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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Any Which Way But Sideways

Last weekend, oh wait…2 weekends ago Bruce, Karen and I took a road trip down to SoCal to visit the Danish-American town of Solvang. The trip was suggested by Karen who had a little time off and wanted to see if we were interested, to which I responded with a hearty "Hell Yeah!"

I had never been to SoCal. Well, I had stayed in Hollywood for about a week over 10 years ago, and I have been through SoCal on a Greyhound bus on my way to Oakland, and I have been all over Northern California, and I have even been to paradise but haven't been to me. But, until recently, SoCal was just a place I knew friends and co-workers to be from; who had escaped life from behind the Orange Curtain.

We left early Friday morning, which was a beautiful morning, and headed down 101 South. Looking on a map, I couldn't help but notice how many prison towns we would be driving through or by.

I'm pretty familiar with CA prisons since I, at one time, use to conduct legal investigations into the healthcare of California state prisoners, mostly at the men's prison in Corcoran (I've been in the GP, SHU, and PHU visiting rooms; plus the SHU hospital), and the two women's prisons in Chowchilla (the largest female prison complex in the world). Because I was involved with those issues for over 4 years, I became quite knowledgeable about the location of California's 32 state prisons.

Now, annoyingly, whenever I look at a California map or hear about a certain town, my immediate thought is that there's a prison there.

Grim, I know. Probably not high on the Chamber of Commerce's list of attractions.

I've been down a lot of roads and highways in California, but never have I seen so many farmworkers than driving down 101. You see them, hunched over in groups, in the middle of cauliflower fields, breaking their backs in the mid-day sun. Though it's hot outside, they are covered from head to toe in multiple layers of clothes to protect themselves from the sun and, sometimes, the crops they're picking.

Driving through the town of Gonzales, looking west, you see expansive green fields, with occasional groups of farmworkers surrounding a truck, and in the background a seemingly endless wall of mountains that bluntly jet upwards to touch the clear blue sky. We pass huge trucks hauling what look like chayotes, and almost get ran off the road by a truck hauling Dole broccoli.

Finally, we arrive in San Luis Obispo, which is well hidden from the freeway. After our pit stop there, we continue down through the beautiful beach town of Pismo, with its white monster homes and "Fisherman's Grotto" type places and suddenly it feels like what I imagined SoCal to be. You can see people actually swimming in the ocean. It was bright; so bright that I kinda got a little worried that the heavy presence of sun might kill me.

Pretty soon we arrived in Buellton, our destination, and checked into our hotel. Can I just say that getting a hotel within 20 miles of Solvang was a damn pain in the ass! Everyone was booked up, mostly for Saturday night. Rooms also weren't cheap.

After unloading our bags and cranking up the AC, we left the hotel and headed out to Lompoc to visit the farmer's market. Lompoc is known as the "town of murals" and they are not kidding. Murals are everywhere and on everything.

The white settlers who founded the modern-day town of Lompoc were hardcore tea-tottlers who terrorized the "wets" by routinely engaging in property destruction, kidnapping, and harassment. Eventually, the boozers outnumbered the God Squad (affectionately known as the People's Union League), but not before a bunch of crazy-ass women armed with axes hitched a rope to a makeshift saloon and dragged it out of town. Below is a mural of commemorating that dark night the buzzkills dragged off Pappy's hooch.

(Mural says: People's Union League of Lompoc – Socialbility, Morality, Intellectuality)

Lompoc's farmer's market runs from 2 PM to 6 PM on Fridays, which is kind of an odd time if you ask me. It's located off of the main street next to an old church and a small park. Besides the produce vendors, there was one cheese vendor (Springhill Farms from Petaluma), a flower vendor, a barbecue guy, the local firemen selling baked goods to raise funds, a taco truck, and what apparently were random folks bringing out their flea market junk. There were a couple of organic produce vendors who offered nice looking veggies, most notably the biggest artichokes I've ever seen ($3 each). Besides the purple okra and the artichokes, nothing really stood out. The prices, for being in the heartland of agriculture, were no better than up here and there were no Asian vegetables (the folks at the Rice Bowl probably aren't happy about that). Sorry to be such a downer, but we're really spoiled here in the bay area when it comes to outstanding farmer's markets.

The drive to and from Lompoc was definitely one of the nicer stretches of road we encountered. Heading back towards Solvang, we drove past bright and colorful fields of blooming stock flowers.

