Need a Scandinavian beverage to wash down all that krumkake and hvetebrod? A cuppa of Swedish coffee might do the job nicely.
Like the town of Solvang in California, there’s a Scandinavian town in my neck of the woods, too. Except in contrast to Solvang, I love Poulsbo. Even though it’s a bit of a tourist trap, Poulsbo feels more humble, more down-home, more real. Its Norwegian roots run deep—I have even heard Norwegian spoken on the street there.
The best part of Poulsbo is Sluy’s Bakery. The place isn’t strictly Norwegian (you’ll find German and American treats there, too), but they know their Scandinavian pastries and have plenty of Norwegian delights to choose from. And while I don’t have any Norwegian ancestry myself, I didn’t live in both Minnesota and North Dakota for nothing. So Sluy’s has become a regular stop for me whenever I find myself on that side of the Sound and need a lefse fix.
Since today is St. Olaf’s Day in Norway, I figured that might be a good excuse to go out in search of a little eplekake.
Now this is more like it. Solvang might have seemed a little too much like a polished Disneyland for my taste, but in the next town over was something much more my speed.
Though its name has changed slightly over the years, Pea Soup Andersen’s has been a Santa Ynez Valley institution for over 90 years. And while I’m not sure their famous split-pea soup is quite as home-cooked as it may have been in 1924 (it tastes fairly processed, I’m sad to say), there’s something comforting and homey about sitting down to hot soup after a long day of travel.
And the decor! This is the kind of low-brow charm I was hoping for in Solvang. Every inch of the place is Danish-ized to the hilt (but in a far less polished way than in Solvang), and there’s a heckuva gift shop that’s worthy of the best roadside attractions.
And there’s one other thing Andersen’s has that Solvang doesn’t: killer neon.
(They had me at the neon.)
I think you know by now that I’m a fan of roadside attractions—anything cheesy, hokey, corny and kitschy has a special place in my heart. But I need to clarify something: I’m pretty snobbish about my kitsch. It’s got to be either bizarre but well-executed, or so bad it’s good, or of epic scale—or else just so wonderfully earnest that no matter how lame it is, it melts my heart.
Solvang, California is none of the above, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
Despite having a Spanish mission on site for a hundred years already, the hamlet of Solvang was founded and settled in 1911 by Danish immigrants coming from the American Midwest. Its famous half-timbered mock-Danish architecture, however, didn’t start appearing until after World War II. Some of the buildings—like the 1991 scale replica of Copenhagen’s Rundetårn, of which you can just see a snippet at the top of the above sketch—are very recent additions.
But the thing about Solvang is that all that ersatz European architecture is pretty darn well done: the craftsmanship is all reasonably solid and the theme is consistent throughout town. And that kind of irritates me!
There’s something else, too: Wall Drug, and the Corn Palace, and Lucy the Elephant, and all the other roadside greats might be oddball anomalies and hokey destinations—but weird as they are, each is the genuine article. Solvang is a replica—worse, an approximation—of something that already exists. If I had the choice, I’d rather just buy a ticket to Denmark, and sketch the real thing.
And here’s the hardest part for me to swallow: Solvang is fake, sure, but it’s professional fakery—the kind you find at a theme park (incidentally, I loathe theme parks). The faux-Danish veneer is carefully considered and well-crafted enough to be attractive. I mean, I liked it well enough to take the time to sketch it, right? Yet the town doesn’t quite have the endearing charm of a place like Wall Drug: the overwhelming effect of an amateur with perhaps more skill than taste, more business savvy than artistry. It’s no Disneyland, thankfully (though the town’s copy of the Little Mermaid sculpture comes close), but it’ll never make my list of favorites.
I know, I know. What kind of nut case writes critical essays on the relative artistic merits of ersatz period architecture and oversized folk art? Well, my kind of nut case, apparently. I guess this is what happens when you send a chronic road-tripper to art school. Sigh.
So okay: Solvang gets a pass for being pretty—and for giving me access to fresh-baked æbleskivers. But I’d really like it if it also had a few lumpy concrete sculptures and clumsy ho-made signs to its name.