“Andersen’s Pea Soup Capital of the World,” I read out loud, staring out the passenger side window at an approaching sign. “Buellton, California – 105 miles.”
“What?” my then-spouse asked, eyes on the road.
“I keep seeing these signs for this famous split pea soup,” I said, gesturing out the window. “It’s quite a claim. I mean, pea soup’s good and all, but—?”
“Kinda wish we had time to stop,” I mused. “I’d like to see if it’s worth the hype.” I paused. “It’s even on the way.”
This was June 2013. My spouse and I had just graduated from our university studies in April, and we’d been job hunting in the San Francisco Bay area since mid-May. We’d decided to take a weekend trip down the coast to my spouse’s hometown near Los Angeles, and we’d planned to enjoy a late dinner with my sister-in-law once we’d arrived. A spur-of-the-moment stop to sample famous pea soup was out of the question.
And our trek down U.S. Route 101 was scenic enough. The historic highway provided an easy shot between our origin and destination, and its legendary beauty is the stuff road trip fantasies are made of. Relaxed in the passenger seat, watching hills and fields and forests and stony outcroppings skim by, I could easily imagine myself in an eternal sepia-toned music video. Some alt-rock acoustic track about care-free young adulthood. Rebellious nostalgia. Torn blue jeans. Windswept hair. Everlasting sunny laughter.
The sky was beachside blue and cumulous-cheerful. Sunlight enlivened everything just a bit more than it normally does, a peculiar trick along the Californian coast that defies explanation.
I kept seeing the Pea Soup Capital of the World signs. Buellton, California. I started pointing them out, grinning at each one. Seventy-five miles. I wasn’t watching for the signs, but they were noticeable, and each one intrigued me more. Fifty miles.
“I mean, really,” I laughed. “I’m curious.” My spouse quirked an eyebrow, smiling nervously, as though half-convinced I’d try to negotiate a stop.
The signs were old-fashioned—painted wood, perched between the road and the woods beyond, featuring an old-timey illustration of a large chef and a little chef crushing peas. Even the lettering was intentionally evocative of a bygone era, a clear, blocky fountain-pen font. Pea Soup Andersen’s. Green featured prominently, but it was neither a pea soup green nor a woodsy green. This was shamrock green, a bright, pleasant, noticeable shade similar to the color of fresh, raw peas.
Soon enough, the sun tilted west, and I stopped staring as intently through my window. We were still a bit more than an hour away from our destination—close enough to obsessively check the time, close enough to fidget, and close enough to fantasize about stretching, chatting, and eating.
Some time later, and all at once, our truck lurched slightly and bizarrely to the side, as though stumbling. We maintained forward momentum, but from beneath us we could hear something flapping—thwack thwack thwack thwack thwack—and the road seemed suddenly gravelly and uneven. My spouse slowed the truck, pulling onto the shoulder. As we lost speed, the flapping turned pathetic, like the helpless slap of wet jeans when you’ve pulled yourself fully-clothed from a pool. Our truck leaned forward and towards the driver’s side. We stopped. My spouse flipped our hazards on.
This was no ordinary flat tire, featuring a puncture and deflated but intact rubber. No—the front left-hand tire had essentially disintegrated, spontaneously shredding and peeling away from the whole. Even worse, it was in this moment we discovered we had no useable spare: the person we’d acquired the truck from in 2008 had had it specially lifted onto extra-large tires, and no one had thought to inquire as to whether the spare matched the new set. It did not.
I got back into the truck to call my insurance for roadside assistance. But I couldn’t explain where we were. I hadn’t paid close attention to mile markers, and we were not within sight of one in either direction. No signs within sight, either. Both my spouse and I still had our old flip-phones, so mapping applications were of no help, either. The representative I was speaking to kept asking if I was near Santa Rosa. “No,” I kept saying. “Santa Rosa is like six hours north of where I am. We’re on the 101 about an hour north of—”
“Ma’am, are you sure you’re not near Santa Rosa?”
“I’m one hundred percent sure.”
Thankfully, a state trooper discovered us before I grew too frustrated. He offered to help us change the tire, and we explained our predicament.
“I’m on the phone with my insurance company,” I told him. “Could you tell me where we are?”
“They’re just gonna call the nearest towing company,” the trooper said. “And they’ll probably charge you for it. I’ll call you a tow truck for free.”
I thanked the insurance representative for her time and hung up.
Our tow truck arrived just as the sun slipped beneath the trees. The driver explained to us, as he hitched up our truck, that there was only one auto shop in the nearest town, and it had closed for the night about thirty minutes before.
“We’ll park you out front and they’ll know to expect you in the morning. That’s what we always do with breakdowns after hours. We’ll have you outta here quick as we can. There’s a hotel near enough to walk to. I’ll point it out,” he said.
