No one is going to argue about how important food is to the very identity of New Orleans. The city has graced the culinary world with all kinds of savory (gumbo, crawfish etouffée, red beans and rice) and sweet (beignets, Bananas Foster, sno-balls) creations. One New Orleans food dish, however, is almost deceptive in its simplicity, and that is the humble po-boy.
For the uninitiated, a poor boy (aka po-boy, po’ boy, or po boy) is a sandwich that uses a six-inch or foot-long baguette-style bread that is more commonly known as French bread. Traditionally, po-boys are filled with either roast beef or fried seafood (oysters, shrimp, crab, what have you) and topped with pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and mayonnaise. Nowadays, however, you can fill a po-boy with basically anything you want (burger patties, hot sausage, french fries, alligator meat, caprese salad, etc.). But for a sandwich with such a modest look, it has a pretty unique history behind it.
The sandwich itself has been present in New Orleans since around the late 1800s, when it was then called an oyster loaf (literally, fried oysters on French loaves). The origins of when it started being called a “po-boy” are actually not too certain, because a lot of different legends have attached themselves to the sandwich over the years. The most common consensus to explain the “po-boy” term, at least locally, comes from the story of the Martin brothers.
In the mid-1910s, Bennie and Clovis Martin moved to New Orleans from their home in Raceland, Louisiana, to work as streetcar conductors. In 1922, the brothers then decided to open up their own restaurant, Martin Brothers’ Coffee Stand and Restaurant, specializing in French loaf sandwiches with anything you wanted on them. These sandwiches wouldn’t be called po-boys until 1929, when members of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America, Division No. 194, went on a four-month- long strike, thereby leaving over a thousand union streetcar workers without a source of income. The Martin brothers, to show their support for the workers affected by this strike, wrote a letter to one of the local newspapers, stating that they would give a free meal to any members of Division 194. Legend has it that when the brothers saw one of the union workers walk into their restaurant, one of them would yell, “Here comes another poor boy!” Since the free meal given to these workers often included the customary sandwich, the name “poor boy” gradually became associated with the sandwich itself.
Now, as with any legend, it’s debatable whether or not this actually happened or if the public consciousness just accepted it as fact throughout the years. But one thing’s for sure, especially since the Martin Brothers’ po-boys were so popular: The name has stuck with that sandwich ever since. The Martin brothers ended up partnering with John Gendusa, who, in 1922, opened up his own bakery, located on 2009 Mirabeau Ave., which remains open today. Gendusa developed a uniform 35-inch loaf of French bread, which made it easier for the Martins to sell 15- to 20-inch sandwiches to their customers.
Martin Brothers’ Coffee Stand and Restaurant maintained its popularity—thanks to their po-boys—until closing in 1972; meanwhile, other restaurants around New Orleans started popping up with po-boys on their menus. One of the most popular po-boy shops to sprout in the city is Parkway Bakery and Tavern, which has been operating on 538 Hagan Ave. since 1911, when it was founded by German baker Charles Gooering Sr. In 1922, Henry Timothy Sr. purchased Parkway and added the po-boy to its menu in 1929. The restaurant has had a few owners over the years (Timothy Sr.’s two sons in the 1960s and Jay Nix in 1995) and temporarily closed down due to changing hands and damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. But Parkway Bakery and Tavern has stood the test of time, providing the citizens of Mid-City and beyond with over 25 different po-boy selections.
Some po-boy shops have put their own spin on the sandwich, like the long-lasting Casamento’s on 4330 Magazine St. Founded in 1919 by Joe Casamento, who was a native of Ustica, Italy, Casamento’s is particularly known for its oysters, fried seafood, Italian dishes, and, of course, its po-boys. Casamento’s, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, sets itself apart from other po-boy establishments by using pan bread, which is basically like Texas toast, instead of using the traditional French bread. The restaurant, along with its po-boys, has been so popular that it has been visited by a number of well-known celebrities, like Guy Fieri, Peyton Manning, Bradley Cooper, and Johnny Knoxville.
Another longstanding restaurant that specializes in po-boys is Johnny’s Po-Boys, on 511 St. Louis St. in the French Quarter. Established in 1950, Johnny’s has an impressive selection of po-boys for any palate, with over 50 sandwiches to choose from. Mother’s Restaurant, on 401 Poydras St., made po-boy history with its creation of the Ferdi Special, which is a roast beef po-boy with slices of ham added to it (named after Mr. Ferdi, who was a local merchant who asked for that combination).
Po-boys have become so synonymous with New Orleans that any local restaurant worth its salt has a couple on its menu, with some stand-outs being Killer PoBoys, Domilise’s, Boucherie, and Liuzza’s by the Track. The po-boy has also gone through a type of evolution, following the introduction of our sizable Vietnamese population after the Fall of Saigon in 1975. The Vietnamese po-boy, called bánh mì, is commonly made with chả lụa (Vietnamese pork sausage), carrots, daikon, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeno, pâté, and mayonnaise. Over the years, bánh mìs have started to incorporate fillings such as charbroiled pork, lemongrass chicken, and New Orleans staples like hot sausage and BBQ shrimp.
As a way of showing our appreciation for the po-boy and its designation as such a fixture in our city, New Orleans citizens and local restauranteurs gather together on Oak Street one day each November for the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival, which just celebrated its 12th anniversary in 2018. And considering how many New Orleanians and people from all around the world love our po-boys, we’ll be celebrating these simple sandwiches for a long, long time.