The story of how Bangor residents Terri and Steve Sleeper came to sell Lebanese food at farmers markets around eastern Maine, including Bangor’s European Market on Buck Street in Bangor each Saturday, begins in Caribou around 1913.
Steve Sleeper’s grandfather, Joseph, had recently arrived from Lebanon to the United States. Immigration officials at Ellis Island changed his name from Saliba — no relation to the rug wholesalers on the Bangor Waterfront — to Sleeper and sent him on his way north to Maine, where there was a small Lebanese settlement in Caribou.
“They couldn’t pronounce his name,” Steve Sleeper, 59, said. “That’s how we came to be Sleepers.”
Joseph married Alma, another Lebanese immigrant living in Caribou. The Sleeper family grew to own a number of different stores around the state, from the original and still operating Sleeper’s store in Caribou to the downtown Bangor store operated by Steve’s father, Mitch, until the late 1970s, to the Sleeper’s stores in the Bangor Mall and in Waterville. Each of the stores carried a different mix of products, from shoes and clothes to groceries.
While grandfather Joseph grew the business, grandmother Alma grew the family, cooking traditional Lebanese dishes, using recipes passed down for generations. Hummus. Lentil soup. Tabbouleh. Homemade pita bread. Grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice.
Alma Sleeper taught those recipes to her own daughters and her daughter-in-law, Florence. And Florence, now in her 80s, taught her daughter-in-law, Terri.
“The mother always taught the daughter how to make things,” Terri Sleeper, 59, said. “Eventually, when it came time for Steve’s mother to hand it down, she taught me. … I couldn’t cook at all before she taught me how. I could screw up boiling water. I burned corn on the cob. I was just the worst cook.”
But Terri Sleeper learned and eventually grew quite skilled at stuffing grape leaves and frying up fluffy, fragrant falafel, which are traditional Middle Eastern fried chickpea fritters. In the late 1980s, she and several other members of the Sleeper family assembled a family cookbook of their favorite Lebanese recipes. By the 2000s, she was an expert.
At that time, she and Steve were selling home-grown and arranged flowers at the farmers market in Brewer. In 2013, she decided to diversify.
“One day, I said, ‘Let’s try a little food,’ so we just made tabbouleh and hummus,” she said. “People loved it. We couldn’t make enough. So I said ‘Let’s just keep using your grandmother’s recipe!’ So we made falafel. It’s not like the falafel you buy at the store, where they’re all dry. Traditionally, when you break one open, it’s supposed to be green and creamy inside. People just loved it.”
That initial foray turned into a full-blown Lebanese food business, Mediterranean Cuisine by TS, cooked in the Sleeper’s commercial kitchen at their home and now sold at four farmers markets around the state. The colorful, flavorful dishes are a direct familial line from the Sleepers’ ancestors in Lebanon and are as unique to them as fingerprints — though Terri says she’s still learning little secrets.
“A lot of these recipes aren’t originally written down. It’s in their heads. That’s how they all cook. It’s just something you know how to do,” Terri Sleeper said. “We went to Washington, D.C., where there’s a large Lebanese community, and we went to their church. In the basement, they were having a Hafli, which is a big party, and I was sitting down, watching the women roll the grape leaves. They asked me what kind of rice I used for mine, and I said ‘Uncle Ben’s.’ And I got chastised because no, no, you only use Egyptian rice! I never knew. But now that’s what I use.”
All the many treats the Sleepers produce are vegetarian, from the array of cold dishes like the beet salad and kale salad to the lentil soup, a warm, hearty stew Steve Sleeper makes himself.
“I loved the lentil soup and the stuffed grape leaves as a kid. I make the lentil soup. It’s a favorite,” Steve Sleeper said. “This is what my mother made. It’s delicious. It’s home cooking. It’s really a great niche. There’s nobody else in the area making food like this.”
Terri Sleeper tries to source most of her ingredients locally, including the produce. The Sleepers grow their own grape leaves, which they harvest in June and preserve by can for later use.
“We get our produce from the Amish farmers down in Troy because their tomatoes and onions are just great,” she said. “We really try to make everything very healthy and all natural.”
Lebanese food, like many Middle Eastern cuisine, utilizes an array of specific spices, though there are little regional differences. The Sleepers’ dishes make special use of cinnamon, allspice, lemon and parsley.
“Different regions use different spices,” she said. “And the longer these dishes sit, the better the flavor is.”
Customer reactions have been largely positive — there’s just not a lot of Middle Eastern food available in eastern Maine, let alone specifically Lebanese food.
“A young gentleman from Lebanon happened to find us and tried our stuff, and he said, ‘I haven’t had falafel like this since what my mother made in Lebanon,’” she said. “That’s just the best compliment we could possibly get.”
Mediterranean Cuisine by TS sells its goods from 8:30 a.m. to noon on Saturdays at Bangor’s European Market on Buck Street in Bangor. During the summer season, they also sell at the Brewer Farmers Market, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays; at the Bayside Farmers Market in Northport, 2 to 5 p.m. Mondays; and at the Bucksport Bay Farmers Market, 2 to 5 p.m. Thursdays. They hope to add the Northeast Harbor Farmers Market for summer 2017.