My po’boy is a hot mess. The spicy smoked sausage, slicked by its own fireball-orange grease, is determined to slide out the sides of the Leidenheimer loaf. The links are further lubricated by two types of mustard (yellow and Creole) and a slather of chili that ramps up the ooze factor. By the time I’m done with my sandwich at Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar, I’ve gone through at least a dozen napkins.
But I savor my “dressed” flavor bomb because I know that with each indelicate chomp I’m biting into history — not just the history of this beloved po’boy shop in Uptown, but the very culinary history of New Orleans.
This city has either given birth or laid claim to a powerful collection of iconic food and drink: the Sazerac, blackened fish, jambalaya, gumbo, the Ramos Gin Fizz, muffulettas and beignets. But no dish is as prevalent and adored as the po’boy (or po-boy) sandwich. A humble hero that has been rightly elevated to cult status, the po’boy cleverly sandwiches some of the area’s other culinary prizes — oysters, shrimp, soft-shell crab — between an only-in-New Orleans French bread that sports a thin, shatteringly-crisp exterior and cottony innards.
It’s not hard to find po’boys stuffed with all manner of seafood, meats and cheeses in the city, but truly outstanding ones — including those from shops that develop fanatic followings — are exalted and staunchly defended.
Families and friends have been known to be divided over allegiances to a particular roast beef po’boy with debris gravy.
So important is the po’boy to the city’s cultural landscape it now has its own festival: the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival (poboyfest.com), which will take place on Nov. 18 in the city’s Carrollton neighborhood. Last year, it drew about 50,000 people. The festival features music, food booths and a po’ boy competition for the city’s best traditional and creative sandwiches open to vendors from the most humble mom-and-pop stores to white-tablecloth restaurants.
The po’boy is such a part of New Orleans that its history is written into the permanent exhibit of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum at the New Orleans Riverwalk. Before it earned its moniker, a po’boy was commonly referred to as a “loaf” — a French bread sandwich filled with fried potatoes with gravy, fried seafood or meats. The exhibit says it took the disgruntlement of the city’s streetcar drivers to define the po’boy.
On July 1, 1929, the motormen and conductors of Division 194 of the Amalgamated Association of Electric Street Railway Employees went on strike. Bennie and Clovis Martin, brothers who opened Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant in the French Quarter in 1922, were former streetcar conductors. Natural supporters of the union, the Martins vowed to provide striking workers with free meals, including sandwiches. According to popular lore, when one of the Martins saw a striker approaching the store, they would say, “Here comes another poor boy.” The name stuck.
The Martins also contributed to the evolution of French bread in New Orleans. In the early 20th century, the growing popularity of “loaf” sandwiches led to changes in bread that would strike a balance between a crisp crust and a density that would stand up to gravies and mayonnaise but not compete with the flavor of Gulf seafood. What was needed was bread that a diner could bite into without cutting the roof of his mouth, which could happen with traditional French bread. The Martins, local history says, worked with baker John Gendusa to change the shape of a French loaf to be wider and with flat ends (traditional French bread’s narrow ends created waste). A generously-sized sandwich made with re-engineered bread soon became the po’boy norm thanks to the Martins.
Ask any New Orleanian and he will tell you a po’boy starts first with proper po’boy bread, which is available only in New Orleans, said culinary authority Poppy Tooker, host of Louisiana Eats!, a popular radio show program on WWNO in New Orleans. “It’s the only place you can create the loaf with the crispy outside and soft, tender inside,” she said. “And it’s only good for 24 hours and then is turned into bread pudding.”
A cookbook author who treasures the foods and food history of New Orleans, Tooker is a happy advocate of the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival, not just because it’s fun, but also for its celebration of an iconic foodstuff that she feels is endangered.“There are only three French bread bakers for po’boy bread left in New Orleans,” she said, listing Alois J. Binder Bakery, John Gendusa Bakery and Leidenheimer Baking Co., the city’s preeminent baker of po’boy bread. At one time there were as many as 200 French bread bakers in the city.
“This is why the po’boy festival is important and why it happens. The po’boy is a vital, iconic piece of New Orleans culinary culture. My motto is ‘You’ve got to eat it to save it.’ You have to create a taste for it and a market for it or it will become extinct.”
While even the most casual po’boy consumer probably couldn’t imagine a day when the sandwich no longer existed, one need only reference a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out city businesses that never recovered or rebuilt.
Today, the city has no better culinary ambassador than the po’boy. In fact, the Leidenheimer trucks are painted with cartoon characters saying “Sink Ya Teeth Into A Piece of New Orleans Cultcha — A Leidenheimer Po-Boy!”
A delicious bite of culture it most certainly is.
Bring your appetite when you’re hunting down a New Orleans po’boy. A full sandwich is about 12 inches long. A half size is sometimes called a “shorty.” A po’boy, by the way, is never enunciated as “poor boy.” If you take your sandwich “dressed” that means it’ll come with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and pickles.Parkway Bakery & Tavern: Mahony’s Po-Boy Shop: Liuzza’s by the Track: pistolette Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar: Tracey’s: