An Everyday Place That’s Not So Everyday
More than 25 years ago, Shelli Lieberman got a tip while having her hair styled about a new eatery that had opened in Durham.
“It was a very interesting experience to go there, unlike anything I’d ever seen before,” Lieberman says of Foster’s Market, which has since expanded several times and made owner Sara Foster a major name in Southern food. “You could see right away that it was more than just an unusual place — a restaurant and a market with fresh fruits and vegetables. It was everything.”
Foster’s Market, which marked its silver anniversary last May, has earned a special place in the hearts of Triangle diners, distant families of local college students and even hungry tourists who veer off highways to eat the food they’d read about in so many culinary magazines. But no one has been more loyal than Lieberman.
“She’s in here just about every day,” Foster says, surrounded by regulars as she sits at a table and sips coffee, a custom house blend roasted by Durham’s Counter Culture. “If she doesn’t show up, we call and check on her.”
While Lieberman did not need to be rescued during the January snow storm, Market employees have delivered food to her door when ice coated her driveway.
“They treat me like family,” says Lieberman, who quit cooking years ago, after her adult children moved away and her husband died. “That’s the thing about Foster’s. It’s not just great food, though the food really is very good. One of the greatest things that Sara has accomplished is building a community. I think it’s just as important, in terms of the Market’s longevity and success.”
Foster’s Market’s endurance is indeed notable, given how often eateries open and close. In 2013, Forbes magazine cited the National Restaurant Association in stating that 30 percent of new restaurants fail in the first year. Of those that survive, another 30 percent close in the next two years.
Foster’s is equally adept at writing successful cookbooks. When her publisher declined her latest proposal, saying anniversary-themed books have limited consumer appeal, she moved forward and produced it herself.
Foster’s Market Favorites: 25th Anniversary Collection, her fifth book, was published in November by Story Farm. A love letter to her fans — flip through the pages and you’ll even find a photo of Lieberman — Foster oversaw every aspect of the book, sparing no expense to make it exactly what she wanted it. Hunger-inducing food shots were taken at the Market and in her Durham home by Peter Frank Edwards, whose work can be seen in major magazines and awardwinning books. Styling was orchestrated by the similarly celebrated Marian Cooper Cairns.
Foster involved local talent, too. Husband Peter Sellers wrote the affectionate introduction and Emily Wallace, deputy editor of Southern Cultures at UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South, coauthored the book and created the playful inside cover illustrations.
Unlike her last books, which focused on family recipes and how she cooks at home, the new collection of about 150 recipes is based on how she and her crew feed folks at the Market. She says it also demonstrates the evolution of her cooking style, especially as it relates to accessibility of new ingredients.
“Twenty-five years ago, I probably would have made something like the buttermilk harissa sauce with sour cream and mayonnaise,” she says. “Now, with Greek yogurt, lemon and a little olive oil, it’s very fresh and flavorful, a nice blend of sweet and sour.”
A drizzle of the sauce completely changes an old standby like roasted baby beets and carrots. “You have the heat and caramelization of the vegetables and the cool spiciness of the yogurt,” she says a bit dreamily. “Just thinking of it makes me almost taste it. It’s just really good.”
Foster includes several essential recipes — like the buttermilk sauce, which can be easily tweaked for different applications — with the hope of empowering more people to cook for themselves.
“I feel like more people, especially young people, are cooking today than they were five or 10 years ago. Wanting to eat in a more health conscious way is behind a lot of this,” she says. “There’s also the community aspect of going to the farmers market, supporting local growers as well as connecting with other people who love to cook.”
The spring return of weekly farmers markets has occupied Foster’s thoughts throughout winter. While she focused on hearty stews and root vegetables during a pre-Christmas book tour, she is eager for the imminent arrival of early greens, tender baby radishes and sweet garden peas. She shares several recipes below to whet your appetite, too.
Flipping through the book, whose many photos were mostly shot in spring and summer, will give you tantalizing insight into Shelli Lieberman’s likely diet for the next few months. Rest assured that she does not find the prospect of returning seasonal dishes the least bit dull.
As demonstrated in Foster’s Market Favorites, Lieberman knows that her friend can’t resist the creative pull to tweak old recipes to reflect seasonal ingredients and contemporary culinary thinking. She’s done the same thing herself, changing her hairstyle to accommodate her passion for ballroom dancing. But Lieberman still relies on the same stylist, just as she counts on Foster to feed her body and soul.
“Why change? They know me so well, and the food is so good,” she says. “I’m already thinking about what I’ll have next for dinner.”
2694 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham
Open 7:30am to 8pm daily
919-489-3944 • www.fostersmarket.com