Sunday morning in Patterson Park: Dr. Ralph Brown stands at the base of the park's picturesque pagoda and debriefs eight bicyclists before a "bakery tour" of Baltimore.
"You have to eat sweets and you have to listen," Brown commands in a tone that has endeared the pediatrician to his patients and their parents for decades. His dissonant instructions spur laughter.
The tour he designed is an exploration of Baltimore's immigration history, but "If I called it a 'history of immigration to Baltimore' tour, nobody would have any interest," says Brown, ready to roll in an orange wind shell and brown shorts over black tights.
The panoramic view from Patterson Park provides a sense of the areas the group will be riding through - Canton, Brewers Hill, Highlandtown, as well as Fells Point and Little Italy, says Brown, a Rochester, N.Y., native. Here immigrants settled and worked "to make Baltimore a great industrial city."
The tour pushes off, past a lively soccer game coached in Spanish, a peewee football game and any number of dogs, straining at their leashes and eager to tree a squirrel or two.
As Brown, who came to Baltimore in 1967 to attend Johns Hopkins medical school, leads the way, Baltimore is no longer a blur viewed through a car window, but a tapestry of the city's past, present and future. His lessons penetrate mind and body as the tour rumbles over cobblestones, pauses for ethnic delicacies, takes in the city's narrow streetscapes and sweeping vistas.
By early afternoon, the city has attained a persona as rich and layered as the tiramisu that the group would sample in a Little Italy bakery world-renowned for the concoction.
An avid cyclist, Brown, 62, founded Monumental Bike Tours in 2004 as a way to share his bike's-eye view of the world with others. The name of Brown's small company is inspired by Baltimore's former nickname as the "Monumental City," bestowed by President John Quincy Adams.
Baltimore "was a very important, very powerful 19th-century city," Brown says. Although the town's many landmarks testify to its place in history, most people drive by and "never think about them," Brown says.
Brown designed his first tour to remedy that civic lapse. Among the stops on his "monument tour" are the city's Battle Monument, a tribute to soldiers who fought in the War of 1812; as well as landmarks honoring the Civil War, Revolutionary War, Francis Scott Key and of course, George Washington.
From a tour of Baltimore's monuments, Brown's itinerary has expanded to include the bakery tour and a tour of 15 outdoor murals combined with a visit to Viva House, a Catholic Worker soup kitchen and food pantry in West Baltimore. Brown, still a practicing physician, leads four to eight tours a year, depending on his schedule.
Each of Brown's outings comes with a civics lesson. This tour, for example, was inspired by the current debate over allowing newcomers into the country. It is "such a hot issue," Brown says. "As a good citizen, you want to know and understand these issues with some depth so you can have an educated opinion."
On Sunday, Brown rolls out a new tour also with a topical theme. His "locavore tour" will take cyclists through the countryside on visits to several organic farms and a vineyard.
After a scenic jaunt past stage set-perfect Formstone rowhouses, the group's first stop is Di Pasquale's. "This place has incredible bread," Brown says.
The Gough Street institution is closed on Sundays, but owner Joe Di Pasquale is there, nevertheless, tending to paperwork and awaiting the group. Seated in the Italian deli's small dining room, which doubles as a family portrait gallery, the cyclists hear Di Pasquale's tale: "My grandfather started the business in 1914, one block down the street. It was a typical corner store." He and his wife "lived over the store" where they raised six children.
This part of Baltimore, though, is no longer an Italian stronghold, the cyclists learn. People "used to live and die here - not any more," Di Pasquale says. With both parents at work, and a lower birth rate, "You're not going to have that neighborhood feel like we did."
More wedded to Food Network-inspired extravaganzas than nightly family meals, patrons outside the Gough Street neighborhood often come for specialty items, or they may just come in to buy "a quarter-pound of prosciutto, that's it," Di Pasquale says with a slight tone of resignation.
As Di Pasquale's guests nibble Sicilian tea biscuits studded with tender pignoli nuts, they also absorb a lesson in resilience and adaptation.
