The po’boy. It seems pretty straightforward; it’s a sandwich that originated in New Orleans, right? So it’s just a sub, or a grinder, or a hoagie, that you can eat in New Orleans, right? Wrong. The po’boy is much more than a sandwich to the people of New Orleans; it’s a part of New Orleans’ history, as well as a symbol of the solidarity, resistance, and brotherhood of the working class residents of the city, as they fought to preserve their jobs, families, and way of life, during a dark period in both the city, and America’s, history.
Streetcar strikes were fairly common in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, and the strike in New Orleans in 1929 was particularly drawn out and violent, lasting four months. Streetcar motormen and conductors were fighting to keep their union, and their jobs, and could not leave the picket lines for food, or afford to pay for it, as they were not receiving wages while on strike.
Bennie and Clovis Martin, former streetcar conductors, had opened Martin Bros. Coffee Stand and Restaurant in 1922, serving various sandwiches on French bread. They wanted to help their union brothers, and started serving free sandwiches to them, coining the nickname “poor boys” for the hungry striking workers. The Martin brothers found that the French bread loaves’ rounded ends were wasted when the sandwiches were cut to a consistent size, so they teamed up with the local bakery, Gendusa Bakery, and developed a new loaf of bread 40 inches long, with squared ends, so none was wasted. This bread, now called a po’boy loaf, is still being baked fresh every day by bakeries in New Orleans, and delivered twice a day to some restaurants, to assure its freshness. It is distinguished by its shape, as well as its texture; a thin, crusty outside with a light, airy interior.
The streetcar strikers’ action was unsuccessful, but the po’boy had been born. With the Stock Market Crash of 1929, and the onset of the Great Depression, the Martin brothers continued to help their friends and fellow citizens by serving po’boys that were generous and filling. 15 and 20 inch sandwiches were offered, with varied fillings, for just 10-15 cents; lettuce and tomato sandwiches were free. The Martin brothers’ giving spirit and sense of civic duty helped the city survive the Great Depression, and cemented the po’boy’s place in New Orleans culinary history.
If you go to New Orleans today, there are many places serving the sandwich, with almost any filling you can think of, but seafood has become the most common, of course, due to the city’s location. Fried shrimp, and fried oyster versions are quite common; there’s even a version with half shrimp and half oysters, called “The Peacemaker” or “La Mediatrice”, because it was said a man who’d stayed out too long could take this sandwich home to his waiting wife, and it would make things right.
I originally wanted to make The Peacemaker, but couldn’t get my hands on good oysters, so I went with just shrimp. The egg wash has a little Creole mustard and Louisiana hot sauce in it, and the breading is white flour, corn flour, and my Creole spice blend.
I kept the sandwich really simple, dressing it with the traditional mayonnaise, tomatoes, lettuce, and pickles, and approximated the bread the best I could. New Orleans po’boy loaves are not available up here in New England, so I went with a fresh loaf of French bread. Once I started building the sandwich, I couldn’t leave well enough alone, and spread some Creole mustard on the sandwich, as well as a few dashes of Louisiana hot sauce over the shrimp.
This sandwich is simple, and yet, it’s much more than the sum of its parts, just like its city of origin. It began as a small act of courage and kindness, and became so much more. The po’boy is definitely not just a sandwich.