.

Still, she is proud of the school she and McLane have built. “I’m not a mother but it really has followed the path of a child,” she muses. “This year is exciting. We just graduated our starting class and we’re back to square one, with a full school and a lot of experience.”

She is about to lose some of that experience. McLane, who this year has been acting “Garden Coordinator,” leaves the school in October to travel the world, dirtying her hands in organic farms as far away as Australia and Japan. She says she is glad to see more schools picking up spades and snatching up GreenThumb’s new guide. She hopes some might dig as deeply she and her friend.

“People ask, ‘Don’t you like being the only school that’s different?’ Maybe it’s cool to be different for a while. But I really want every school to be like that.”

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