Muffin Men

Interview and photography by
Adam Baran


Ron Budinas and his partner Ira Stolzenberg bake muffins for the masses every day at Rainbo's, a corner shop in the Essex Market on New York's Lower East Side. The Essex Market is an indoor warehouse space populated by a variety of homespun businesses: fruit and vegetable vendors, meat marketeers, gourmet cheese shops, and a chocolatier who makes chocolate-covered bacon. But even among all these fresh delicacies Ron and Ira's muffins are a real stand-out. They're also regularly consumed in the New York BUTT office, so we wanted to find out more about these muffin men.

Adam: How long have you been in the Essex Market?
Ron: In this market for eight years, and we were across the street for about 21 years.
Did you have your own shop?
Ron: We had a spot in a fish market. But then we moved to the Essex Market, and we had all this space over here for fish and a live fish tank and I just decided it was too much. So I said let me start making muffins and cakes, and he said ‘It’s a terrible idea.’ But right from the start we were doing very very well. Meanwhile the fish market is not nearly as great as it used to be.
Where are you guys from?
Ron: We were both born in Manhattan. He was born on the Lower East Side, and I was born on the Upper West Side, and we’re a week apart in birthdays. And we’re both Aries’ which is very unusual for 37 years of working together and living together.
How did you meet?
Ron: Actually we met in a fish market. I was the manager of a fish market in Queens and his father got him a job at that fish market. And as soon as I saw him I was in love.
What’d you do?
Ron: I wooed him for quite a while, and it wasn’t like we were dating. We’d talk everyday for an hour at lunch, and one day we were in the fish market and we were saying goodnight —
This was 1970, or sometime around then?
Ron: Yeah, yeah, 1970, and he had just gotten married that same year in June, and then I met him in November but he was separated, but after about three or four months we said goodnight and we just kissed. For me it was love at first sight, but Ira was terrified of me at first.
Ron: Because I had long hair, I was a real hippie. He was a greaser and we were just from completely different worlds.
Did you always make muffins?
Ron: My father was a chef, so I really knew how to cook, but I didn’t know how to bake. About eight years ago I started from nothing and started baking muffins; but people liked them so much that I thought I must be a good baker too. Ira does all the decorating, because if I did it it would look terrible —
Ira: And if I baked it it would taste terrible. I don’t come in the kitchen.
It seems like lately your muffins have gone from being very basic — you’ve always done banana and blueberry — to very advanced in terms of ingredients.
Ron: Yeah I’ve always made the staples but I get very bored making the same muffins over and over again. So every week I change, and I keep adding more crap to them.
Give our readers some examples of the kind of muffins you make.
Ron: Well actually pistachios are a bad idea now, but I got a recipe from my nephew when he went to New Delhi, India, he brought me back an Indian dessert made from carrots, pistachios, and walnuts, and said ‘If you could make this into a muffin…’ That’s become my premiere muffin — Carrots, Pistachios, Walnuts, but now I can’t use pistachios because of the salmonella scare.
Well, you’ll be able to use them again in a bit.
Ron: But the muffins have a lot to do with what’s in season at the moment and what’s in the market. I make peach cobbler muffins in the summer, raspberry muffins when raspberries aren’t five dollars a box. We make Yo Mama muffins which are Apple Streusel muffins, and Strawberry Fields Forever muffins which are just strawberry muffins. Oh and Mac n’ Chips muffins — macaroon on top of a chocolate chip muffin. They’re very good but very sweet. Everything has to be fresh, everything has to be from scratch. I use butter, not margarine, and canola oil. Other oils are too heavily saturated.
What about making blackberry muffins — you make incredible blackberry muffins which nobody makes and I always think of them as being so delicate, so they must be hard to make.
Ron: No actually they’re really not hard to make, I buy a pint and cut them in half and use them for a recipe, and you need two cups for a recipe that I use. It’s a very unusual recipe. I’d made it with other berries, that’s how I knew it would work out. I dredge the blackberries in flour. It’s not a regular muffin recipe because you fold the flour with milk and fold the blackberries, so it’s really like more of a cake than a muffin, because muffins are supposed to be dense with no air in them, but that muffin really comes out well. It’s not an easy recipe to make, but it came out so well that I just keep making them every time I can get blackberries.
All your muffins seem to be very light, and not cake-like.
Ron: Well, making muffins is very different from making cakes. Making cakes you have to leave them in for a long time, muffins you make very quickly and you have to add air and beat them up a lot. The only reason I use a mixer is to make frostings for the cupcakes. But everything is done by hand. Everything I’ve ever made has been from scratch. And if you use good ingredients it comes out good. A lot of people put preservatives in things. If I have a muffin for more than one or two days I toss it out. I’m not really looking for shelf life because as you can see, I don’t really need to. The muffins fly out of here. In this economy people just want a nice small thing to share and cheer them up.
There’s this whole cupcake boom still going strong in New York, but I really don’t think anyone makes muffins quite like you guys.
Ron: No, nobody does. I’m very humble but we make the best muffins — like the ‘ménage à trois’ muffins, white chocolate, apricot, and walnuts – my partner says to our customers ‘You want à ménage a trois? You sure?’
Ira: I never heard you say ‘my partner.’
Ron: Well you are my partner. What do you want me to call you?
Ira: No it just sounds strange, ‘my partner.’
How long have you guys been together exactly?
Ron: In November it’ll be 38 years. We met in the sandbox.
Ira: He’s my bitch, whaddaya mean…’partner!?’
When I came before to ask Ira if you guys would do this interview, I said ‘Can I ask you a personal question?’ and he said, ‘I’m the top, he’s the bottom.’
Ira: Yep, true. Tops work too hard.

Published on 16 April 2009