By Michael Burke Photographed by Mark Fleming
Soup For You! Cafe
222 Broadway, Farmington, 207-779-0799
Over here is a young professor; over there the physical therapist who worked on my shoulder some years ago. Behind him is a former student of mine, across the way is the wife of the district attorney, in the middle a mother with her baby. And, scattered about, retired couples leisuring over lunch. As far as I can see, no one is on a cellphone or texting or using a laptop; everyone is reading a book, a magazine, or talking with one another. Weird.
Soup For You, Farmington’s iconic soup and sandwich shop, based on the also-iconic scene from Seinfeld (the Soup Nazi episode from the mid-1990s, whose refrain is “No soup for you!”) is an odd eruption of hip in downtown Farmington: the cafe is a cultural throwback, a haven, and, of course, a purveyor of exotic soups. The shop, on Broadway in downtown, is wedged between an Internet provider and an empty storefront, and across from one of the two barbershops on this short block. The cash-only cafe was obviously once a retail business of some sort, with window display areas now displaying a collection of cacti, plus stacks of alternative newspapers, including the Portland Forecaster, the Portland Daily Sun, and the Portland Phoenix. In a way, this is fitting, since Soup for You has a bit of Old Port to it, as though Farmington were Portland North (not to be confused with North New Portland, which is just up the road on Route 27), or as though an episode of Portlandia were about to break out.
Inside, among the soups, it is as though you’ve returned to your grandmother’s kitchen, only this grandmother wears dreadlocks, hemp, and bandanas, and crafts such unlikely creations as Italian white bean and potato chowder (eight-ounce bowl, $3.39), or red lentil garam masala. The flavors are both hearty and exotic. The red lentil, for instance, has chickpeas and yellow raisins, in addition to the spices and lentils, and a thick broth, which makes for a legitimate meal. The shop rotates a dazzling variety of soups, from which about six per day are on offer, with a rainbow of options for every one: some are vegan, wheat-free, soy free, dairy free, or gluten free. You can even sample soups before buying, which definitely wasn’t happening in the Seinfeld episode.
I asked Em Reeve, the current owner (since about 2000), how she came up with all of these soup varieties and combinations. “Whatever I feel like making,” she says with a laugh, although one soup had a distinct family connection. “My grandson wanted a pizza soup, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ and that’s Jonathan’s pizza soup now.”
Keeping with the Seinfeld theme, sandwiches (starting at $5.79) are named the Seinfeld, the Kramer, the Costanza, and the Elaine (spinach wrap, smoked tofu, black-eyed pea salad, garlic hummus, etc.); there are thirty-five options, a total that has remained relatively fixed, at least since Reeve took over.
One resists claiming Soup For You has a vibe, but, well, it has a vibe. The cash register sports a sticker that claims “Staff are trained to Kill,” and despite this, the staff are relentlessly cheerful, even responding to odd requests from customers (okay, my wife) to do such things as to hold her bill and put it on mine, when I arrive a few minutes late. It is the kind of place where young people talk openly about their relationships while standing in line to order a sandwich, and the music is a loop of reggae and Billie Holiday and Irish fiddle and around again. The eleven booths have the same sun-face wallpaper pattern, a decoration that has not changed in years: the place is meant to be warming, in all kinds of ways.
Michael Burke is a professor of English at Colby and is the author of The Same River Twice.