Loafing around with French bread from John Gendusa's, a century-old New Orleans bakery in Gentilly.
Lovers of local culinary history all know the oft-told origin story of New Orleans' famed po-boy. As the legend goes, restaurateurs Benny and Clovis Martin (a.k.a. the "Martin Bros.") created the inexpensive meal to feed streetcar workers during a strike in 1929. There's even a quote floating around, reputedly spoken by Benny Martin himself, saying, "We fed those men free of charge until the strike ended. Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say, 'Here comes another poor boy.'" Like any story, especially one staking claim to the city's most celebrated sandwich, the details are hotly debated. But there is one aspect of the story that's certain—the Martin Bros. were using John Gendusa's French bread.
Since it opened on September 24, 1922, John Gendusa Bakery has always been a family-run business. Located on Mirabeau Avenue in the Gentilly neighborhood, the busy bakery has been popping out loaves under the watchful eyes of four generations of Gendusas. Today the bakery is managed by the original founder's great grandson, Jason, though his 77-year-old father, also named John, still makes an appearance a few times a week.
While Jason, measuring in at 5'7", entertained fantasies of becoming a professional basketball player, in his heart of hearts he knew he was destined to be a bread-maker. "I think it was kind of inevitable," Jason said. "When I was at LSU, I'd be sitting in class wondering what was going on at the bakery."
Even after Hurricane Katrina and the devastating flooding due to the levee failure, Jason was determined to start again. "I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life and everything came back to, you know, 'Man, I really need to get this bakery back open'," he said. "It's what I know, and I think I do it pretty well." Considering the bakery's longevity, New Orleanians definitely agree with him.
Almost all of New Orleans' po-boy purveyors—whether they be old-school, oblong cylinders wrapped in lengths of white butcher paper or served on ceramic dinnerware in a white tablecloth restaurant—use either Gendusa or Leidenheimer Baking Co. for classic, local French bread, as these two hold-outs are literally the only game left in town. Though Leidenheimer is a much larger operation, Gendusa's still holds its own and, instead of rivalry, the two historic bakeries frequently help one another out. "With us being the last two left, we kind of need each other," Jason admitted. "When things are busy, I don't think either one of us can keep up alone. It's good to have them!"
Locals who love them definitely have strong opinions about their favorite po-boys, fiercely debating everything from how they're dressed to where they can be found. Jason, being the savvy businessman, agrees that you can't go wrong with fried shrimp or roast beef, but he's a little biased about the bread. "As long as you've got some good bread, it doesn't really matter what's on the inside. It's going to taste good" he said with a laugh, but he is all about supporting the businesses who use Gendusa's French bread.
Case in point, Zimmer's Seafood is frequented regularly by Gendusa's staff. After all, they're right around the corner. "Our buildings butt up to each other," Jason said. "They get quite a bit of business from us because we can smell the seafood boiling."
A Good Piece of Bread
Gendusa's most popular product is their 36" French loaf, which is typically cut up to offer more manageable sizes. Take for example the "Surf 'n' Turf" at Parran's (pah-rans) with slow-roasted beef, fried Gulf shrimp, and roast beef gravy, and, out on Jefferson Highway, Crabby Jack's offers their signature roasted duck po-boy. Both spots use 8" (regular) and 12" (large) slices of Gendusa's French bread. But over in Mid-City, neighborhood joint Katie's uses the entire 3' loaf for "The Barge", their monster fried shrimp, catfish, and oyster po-boy featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
The Gentilly bakery also bakes 8", 10", and 12" French loaves, seeded loaves, pistolettes, and lots of muffulettas. DiMartino's Famous Muffulettas, with three different locations in the GNO, uses Gendusa's for their "small" muffuletta sandwiches, which are piled high with salami, ham, Swiss, Provolone, and mortadella-the dense Italian bread soaking up an olive-oily, tangy olive salad. Giorlando's, an Italian eatery on Bonnabel in Metairie, gets Gendusa's muffulettas half-baked and then finishes them off at the restaurant. "I don't know what it is, the bread is just amazing," Jason said. "It's like the best."
Not only used for po-boys, those long, freshly-baked, crusty loaves are omnipresent in local restaurants and home kitchens. Muriel's Jackson Square uses Gendusa's bread not only to make their roast beef po-boy, but also for their Banana's Foster Pain Perdu (a.k.a. French toast) drizzled with banana rum sauce, as well as their bread pudding with candied pecans. Older generations of New Orleanians recall coming home from school and, instead of cookies, filled a day-old heel of French bread with condensed milk for a sweet, after-school snack. Arguably one of the best ways to use Gendusa's bread is to cut it into thick slices and use it to sop up the juices from your plate after eating steak, spaghetti and meatballs, or especially the spicy, buttery sauce in New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp.
Jason fondly remembers his maw-maw (grandmother) picking him up after school and stopping by the bakery for a loaf. "We'd sit there and she'd make me a little sandwich on the bread, but she'd cut it up and dip it in her coffee," Jason recalled. "She had cream and plenty of sugar [in her coffee]—my maw maw loved sweets—so I am sure it had four to five spoons of sugar in it." And Lauren, Jason's youngest daughter, loves using her father's bread to make grilled cheese sandwiches.
Since Jason took over the business, he faces 18 to 20-hour work days. Living next door to the bakery makes things a bit easier, seeing as he can roll right out of bed and be at the shop by 4:30 in the morning, but the business doesn't stop when he heads home for the evening. "I'm always thinking at night when the phone rings, 'Oh, that's the bakery calling," Jason laughed. "But I do have good people that work with me in the day and night that help."
Enduring for 100 years as a family-owned business is a proud accomplishment and a testament to Gendusa's product—fresh, delicious New Orleans-style French bread—a staple which, over time, could easily disappear. If they choose to take up the gauntlet, Jason would love to pass the bakery to his daughters, but for now he's going strong. "One thing I love about this business, that keeps me going every day, is making the product for the people to enjoy and getting plenty of feedback," Jason said. "It makes me feel good, and it makes it a lot easier to get up at 4:30 in the morning."