David Freedenberg told us how he once applied for a job with the New York Police Department’s counter-terrorism unit. He didn’t get the spot, which he says is just as well. “If I got that job, I would go to sleep at night thinking about Times Square blowing up,” he remarked. “Now I think about pizza and cannoli and pickles.”
That sounds about right for a guy who goes by the name “Famous Fat Dave,” and who makes his living operating a New York City food tour he calls Famous Fat Dave’s Five Borough Eating Tour on the Wheels of Steel.
We were in the middle of the tour, leaving the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn, where we had gorged ourselves on pickles and homemade beef jerky from the Belarus II grocery store, and on our way to the Howard Beach section of Queens, where Freedenberg was about to introduce us to a classic New York slice at New Park Pizza.
The car we were riding in — the so-called “wheels of steel” — is Freedenberg’s white 1982 A12 Checker Marathon, which he says is the last of its kind ever to roll off the assembly line. Freedenberg bought it in Middlefield, Ohio, from an obsessive taxicab enthusiast, and it’s clearly his baby. “I have anxiety dreams about rust,” he confided.
Though the Marathon lacks a gas gauge (a minor inconvenience), it’s a good ride for a tour, with plenty of space in the back, and a couple of jump seats that can easily double as tables. We’d hit two stops and had two left to go, and we prayed that our appetites would hold out.
Freedenberg, 31, is an appropriately paunchy, indefatigably jovial guy who is well on his way to becoming a New York icon. That’s mostly because he knows the best places to eat just about anything, but it also doesn’t hurt that he’s effortlessly funny and can keep up all ends of a conversation, if necessary.
A native of Silver Spring, Md., Freedenberg moved to Manhattan in 1997 to attend New York University, where he majored in history (he also has a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University). Along with his fondness for food, Freedenberg is enamored of local lore — he is a licensed New York tour guide — and on his eating jaunts he puts the two passions into one endlessly entertaining package.
While Freedenberg readily admits that much of his business is built on nostalgia for old New York eateries, he takes his own unabashed delight in every memory-laden deli counter and malt shop along the way.
“I’m obsessed with nostalgia, and this isn’t even my nostalgia,” he said. “I never went to Katz’s with my grandma. My grandma’s from Chicago, and she’s a terrible cook.”
Freedenberg’s own résumé reads like a rundown of legendary New York food establishments. After graduating from college, he drove a bread truck for Orwasher’s Bakery, sold Nathan’s hotdogs at the Cyclones ballpark in Coney Island (“They let me keep the extras,” he said, reminiscing), cheese mongered at Murray’s in Greenwich Village (“I tried just about every kind of cheese, and then quit”) and hawked pickles at Guss’ Pickles on the Lower East Side — a job he pursued with considerably more dedication than bomb-detecting for the NYPD.
In 2001, Freedenberg started moonlighting as a cab driver, but even when he was just ferrying passengers around town, he couldn’t help but ask them about their favorite neighborhood nosh spots. Pretty soon he was showing his food finds to friends and to friends of friends, and before he knew it, he had a full-scale business model on his hands.
Freedenberg has been doing the tour full time for a little longer than a year now, averaging about 10 outings a week. During our tour, we opted to eat as our spirits — and our trusty guide’s suggestions — moved us, freestyling our way through three boroughs and through three different types of cuisine, plus dessert.
Freedenberg also offers more structured tours, however, based on specific locales and types of food. There’s the Best of Brooklyn, for example, or, if you want, you can eat only pizza. He also offers a kosher tour, although not everything is guaranteed to come with a hekhsher.
For his own part, Freedenberg says he was too enamored with the variety of delicious edibles to ever be religiously observant. “I never had a chance of keeping kosher — I had those crabs to contend with!” he wisecracked, referring to Maryland’s famed blue crabs.
With his growing notoriety, it’s easy to see how Freedenberg could spin the Famous Fat Dave experience into a much larger, much slicker business (currently he charges $100 per person, per hour, which pays for the cost of gas and as much food as you can eat), but he seems adamantly opposed to anything that would take the joy out of eating for a living. He even desists from making any back-scratching arrangement with restaurant owners, for fear that it would lock him into a mind-and-palate-deadening routine.
But that’s not to say that Freedenberg doesn’t have ambition. He’s already a minor media star, having appeared on celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” TV show. And he has been featured everywhere from NPR to the media-gossip website Gawker. He also writes about food for such publications as the Not for Tourists guide, Time Out New York and Gothamist, although he insists that he’s a food lover rather than a food critic. He even balks at naming favorites, although he does have an idea of what his last meal would be if he ever were forced to choose.
“Maryland blue crabs,” he said, harkening back to his home state’s specialty. “And maybe pickles.”
We finished the tour at Ray’s Candy Store, an Alphabet City institution sadly in danger of going out of business. We did what we could to help, by ordering no less than three different beverages: a classic chocolate egg cream, a chocolate malt and a Lime Rickey, a nearly forgotten Prohibition-era, cherry-lime soda concoction. Though we’d tried to preserve a remnant of appetite, there was no way we could finish them all. Still, so long as the wheels of steel keep rolling, New York has great food to eat, and Famous Fat Dave is famous and fat, there’ll always be a next time.
Ezra Glinter is the books editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. Devra Ferst is the Forward’s editorial assistant.
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.