Happiness is a classic po-boy, no matter the middle
When you’re yearning for quick comfort food, is there anything more satisfying than a sloppy po-boy?
There’s something about a warm French loaf piled high with fried seafood, smoked sausage, ham and cheese, or gravy-doused beef that warms our Southern souls. This crunchy yet soft Louisiana-born sandwich provides enough savory goodness to make just about anyone happy.
As with most classic dishes, the origin of the po-boy is victim to many myths.
It is certain that the sandwich originated in New Orleans. But no one knows just exactly when the first loaf of French bread was sliced horizontally and filled.
An early version of the po-boy did appear in 1800s New Orleans, where a sandwich similar to today’s oyster po-boy was packed with creamed or fried oysters and was known, with a wink, as a peacemaker. The 1901 edition of “The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book” records the sandwich’s colorful history: “Every husband who is detained down town laughingly carries home an oyster loaf, or Médiatrice, to make ‘peace’ with his anxiously waiting wife.”
University of New Orleans history professor Michael Mizell-Nelson recalls a legend that the first po-boy was actually a meal necessitated by poverty, and was made from french-fried potatoes and gravy. Mizell-Nelson also said the earliest commercial sandwiches featured ham, cheese or roast beef.
The actual name “poor boy” was popularized by Bennie and Clovis Martin, brothers who moved from Raceland to New Orleans in the 1910s.
Originally streetcar workers, they opened Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant in 1922 in the New Orleans working class French Market neighborhood. Soon their takeout sandwich business was bringing in more money than sales of coffee, so the Martins moved their restaurant closer to their bread supplier, the John Gendusa Bakery on Touro Street. During a streetcar workers’ union strike in 1929, the Martin brothers gave free large sandwiches to every “poor boy” out of work. To this day, the sandwich name is associated with striking street railway workers.
Modern commercial po-boys typically come in different sizes, with the two most common a 6-inch “shorty” and, for big appetites, a foot-long regular. Although roast beef and fried shrimp are by far the most popular po-boys, the sandwich can be filled with any sort of meat and fish. Vegetarian loaves also have been gaining popularity, and it is even rumored that cash-strapped diners have been known to slap together banana or red bean po-boys.
Depending on the filling, a “well-dressed” po-boy usually sports tomatoes, mayonnaise, pickles and shredded iceberg lettuce. The bread for seafood varieties is typically slathered with butter and the fried seafood topped with ketchup. On all sandwiches, mustard and onion are always optional, as is just about anything else edible that suits your fancy.
But, before you make a delicious po-boy, you must first have great bread. Louisiana has a rich history of bread baking, beginning with Francois Lemesle, Louisiana’s first commercial baker, who set up shop in New Orleans in 1718. These early loaves, however, were representative of what was then being baked in France, round “cap” style loaves.
The long baguette was not introduced until the 19th century. All French breads of the time were dense, but things lightened up with the common use of white flour and improved techniques used by antebellum German, Austrian and African-American bakers, who made New Orleans’ loaves much less heavy than the traditional French breads. Today, bakers in the state’s large Vietnamese population are adding to the mélange with the increasing popularity of Bánh mi, a light torpedo-style bread, which is the base for what Louisianians often term the “Vietnamese po-boy.”
Because of contributions from so many ethnic groups, and because we tend to take po-boys for granted, Mizell-Nelson believes that “the poor boy is one of the least celebrated examples of the Creolization process in Louisiana food.” Maybe the po-boy does deserve more respect, especially when considering how it differs dramatically from hoagies and submarines due to our unique bread.
Local po-boy bread is distinctive for its texture — while other parts of the country usually make sandwiches from bread that is chewy and soft, authentic New Orleans loaves have a thin, crisp crust and a light crumb. The shape of the loaf also is distinctive. Records show that the Martin brothers had a heavy hand in fashioning the still-popular long and wide rectangular po-boy loaf.
According to Gendusa Bakery family history, the Martins were unhappy because they could not make sandwiches from the tapered tips on the traditional oblong French bread of the day. To accommodate the Martins, Gendusa Bakery customized a 40-inch loaf with a more uniform shape for the sandwich trade. Today, standard “sticks” of New Orleans-style po-boy bread range in size between 32 to 36 inches. And thanks to the Gendusas, that loaf has little waste.
Leidenheimer Baking Co. is the largest French bread producer in the Gulf South, and its owner, Sandy Whann, agrees that Louisiana’s French bread evolved to accommodate the needs of the po-boy, and not only in its shape. Throughout the years, restaurant owners demanded bread that was soft enough to bite into, yet sturdy enough to hold in accumulated juices, thus the modern soft crumb and crunchy crust.
Although New Orleans is considered the mecca for po-boy bread, no one there can definitively say he knows the secret to making the perfect loaf. Some bakers believe the key is the application of steam in ovens. Others say the use of hard wheat flour makes a difference, as does a longer baking time, the type of yeast and even the use of the hard Mississippi River water. Regardless of the reason for the airy middle and thin, brittle crust, New Orleans po-boy bread is one of a kind and is extremely hard to duplicate.
New Orleans is so keen on its beloved sandwich that every November, po-boy enthusiasts gather for the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival. And luckily for us in Baton Rouge, excellent po-boys are easy to find in restaurants any time of year. Diners looking for authentic sandwiches still flock to old-line establishments such as Poor Boy Lloyd’s and Pastime, or to the many “newfangled” places such as George’s, Sammy’s and Jones Creek Café. And at the tables of these casual eateries it is not unusual to hear diners arguing over who cobbles together the city’s best.
If you want to make your own po-boy at home, that’s easy. Just remember to buy good French bread. Most local bread distributors, such as Wayne’s Bakery and Flowers, supply grocers with excellent po-boy loaves. For that authentic New Orleans mouth feel, you can find po-boy bread baked by Leidenheimer’s and Reising’s (owned by Leidenheimer’s) at local grocers such as Ralph’s, Hi-Nabor, Calandro’s, Calvin’s, Winn Dixie, Matherne’s and Oak Point Fresh Market. Langlinais and Poupart’s bakeries in Lafayette also make bread with a crispy New Orleans-style crust.
As for the filling, well, just let your imagination go wild.
References: Tucker, Susan (ed.), “New Orleans Cuisine,” University Press of Mississippi, 2009; http://www.nomenu.com; http://www.
foods.com; Michael Mizell-Nelson
Cynthia Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s forthcoming title “Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her at noblescynthia