Solvang is pretty colorful too. Settled by Danish educators in the mid 1900s, Solvang attracted Danes who sought to live an American cowboy-boots-by-day/wooden-clogs-by-night lifestyle. By the late 40's it had been discovered by tourists and, ever since, it's been a non-stop tourist destination for retirees, busloads of foreign tourists, college kids from SLO with their out-of-town parents, and even the Danish. While I was there, I heard Japanese, Italian, Spanish, and Polish spoken. Hundreds of white sneakers were seen pacing Copenhagen Street in search of miniature porcelain blue milkmaids with the town's name stamped onto their milk bucket. Or if not that, in the many bakeries eating Danish waffles, which aren't waffles at all but long, airy cookies with a super-sweet cream and raspberry filling. Because of where the town is located, there is also a considerable number of wine tasting rooms. Yummm; wine and aebelskivers.

What are aebelskivers? Aebelskivers (able-skeevers) are fried doughballs topped with raspberry sauce and dusted with powdered sugar. They are made with an aebleskiver pan, which resembles a cast iron skillet with 6 or so 2-inch round dimples. The aebelskiver batter is poured into the dimples and the aebleskiver cook takes a long aebleskiver stick, dips it in the batter, and then lifts up; kind of teasing the batter up and over to form a ball. We saw these aebelskiver pans for sale everywhere in Solvang, which sparked a long conversation about which surrounding towns had the most aebleskiver pans in their secondhand stores. I think we settled on somewhere in Ohio.

Our first meal in Solvang was at the Red Viking. Because we wanted the pure Denmark in America experience, we decided to forego any Italian or Mexican restaurants and settled on eating anything whose name contained random groupings of consonants. The food at the Red Viking (Yaarrr!) was what you would expect from any Northern European-in-America cuisine; meat, more meat, potatoes, and cooked cabbage. We decided to be adventurous; we all had the same thing, which was the Danish sausage, Danish meatballs, mashed potatoes with gravy, and cooked red cabbage. In other words, very hearty, stick to your bones, clog your arteries, grub. And this was the smaller lunch plate.

After stuffing ourselves, we decided to walk it off by strolling by closed shops and peering into the windows. Despite being a tourist town, most of the shops were closed by 6 PM...on a Friday night...with dozens of tourists willing to spend their dollars. I'm glad I wasn't the only one who thought it was strange, and just downright stupid, since I overheard a teenager complaining to his dad precisely what I was thinking. I mean, closing up shop before sundown on a Friday in a busy tourist area? Was I in Solvang or the hasidic area of Brooklyn? Oy, meshugge!

Driving back to Buellton, we decided to stop by the Hitching Post II to check out the bar. Big mistake. The bar area at the HPII is tiny, tiny, tiny, and there wasn't any bahn mi. The HPII was packed and booming. As we walked in, some suave jerk yelled out to his buddy, "there's Paul Giamatti" as he looked over at Bruce. Boy, that was a laugh riot. Right then, I looked around and noticed all of the Sideways-related crap for sale, including T-shirts and movie posters. A huge Sideways movie poster was hanging on the wall beside Mr. Intellectuality. We turned right around and walked back to the car. I think what was the most annoying part of our whole trip to Santa Barbara county was driving past wineries or walking into shops and seeing the obsequious "As Seen In 'Sideways'" signs everywhere.

The next day we ate aebelskivers at the Solvang Restaurant and there were no Sideways signs, thank god. Our waitress (not one of the ones in the pic below) was about as warm as a jar of pickled herring in cream sauce, which made us wonder if all of the waitresses in Southern California were of the same ilk. We'd had the same experience just the day before in San Luis Obispo and at the Red Viking. Despite the service, the aebleskivers were awesome, plus I had the "hot cake sandwich" which was a plate of Danish pancakes (think larger and thinner), two breakfast links, and a fried egg. Apparently they meant for you to assemble it yourself, which I did to uncertain success. While I carbed up, the rest of the gang had sausages and omelettes.

Afterwards, we hit the town again. While Karen checked out Rasmussens and several other shops, Bruce and I hit the bookstores and 2 thrift shops, or what we call "real shopping". Later we visited the Elverhoy museum, which turned out to be one of my favorite experiences in Solvang.

In between sightseeing, we headed over to the Bit O' Denmark for a shot (or two) of Aalborg Akvavit, a caraway-flavored infused vodka popular in Scandanavia. I really liked the surroundings in BOD (even though the name is totally goofy) and decided that it was the place to quench your thirst in Solvang. Also, their smorgasboorg (or all you can eat buffet) looked better than the Red Viking's.