"I'm happy to know that Di Pasquale's is here," says Kelly Papke, a Towson veterinarian who grew up in Hampden. True to the new demographics of Di Pasquale's clientele, she has a recipe from Food Network goddess Giada De Laurentiis in mind, an alloy of pasta, greens and cheese that will require a return visit to the shop.
Like Papke's, Brown's world expanded on a bike. It was during a 2003 cross-country trip that took him as far as Salt Lake City before he had to return to his Baltimore practice. Prepped with the history of each small town where he stopped, Brown was captivated by the power of each place to convey a unique facet of the American experience.
There was "God's Garden," acres of roses outside Abilene, Kan., maintained by an 85-year-old man. At the Glebe Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph, Mo., Brown learned about the history of torturous psychiatric "cures." In Holbrook, Ariz., he beheld the Wigwam Hotel, classic Route 66 lodging circa 1940s where each room was a wigwam. Also memorable was the Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque. The pediatrician was drawn as much to the "passion that people put into these things" as the traditions and landmarks, themselves.
"When I got back to Baltimore, I thought it would be fun to look for those things that make Baltimore a wonderful place and combine it with riding a bike," Brown says. "You can get much closer to these things on a bike."
Brown's primer on Baltimore's past as a major port of entry for immigrants, and its recent rebirth "as a gateway city," sets the stage for the tour's next stop: Hermanos Navarro Taqueria y Panaderia, a Mexican bakery and restaurant on Eastern Avenue. Virgilio Navarro, brother of owners Carlos and Javier, warmly welcomes the cyclists who pile a tray with conchas, a puffy pastry; and ojos, a pound cake and pastry creation made to resemble an eye.
Navarro serves hot chocolate scented with cinnamon, a Mexican staple, and talks about his recent move from New Jersey to Baltimore. Navarro says he feels more comfortable here. In New Jersey, he felt uncomfortable as a Mexican immigrant. "As soon as they look at you, you feel it," he says of the hostility he experienced.
The conversation takes the immigration issue out of the theoretical realm into a warm and welcome place. Now that he's met Navarro, "I feel like I established a connection. I'll be back," says Rodgers Forge resident Dr. Ozzie Taube, a specialist in adolescent medicine, along for the ride with his wife, Jean, and son, Sam, 13.
The cyclists depart, and cruise along the Canton waterfront before making a right turn onto South Central Avenue. Their destination is Piedigrotta, a bakery and pastry shop owned by Carminantonio Iannaccone, recently identified in the United States as the inventor of tiramisu. "Everybody has a gift in life," the pastry chef says, holding forth discursively in his warm kitchen. And his, clearly, is a way with mascarpone.
One bicyclist genuflects before the tiramisu that Iannaccone's wife, Bruna, has set out for sampling. It is heavenly, and certainly tastes inspired by a higher power.
Several minutes later, the crowd has regrouped at Blue House for a yuppier view of Baltimore's ever-evolving identity and a chat with the manager about sustainable home products.
As Sam Taube munches on a roast beef sandwich after his morning of pastries, he marvels at the day's surprises. "I didn't expect such a historical figure in Baltimore, the inventor of tiramisu."
Sam's mother is also sold on Brown's prescription for seeing Baltimore in a new, delicious way. "You do get to see more on a bike," Jean Taube says. She notes East Baltimore's refurbished areas. "Some buildings were downright shiny!" And had she driven past Di Pasquale's in a car, "I wouldn't have stopped."
Later that week, Brown pronounced his bakery tour a sweet success. "One of my nicest groups ever, the weather was perfect and you all got to meet the Earl of Tiramisu."
Ralph Brown's "Locavore farm tour" takes place from 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. Sunday. The 20-mile ride begins at Woodhall Wine Cellars, 17912 York Road in Parkton. The tour costs $20 (not including lunch). Call Brown at 410 561- 1175 or e-mail him at Rsbrown @monumentalbiketours.com. For more information, go to monumentalbiketours.com.
April 19, 1945, Rochester, N.Y.
He and his wife, Elaine Kasmer, live in Cockeysville; they have two children, Emile and Gabriel
Bachelor's degree from Cornell University, 1967; medical degree from Johns Hopkins University, 1971