By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Robin Shuster wants to talk -- to everyone.
"Those grapes are amazing," Shuster murmured to a shopper on a recent Sunday at the Bloomingdale farmers market. "There's a wonderful chicken recipe -- do you eat chicken? Not often? Well, you must try this. It's a Medieval French recipe."
"Did you find everything you need?" she chirps, all but blocking the path of a couple heading for their car. "Would you like to subscribe to the market e-mail? If you don't like it, I'll just unsubscribe you."
Okay. She can be a little bit pushy. Shuster herself will admit that. But there's charm in her enthusiasm for fresh celery ("isn't that flavor intense?"), goat meat, grapes and the small but sweet Charentais melons that she is sure she can persuade some farmer to grow next year. In her trademark floppy sun hat and oversize sunglasses, the 56-year-old manager marches around the market with a file of recipes under her arm. For many, Shuster is as much a draw as the ripe produce, cheeses and meats she promotes at Bloomingdale and at the Saturday 14th and U farmers market in Northwest, which she also directs.
"I am just one of those people who has to share my passion with people," Shuster said. "It's partly because of my background, partly because I'm a blabbermouth. That's who I am."
Shuster's markets, owned by her company, Markets & More, are not the biggest or the best known in Washington. On its busiest day, the market at 14th and U draws about 800 visitors. Compare that with the Dupont Circle market run by nonprofit FreshFarm Markets, which attracts as many as 5,000 on a Sunday morning. Still, Shuster's markets are developing cult followings. This month, Bloomingdale, with as many as 400 visitors weekly, was named the country's seventh favorite small market in a contest sponsored by the American Farmland Trust. (A market in Collingswood, N.J., took the top spot.)
It might not be surprising that Shuster grew up in New York, first on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and later in Rockland County. If she picked up a certain intensity in the city, it was life in the suburbs that helped set her on her path: Shuster's father had an organic garden. The family grew lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant, even corn, which her mother would turn into lasagnas or, true to her era, salads to accompany Swanson chicken potpies.
When she was 12, Shuster's father bought her the Time Life "Foods of the World" series. The cookbooks, 27 in all, inspired Shuster to head to the kitchen and ultimately to a job at the publisher. In 1976, Time Life decided to relocate its book division from New York to Washington. When much of the staff refused to make the move south, Shuster was hired at the new headquarters in Alexandria.
One of her first jobs was helping to produce "The Good Cook," a technique-focused series edited by legendary food writer Richard Olney. Francois Dionot, founder of L'Academie de Cuisine, was a consultant. It was Dionot who introduced Shuster to the pleasures of a French omelet -- "I had always hated scrambled eggs," she remembers -- and to visiting cooking teachers such as Madhur Jaffrey, Diana Kennedy, Claudia Roden and others.
By 1996, Shuster was director of marketing for Time Life's cookbook franchise. But the company's series, so popular in the 1970s and '80s, had lost its allure. "In the go-go years, Time Life was a very exciting place to work. We had the best people, and we got the best consultants to work with us," Shuster said. "But as things were going down, suddenly you didn't have $250,000 to do a book; and you didn't have 10 researchers, you had two. I was waking up every morning at 4 o'clock thinking: How can I save the cooking franchise?"
The stress at work was complicated by another development. In 1990, Shuster had been given a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. "I started thinking, what if I wind up in a wheelchair?" she said. "I decided to take some time off and think about what I wanted to do with my life."
It wasn't to run a farmers market -- at least, not yet. With some severance money in the bank, Shuster and her husband, University of Maryland professor Jeff Bub, bought a house in the Alpes de Provence. It's a long story, as stories of foreign real estate purchases tend to be. (See Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence.") Shuster's involves a group of bohemian French friends, a house bought sight unseen and an intimidating French lawyer. The upshot: Shuster spent half of the next five years abroad, renovating the house, perfecting her French and maniacally visiting local farmers markets.
Back in Washington, Shuster was ready for a new adventure. (Her MS still affects her but the symptoms come and go.) In 2003, she volunteered at the Mount Pleasant farmers market. Four years later, she set out on her own, opening the 14th and U and Bloomingdale markets.
"Farmers markets are for me a braid of the various threads of my life that come together in a way that very little else could have done," Shuster said. "They combine my childhood love of gardening, my passion for cooking, my love of marketing and this desire I have to share things that I think are great."
Shuster's enthusiasm has been key in launching the Bloomingdale market, at the corner of First and R streets in Northwest. With few commercial establishments, the neighborhood was not an obvious location. Encouraged by the owners of the Big Bear Cafe, which also opened in 2007, Shuster plunged ahead. Along with the farm stands, the market offers a weekly bicycle repair clinic. Local artists also occasionally show their work.
"The market wouldn't be anything without Robin," says Big Bear's Lana Labermeier. "Our market feels like a small village market. Everyone in the village comes out. She has encouraged that to happen instead of putting a more formal market structure in place."
Not that Shuster doesn't have definitive opinions about what makes a good market. There should be a broad mix of producers: a balance of orchard owners, bakers, vegetable farmers, meat producers, flower growers. They should come from a diverse geographic area, which helps extend the growing season.
And there should be recipes: something for everything that's for sale at market. Every tent should be full of signs. Not just with names and prices -- "if there are no prices, some people, like my husband, will just walk away," she says -- but with something to pull in shoppers.
"See this," she says, pointing to some potatoes. "I'd like it to say, 'German butterball, great for roasting.' " Or, she says, pointing to a sign for string beans, "That could say 'String beans: We grow the best.' It's just something to make the customer stop and pay attention."
And if they don't?
There's always Shuster herself.
"You don't like cooked beets?" she asks a customer shopping at Snowbear Farm's stand. "You should still try this pink, spicy gazpacho. I've been making it a few times a week. Wait, I have the recipe right here."
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