After regaining our courage, we checked out the Santa Ynez Mission by barging into the chapel where there happened to be an Irish Catholic wedding going on. Oops! Backing out quietly, we noticed how pretty and old the church is. We attempted to enter the other section of the Mission, but the watchdogs wanted a "suggested donation" and I suggested to my cohorts that the Vatican was rich enough for me, thank you. One would think Opus Dei could at least sponsor a free day once a month.

Onwards to Los Olivos which, had we been visiting to taste wine and buy art, we would've struck gold since literally half of the small stretch of town is either wine tasting rooms or art (lots of new agey) galleries. Hidden down a side street, we found a consignment shop that was super and from which I bought a ceramic container disguised as a head of iceberg lettuce. See below.

By the way, Los Olivos is where the "Back To Mayberry" special was filmed and apparently Aunt Bee liked the town so much she settled down nearby. The lack of "As Seen In 'Back To Mayberry'" signs was noticeable.

We left Los Olivos and headed to Santa Barbara, where we walked along the pier, had an ice cream cone, and stood befuddled watching a guy in a wheelchair and kids standing on the edge (there were no guardrails) fishing from the pier. We were hoping they wouldn't catch the big one, otherwise we would've had to call the lifeguard. I couldn't help notice how everything you have in a metropolitan city was the same in Santa Barbara, only translated into Beach-lish. They had the same spare-changers, only they did it "beach style" (writing "I won't lie, I need a beer" in the sand along the pier with a towel and bucket to catch the change). They had stretch limos, only they were hot-rod "beach style". And instead of the pasty white folks dressed in black, like we have here, they all were wearing the bare minimum and were so tan it made my skin hurt.

After leaving the pier, we had a pleasant dinner at (I totally forget the name) a restaurant connected to a hotel that was across the street from the pier. For a hotel restaurant it was pretty damn good and the food was plentiful and it was reasonably priced. Karen and Bruce loved their Sole Picatta and I was happy with my basil, olive, and cheese pasta. Best of all, we had a birds eye view of the pier and the passersby as we sat outside on the patio AND our waitress was this sweet young college girl who gave us the best service we'd had all weekend! Finally!

Leaving Santa Barbara, we arrived in Solvang at night only to discover that they were showing "ET: The Extra-Terrestrial" on a screen in the town park. Of course we stopped. In the park were at least 200 folks with their lawn chairs and blankets (lots of parents and kids) just hanging out watching the movie. It was pretty swell to say the least, especially since we had just been talking about how Bruce has never seen the movie.

The next day, we checked out of our hotel and headed back into Solvang one last time. We ate breakfast at BOD and were the only customers in the place. Afterwards, we dropped by the Ostrich Farm between Solvang and Buellton to pick up some Ostrich jerky and sausages. Ostrich eggs were available, but as one egg is the equivalent to 25 large eggs, I wasn't sure I'd be in need anytime soon.

So concluded our weekend excursion to the Old-New Country.


PS For those of you who are astonished that we were in Santa Barbara's wine country and didn't once try any wine, sorry. This just wasn't the wine-drinking crowd. However, if anyone wishes to invite me down for a weekend of wine tasting, you've got my email.


Blogger richard said...

Sorry, but you didn't quite make it down to SoCal... Most consider Santa Barbara to Monterey as the Central Coast and Ventura south as SoCal. Even Ventura is sometimes considered part of the Central Coast. SoCal is really LA and SD. Anyway, next trip, plan to stay a while in SLO. Check out Coastal Concierge for some good dining recommendations.

7:48 AM  
Anonymous Mrs. Meathead said...

We almost went to Solvang for our anniversary a couple weekends ago. But we opted for driving 28234634 miles to Bend, Oregon instead to pick up some bacon because my brother told me too. Now that is love!

Solvang is next, however. Dammint.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Bacon Press said...

Thanks Richard,

As you see, I'm still learning what is and what isn't SoCal. We (including Bruce and Karen who are both native Californians from the Central Valley) believed the dividing line was Monterey. And, in fact, that's how most guide books divide it out also.

However, I agree with you that where we were could, and probably should, be defined as the Central Coast.

Thanks again for the clarification.

And Mrs. Meathead,

You should go to Solvang for the weekend. It was a pretty easy trip.

I've driven up NorCal and into Oregon plenty of times and love it, but it's totally different than driving the other direction.

(For one thing, you don't have the "wall of trees" effect...with the exception where Pacific Lumber has clearcut for miles.)

Not long ago, Bruce and I drove up to the Crescent City area to a small town called Hiouchi. We went to see all of the cool carnivorous plants that are native to the area. Part of that trip included driving into Bend and out to the national forest around there.

We even took a break and drove into Crescent City on night to watch a movie!

It was a great trip and I would totally do it again.


6:25 PM  

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