I'm not a food person. I never have been. As a child my mother had a cache of maybe five recipes she could cook that I would eat. Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure that's not nearly enough dishes to justify use of the word "cache." As a teenager, I managed to somehow become even more picky about food. Peanut butter and jelly was cut from my diet. I became a hamburger, eggs, pizza, bagels guy. As in, that's literally all I ate. I stayed that way until maybe eighteen months ago, when I started dating a girl who considers herself a foodie. She is a food person. She also has never questioned her love for me, even after discovering I had survived for 25 years without ever trying such trivial food items as an avocado, cream cheese, or a pear. The list of foods I've tried since New Year's 2008 would shock most of you. Maybe that will be fodder for a future blog entry, but today I'm still having trouble coming to terms with the fact that I took some vacation days last week to attend a food festival in Northern California. It's so unlike me, I think I need to work through my thought process in a public setting, and writing to a handful of people over the Internet is about as public as I get.
I suppose I took the bait and went to the food festival because I figured it would provide me with some options to get out and explore a handful of the many weird places existing between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Our first day on the road included several interesting side-trips which brought us (at times) way off the beaten path. For example, in the hills above Santa Barbara there are preserved Chumash Indian cave paintings that date back several centuries. If you exit the 101-N onto CA-154, you can take that to aptly named Painted Cave Road, which will then take you on a very scenic 5 mile drive up a narrowing road until you reach the State Historic Park. Some of the trails in the area are closed for plant rehabilitation. During greener times I imagine it is a fantastic place to hike, but we were limited to staring through the iron gate built into the cave at the drawings. These figures and objects are supposedly a depiction of a solar eclipse that occurred in 1677. There are even some drawings on the outside of the cave. It's a very quiet and pretty area. If you're ever mystery driving (URL) on the 101 I highly recommend this place for a blissed-out afternoon.
In 2005, during my first cross-country road trip, I remember passing signs on the way from Los Angeles to San Francisco proudly declaring Buellton, CA as the home of split pea soup. For some reason, that billboard has stuck in my mind. I figured why not see what this split pea soup is all about, and find out why Buellton is such a hotbed of pea-splitting activity. There is a famous restaurant called Andersen's which sells their own brand of split pea soup in their large gift shop. They also sell kits designed to help novice chefs prepare their soup at home -- which is a great gift idea, by the way, we picked one up for the kind souls who hosted us on the first night of our little vacation. A few miles down the road from Buellton is Solvang, one of my favorite towns in all of California. The unique architecture and eateries in this Dutch Village have made it a very popular tourist attraction (see: the film Sideways, et. al). I first visited Solvang in 1994 with my mother while taking a parlor car tour from SF to LA, and again in 2005, when I consumed "the best chocolate chip cookie of my life," according to an old journal entry of mine. If you like windmills, Solvang provides you with many photo opportunities.
In San Luis Obispo, the Madonna Inn beckons tourists with a flare for the unusual. Each of the motel's bedrooms are flamboyantly designed. I've never stayed there, but I've seen pictures of most of the rooms and...it's quite an amazing feat of architecture. They don't offer a tour of the Madonna Inn, but they should. Even if they have to walk through rooms where people are staying, they could make a shit-ton of money letting people photograph all the oddities and kitsch which have made it a landmark. We stopped by because I needed to use the bathroom. It is located beneath the Inn's restaurant, and let me tell you -- taking a piss into a waterfall urinal trough half my size while tourists busily snap photographs of the absurd monument to micturition was one of the most unreal experiences I've had in quite some time. Oh yeah, and there was a car parked in the lot with a WFMU bumper sticker (see above)!
Day two of this food-driven vacation brought us to San Francisco and Oakland, where I was able to feed my record buying habit at Aquarius Records (and I only dropped $60! My least devastating visit to the landmark record store ever!), feed my girlfriend and myself at the nearby Taqueria Cancun (heavenly), and visit the Musée Mécanique at the pier. The museum dedicated to old penny arcade games is a great place to lose track of time. I was mostly interested in the games that read your fortune or deliver some kind of message about your fate, but it's also fun to take a look at the old XXX kinetoscope viewers to see what kinds of images folks were turned on by in the days before Internet porn and TV On-Demand. In case you're wondering, my two fortunes said: “You have been faced with some tragedy in the past. Things will look brighter in the future. There will be a rift between you and a dear friend, but that will be patched up and your friendship will be stronger than ever.” Yeah, right. The palmistry chart said, “Your hand indicates that two years from now you will have a good opportunity to get wealthy through an acquaintance you will make. You are born under a lucky star, will live long and enjoy good health until the end of your life. To be truly happy do not forget those less fortunate than yourself. You will be lucky on Saturdays. When you dream of Father or Mother, try to carry out their wishes.” My “best days — the 3rd, 12th and 22nd of each month.”
