ME 2 - Forage Market in Lewiston
For the parallels of sadness and grandeur they evoke, mill towns are the closest we get in America to “ruins.” Those monumental buildings say everything about the beauty of brick, stone, and scale, but their eerie quiet speaks to the common consequences of meteoric booms. There is always a river.
The Androscoggin River muscles through downtown Lewiston, Maine, past the enormous red brick buildings of the Bates Mill Complex, now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Up the hill from the river, where Main Street meets Frye Street at Bates College, is a Historic District, a few blocks of Greek and Gothic Revival buildings that many of the mill bosses once called home. Also on the National Registry of Historic places is the Continental Mill Housing block on Oxford St., all that’s left of many blocks of mill worker housing built in 1866.
Lewiston is a former mill town and a college town, but on my visit there covering Maine’s 2nd Congressional district, I found surprises. First, the Somali and Bantu communities that have settled here, as we discuss in the podcast, have stirred this community in some obviously difficult ways, but in some surprisingly good ones, too. Second, there’s a guy in my hometown of Rockport, MA who has started a new shoe company, called Maine Mountain Moccasin, in Lewiston. They are making hand-sewn leather shoes in the old-style way once famous in shoe making. Third, there are bagels.
Not just any bagel. The Forage Market on Lisbon St. in Lewiston is in some ways a shocking cultural experience only because it is such a perfect culinary event in what seems like an unlikely location. This is a busy cafe committed to local foods, furnished in thrift shop tables and chairs, producing what Saveur Magazine has declared as good a bagel as any in the world. The artisanal sandwiches are eligible for the same accolade. The bagel breakfast sandwiches are enormous, messy, and blue ribbon. Every day I was there I saw a diverse crowd from a rangy group of guys in work boots who were there every morning to moms in faded Lilly Pulitzer sundresses to grandparents with visiting toddlers - all bent into bagel breakfast sandwiches, catching falling fresh tomato with many napkins. My favorite was The Forage: a local egg served over easy with cheese, local greens, and tomato herb aioli.
Lisbon St. is a few blocks from the Androscoggin River and those massive red brick buildings of the Bates Mills. Simard-Payne Park, where there is almost always a group of Somalis playing soccer, runs along the river right there. Senator Susan Collins’ offices are on Lisbon St., as is Representative Bruce Poliquin’s constituent services and candidate Jared Golden’s headquarters, but there are also a number of Somali stores here, and more women walking around in guntiino and shash, traditional Somalian dress and head scarf than Lilly sundresses. In short, except for the Edible Lewiston planters along the street, Forage Market looks at first like a local cafe that got lost, at the same time it’s the best location for access to what’s really happening in Lewiston.
I basically set up camp here for the bagels and the access.
Back to the bagels: In the growing pool of talented Maine bakers, Forage Market owner Allen Smith sought to distinguish himself. His recipe might not be traditional, but his bagels turn the heads of the fussiest of bagel knowers. The Forage bagel crust is crustier. The flavor is yeastier. The character is just greater.
Forage bakers achieve this two ways: time and fire. Smith uses a wild yeast leavened dough. After the bagels are hand-rolled, he lets the raw dough sit for two days. That very slow rise famously builds flavor. The bagels are then boiled, and laid out on wooden boards, where they are dusted with coarse salt, sesame, garlic, everything mix, and poppy seeds. (Smith is particular about the freshness of the poppy seeds.)
Best part here: The paddles of boiled, then sprinkled bagels are set in a wood-fired brick oven. Those bagel crusts bubble and pop as they bronze and the toppings get crispy in the intensely direct heat. All this happens in the Forage basement, where customers are welcome to watch.
Get it? That yeasty center and wood-fired crust? These bagels cannot be improved.
Revival is happening in the shadow of the Bates Mills, within earshot of the running Androscoggin waters, around the corner from Maine Mountain Moccasins where good leather shoes are being hand-sewn using traditional methods once again, albeit on a very small scale. Revival in this Lewiston just might just look like a bagel. I’m good with that.
Maine Mountain Moccasin: https://mainemoccasin.com/