“I’VE BEEN COMING here since I got back after the storm,” says actor Wendell Pierce, digging into a plate of crawfish etouffée at Bon Ton Café, a Cajun joint located within a trumpet blast of the Mississippi River in New Orleans. “I just discovered the place and was like, ‘Wow, it’s been here this whole time.’ And I loved it. Reminded me of my grandma’s cooking.”
Not only does Pierce play a thoroughly New Orleans character on the HBO drama Treme—struggling trombonist Antoine Batiste—he actually is a thoroughly New Orleans character. Born and raised here, he still lives in the Big Easy when he’s not working elsewhere. Locals love Treme (the second season premieres this month) for finally “getting” them, for providing an authentic peek into the city’s one-of-a-kind culture. But every time the show comes up, the conversation turns back to food.
“That’s one thing I always recognized when I would call home on holidays,” Pierce says, natty in a dark suit, speaking in the silky, booming voice that made him a favorite on The Wire, in which he played Detective Bunk Moreland. “I would be like, ‘How you doing? How’s your Sunday going?’ They’d say, ‘Oh, I’m fine. We had chicken, sweet potatoes…’ and they’d start describing the meal.”
The owner of Bon Ton, Wayne Pierce (no relation), comes by to exchange backslaps with Pierce, who’s since moved on to his favorite Bon Ton dish, the crawfish bisque. “Cuisine is an intrinsic part of the culture here. It’s where you see so much of our creativity,” he says, greeting a couple other regulars who stop by to say hello. “You literally can see the mixture of cultures in New Orleans and its history in our cuisine, all the influences from all the different people who have come together. That’s unique, man.”—MIKE SCOTT
BUS STOP The arid stretch of Israel’s Negev Desert bordering Egypt looks more like a moonscape than a vacation destination. There are no sprawling resorts or trendy restaurants, only miles of sand and stars. British filmmaker Nick Breakspear—on hiatus from filming Valerie’s Orchard, a Holocaust survival story, nearby—is staying in a hotel room that doesn’t even have a key. In fact, it’s not even a room. It’s a bus.
Breakspear’s digs are part of Exodia, a “bus and breakfast” dreamed up by former scuba instructor Eyal Hirschfeld. Upon retiring, Hirschfeld collected three vehicles—a Tel Aviv city bus, a concertina-style “bendy” bus and a wide- bodied airport shuttle—and outfitted each with hot water, a kitchenette and a full bathroom. The larger buses, which can sleep a family, even have playrooms built around the original steering wheels. Locals, says Hirschfeld, have welcomed the fleet and have even adapted shipping containers and railroad cars for their own similarly recycled digs. “It’s all rather bizarre,” he admits.
The resort was successful enough to spark a mini tourism industry in Ezuz. The tiny village, which has produced wine for 2,000 years, now offers an outdoor café, archeological expeditions and camel tours.
Back at the bus, Breakspear befriends geckos that reside in the buses’ thatched roofs and even tries his hand at milking the Hirschfeld goats. “I’m not sure what the nannies think of it, but the human kids thought my sad attempt was hilarious,” he says. Meanwhile, off in his own bus, Hirschfeld dreams of adding the ultimate suite: a double-decker London Roadmaster. —CHRISTINE H. O’TOOLE
As is often the case in Piedmont, the Ferraris family farm looks as it did a century ago. Around the central courtyard lean patched- up stucco buildings topped with russet tiles, and in the garden, bamboo poles support tomato plants while cabbages spread their ruffled leaves. But this organic, GMO-free farm is far from a throwback to Nonna’s garden plot. It’s a modern enterprise that manages to blend video games with community-supported agriculture—much like a real-world FarmVille.
“The idea we started with was to put together traditional agricultural techniques with innovation and the web,” says Giovanni Ferraris, one of three siblings who started Le Verdure del Mio Orto (The Vegetables from My Garden) on their family’s 60-year-old farm in 2009. Just as in the popular Facebook game and iPhone app, customers sign up at a colorful, cartoony website, choose the size of their plot and click to fill it with any combination of 39 varieties of fruits and vegetables. But unlike the game, everything here is actually planted, harvested and delivered to mainly urban customers. “We wanted to satisfy all those people who are sick and tired of perfect, polished and tasteless vegetables,” Ferraris says.
Right now, the family is tending 50 individual plots for customers who pay around $25 a week to have their produce cultivated and delivered. Orto offers insurance, so if a summer thunderstorm wipes out the week’s harvest, customers receive produce from other farms. For an extra fee, subscribers can add herbs or flowers to the delivery, or (this being Italy) accessories to the garden. A mere $26, for instance, buys a wooden sign; for just $53, the Ferraris family will erect a scarecrow customized with your photo to stand guard over your plot. —SARA CLEMENCE
COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS
DEEP FREEZE “It’s the Texas thing— the size and the scale of what we’re doing,” says Texas A&M’s Peter Fix, standing inside the tube of this continent’s biggest freeze dryer, located in an abandoned Air Force base outside Houston. Fix is the head of a project to reconstruct the wreck of La Belle, a ship helmed by famed French explorer Robert de LaSalle that sank in Texas’ Matagorda Bay in 1686, temporarily foiling France’s attempt to establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi.
The ship was discovered 15 years ago, but the 54-foot-long oak hull has proved especially difficult to preserve. For the last decade, conservators have been soaking the timbers in a chemical to leech out the water, an expensive process that could take as much as a decade and a half to complete. The freeze dryer, measuring eight feet by 40 feet and costing $500,000, will do the job cheaper and faster by creating an atmosphere so cold that the frozen water inside the timbers sublimates—or skips straight from ice to gas. If all goes well, the hull will be publicly reassembled and displayed at Bob Bullock’s Texas State History Museum in Austin in 2013.
Jim Burseth, the director of archaeology for the Texas Historical Commission, whose team discovered and excavated the hull in 1996, says that the freeze- drying will also preserve an important part of both Texas and American history. When LaSalle’s ship sank, it gave Spain an opening to challenge France for dominance of the region. Without the sinking of La Belle, the culture of Texas would look very different today. “Our hispanic heritage is due directly to the failed French effort to establish a colony here in Texas,” says Burseth. — JORDAN HELLER
From a distance, the can of Guinness doesn’t look any different from countless others in Dublin. But look more closely at the label and you’ll notice a key anomaly: It’s in Hebrew. An artifact on display at Dublin’s Irish Jewish Museum, this can isn’t just “Good for You,” as the old ads promised, it’s kosher, too.
While the idea of a Jewish museum in Dublin may be a surprise, Jews in Ireland are long established, if small in number. Some arrived after their expulsion from Portugal in 1496; still more arrived in the 19th century from Eastern Europe. “People are quite surprised and absolutely fascinated by it,” says the museum’s president, Yvonne Altman O’Connor.
The museum is housed in a rowhouse that once hosted the Walworth Road Synagogue, which was built in 1916 and served as the spiritual center of the city’s small Jewish population for decades. Inside, volunteers deliver historical yarns in brogues punctuated with the odd Yiddish exclamation, and display cases brim with artifacts and photographs of notables like Robert Briscoe, a Jewish fighter for Irish independence who became lord mayor of Dublin, and Chaim Herzog, the Irish-born former president of Israel, whose father was Ireland’s first chief rabbi. There are even old job ads carrying the proviso that no Jews need apply.
O’Connor is looking to expand the museum in the coming years—Irish President Mary McAleese recently dropped by to help raise money—but right now, though little, it possesses a rare advantage in this city: It’s one of the few cultural destinations open on Sunday morning. — JON MARCUS