“Thanks,” we said, climbing into the tow truck’s cab. Twilight was falling fast, the air chilling as the sunlight vanished. The driver pulled us onto the highway.
“What a mess,” I said to no one in particular. I sighed dramatically. “So,” I said to the tow truck driver, after a moment of quiet. “What town are we heading into, then?”
“Little place called Buellton,” he said cheerfully.
Just like that, this disaster had turned into an adventure. I grinned. “Buellton! Isn’t that the Pea Soup Capital of the World?”
He laughed. “Sure is! Andersen’s is right near the hotel. I’ll show you.”
“Are they open?” I demanded. “Like, could we have dinner there?”
“Yes!” I said. “Dude, you have no idea! I’ve been looking at those signs all day! Awesome!”
“Well, good,” the driver said, still laughing. “I guess it’s not all bad, then, is it?”
The hotel was technically near enough to walk to, but it was a hike, especially while lugging suitcases. Leaving our immobilized truck behind in a strange parking lot seemed somehow wrong. We headed up the town’s main street a ways, crossed at a stoplight, then proceeded a block or so more. The hotel clerk on duty recognized a “breakdown situation” on sight—offered us a special low rate and everything.
“Have you two eaten dinner?” she asked.
“We’re gonna have pea soup!” I announced, pointing towards the illuminated shamrock-green signage I could see through the lobby windows.
“Good choice,” the clerk said, smiling and handing us our keys.
Pea Soup Andersen’s was, indeed, essentially right beside the hotel, which made me question the ways I consider luck as a concept. After all, without the terrible misfortune of the flat tire and the mismatched spare, we would never have stopped in Buellton at all, going or coming. If the tire had blown at any other point along our route, we may have repaired the damage in time to continue on to our destination, or else we would have spent the night in a town that wasn’t anything’s capital of the world.
No, somehow there was fortune in this misfortune. Life wasn’t giving me lemons—it was hosing me down with lemonade. All I had to do was open wide.
Andersen’s was built with an old-world exposed-beam facade, and opened up first into a sprawling gift shop featuring—inexplicably but delightfully—an extensive Christmas ornament section. Other available goods included “make at home” versions of their own menu items, wines, cheeses, spice blends, and jams.
Beyond this was the Danish diner itself. Other than the decor—still decidedly old-world and pointedly nostalgic—it could have been any other cozy little diner. The establishment blended comfortable and quirky unapologetically, as though Andersen’s had long since settled into its ideal state of being and would continue on in that way into the eternities. It’s a sprawling Californian cultural flavor that tourists don’t often see: a laid-back, free spirit informality that lets you grow your hair long, give yourself over to nature, track sand into your bathroom, and take on a transcendental worldview that doesn’t quite match your neighbors’.
The metaphysics of Andersen’s was all about hospitality and their special pea soup, which, in spite of the restaurant’s Danish flair, has its origins in France. (Andersen’s was originally founded by a Danish man and his French wife; the pea soup recipe came from her side of the family.)
I wanted to test the restaurant’s bold claim about their pea soup—and so I did. And I will say that Pea Soup Andersen’s pea soup was, in fact, the best pea soup I’ve ever tasted.
I won’t say it was mind-blowing. I didn’t weep over it. But that’s not in the nature of pea soup. Pea soup is a smooth, warm, porridgy concoction the color of pond scum. It’s not meant to carry you to sublime heights. It’s not meant to open your eyes to new flavor vistas; it’s not meant to challenge your conception of the world; it’s not even meant to entertain.
Pea soup is meant to comfort, to nourish, to soothe. Pea soup’s color is simply a fact of life, and there’s no use fussing over it—it’s a terrible color, full stop. Pea soup doesn’t need to be beautiful, because it flows gently over the tongue, warms the chest, and settles snug in the belly without being heavy. The soup at Andersen’s knew its purpose, and it quietly excelled.
The roads signs were right to point travelers this way. In a moment of displacement, this particular soup was exactly the fare for me: something homely, pleasant, nutritious. Something timeless and simple and special in its ordinariness.
I couldn’t stop chattering about our pea soup adventure. I gabbled until we fell asleep about the odds of blowing a tire outside of Buellton. I jabbered all the way back to the auto shop the next morning, even as we discovered there was miraculously one truck tire the correct size in stock. I yammered about it over the phone to my folks while the tire was changed; I prattled on to my sister-in-law once my spouse and I arrived at our intended destination.
How to explain the best of something unassuming? How to describe something plain and peerless?
And how to negotiate life’s fortunes and the misfortunes? How to tease them all apart—to honor the misfortune while celebrating the fortune? How to hold them both together—to cherish the fortune while regretting the misfortune?
How to open wide towards whatever strange luck may come?
Have you ever experienced a misfortune that led you directly towards something unexpectedly wonderful? Let us know all about it in the comments!