Pier 39 is a tourist trap, but it's the only place you're going to get a great view of fog rolling over the bay while sea lions roll around on floating docks pissing and shitting to their hearts content while hundreds of people look on in glee. Ah, if only life was that simple for us...
In Oakland, I had a waitress condescend to me when I ordered a Dogfish Head beer. She said, "Different strokes for different folks," after telling me she thought the beer tasted like something fruity after it was left in a car on a hot day. I know about beer. I know a lot about beer. Dogfish Head has rarely brewed less-than-stellar beers. I say that in spite of the fact that the brewery's president and I share an Alma Mater. The beer wench had no idea she was mocking an aficionado (that would be me). If I remembered the name of the gastropub we ate at, I'd tell you all to go there and assault her after her shift ends.*
The following morning the little lady and I visited the Winchester Mystery House (URL) in San Jose. If it weren't for the tour guide who sounded like a rehearsed, annoying flock of geese, it would have been an informative and fun way to kill an hour or two. Once we made the decision to slow our pace to be at the rear of the tour group (as close to out of earshot as possible), it became much more enjoyable. For those of you who aren't familiar with the mansion, it was under daily construction for 38 years as the window of gun magnate William Winchester went batshit crazy and attempted to perfect her already luxurious home. As it currently stands, the structure is four-stories high, and contains 160 rooms, 47 fireplaces, 10,000 windows, 17 chimneys, 2 basements and three elevators. Also, there is one bathroom. There are stairs that lead directly into ceilings, stairways that include dozens of steps and full turns only to travel a distance of three or four feet, chimneys that don't reach the roof, doors to nowhere, and countless other eccentricities. The most expensive window in the house (pictured here) was constructed so as to allow a rainbow to form whenever the sun hit it. Sure that sounds lovely, except it was built on the north-side of the house, so the sun never came through the window. Also, another room was built directly behind it, further cementing the window's reputation as being completely useless.
A few miles away also in San Jose: The world's largest permanent outdoor Monopoly board! I wish there was one of these in the town where I grew up in New Jersey, as it would have made for an amazing late-night drunken adventure. I can't begin to imagine how many fights have broken out in the middle of Monopoly games at the world's largest outdoor Monopoly board, but I'm willing to bet it's more than half of the games that have ever been played there. That is, if everybody who plays Monopoly there plays as intensely as my sister and I did when we were children.
Finally, The 31st Annual Garlic Festival. Rather than go into great detail about the three day event, I'll let the pictures do the picturing explaining, and provide some comments where necessary. I cannot explain how great the food at the festival was, but if any of you have been there, or live in the area, our shared great and delicious memories will always bind us together. Now for the food porn!
The best Garlic Bread I have ever had. Find me a restaurant that serves better garlic bread than this, and...uh...I'll have you buy me some. Then you'll have to trust my judgment, even though I won't be able to remember what this garlic bread tasted like.
The highlight of the festival (aside from the food) was the Garlic Showdown, which was held on Sunday afternoon. Hosted by Top Chef New York contestant Fabio Viviani, it featured two former Top Chef contestants: Jamie (from the New York season) and Ryan (from the Chicago season). Ryan took home the $5,000 prize for his dishes: Homemade Hand-torn Pasta with Baby Tomatoes, Tomato Broth & Mozzarella with Sun-dried Tomato, Black Garlic-encrusted Beef Tenderloin, along with Sungold Tomato Succotash, and Watermelon Tomato Salad with Smoked Tomato Vinaigrette. I was kind of confused as to how he could win after stating that his partner conceptualized and prepared the dish, but maybe that's why I'm not a judge at food festivals.
I hope you've enjoyed this stroll down (my recent) Memory Lane. I'll be back in two weeks, hopefully with some new exciting travel stories to share with you. Until then I have two questions for you to answer in the comments section: What's the best food/drink festival you've ever attended? Where the hell do I go from here!?
* violence against women is wrong, even if your high school Sex-Ed teacher told you otherwise!