What Makes a Po-Boy a Po-Boy?
Last week, I shared my anxiety about hosting my first Thanksgiving all by myself with my boyfriend’s family, and introducing the Maine natives to a city they had never seen before. Well I'd like to share that the weekend was a success! Thank you for all the advice and suggestions. Chris and I cooked Thanksgiving dinner all by ourselves and it was quite tasty. After the Thanksgiving festivities, we spent the rest of the weekend wandering around the French Quarter, brushing up on history at the National WWII Museum and shopping along Magazine Street.
And like all good New Orleans tourists, we spent the remaining time eating our way through the city, enjoying lots of jambalaya, fried chicken and oysters. On Saturday night, we went out for po-boys. “You have to have a po-boy!” Chris and I told his family. “Po-boys are quintessential New Orleans cuisine. We have to make sure you guys have po-boys.”
So maybe we set Chris' family's expectations too high because after his dad finished, he said he liked the po-boy but then added, “This was just a sandwich. I thought it was going to be spectacular.”
I'm glad the chef didn't hear that because I'm guessing he would have been upset—as well as every other New Orleaninan. I could picture throngs of New Orleans natives coming up behind him and yelling, “JUST A SANDWICH?!?!? What do you mean JUST A SANDWICH?!?!?’”
The subject of po-boys brings me to my next New Orleans question: What makes a po-boy a po-boy?
To try to find a definite answer, I've been doing some research about the history of the New Orleans po-boy (which is really a poor boy and sometimes a po' boy, but I'm going to call it a po-boy because that's what I've seen the most often).
For this I turned to Michael Mizell-Nelson, a University of New Orleans history professor who is “likely best known for having uncovered the definitive evidence behind the origins of the poor boy sandwich,” according to his UNO page. I found Mizell-Nelson's history of the po-boy on the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival website, and was quite impressed with all the details that he put into the history of a sandwich.
According to Mizell-Nelson's research, the sandwich came to be during a streetcar strike. Bennie and Clovis Martin, former streetcar operators who owned Martin Brothers' Coffee Stand and Restaurant, wanted to support the current streetcar workers on strike. The brothers made sandwiches to feed the strikers, who they often called “poor boys.” As you know, the rest is sandwich history.
Now the po-boy is a popular dish for both locals and tourists. It seems like everyone has to have one when they visit the Crescent City. Take the Obama family, for example. When President Barack Obama and company visited New Orleans in August 2010, they stopped by Parkway Bakery & Tavern for a bite. The president ordered the shrimp po-boy, in case you were wondering.
Back at my po-boy dinner this past weekend, my guests and I started talking about just what makes the po-boy different from other sandwiches. Chris' sister noted that the bread on a po-boy is not the same as other subs. The French bread is crusty, not soft like on the common sub sandwich. Chris noted that the meat is usually fried, which you won't find on many other sandwiches across the U.S.
I think another important difference to note is where a po-boy is consumed: New Orleans. I noticed this at the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival earlier this month. Chris and I neglected to follow the advice of our friend who recommended getting there right at 11 a.m., the opening time, to avoid lines. When we got there around noon, the street was already packed with lines of people looking for po-boys of all different types. At one point I thought to myself, "Why don't we just go somewhere with no line and no crowd so we can enjoy a po-boy in peace?"
But that wasn't the point. The point of the festival was to celebrate New Orleans' sandwich history and indulge on po-boys while listening to live music and drinking Abita Amber. The po-boys were tasty, but the taste was only one factor of the po-boy experience. The atmosphere at the festival was fun and it was cool to spend a whole afternoon celebrating the po-boy and enjoying Oak Street, one of my new favorite streets in the city. You couldn't have a po-boy festival in New York or Philadephia. Po-boys belong to New Orleans and that's where they're special.
So have I answered my original question of "What makes a po-boy a po-boy?" I don't think so. I must admit, even with these theories about what's on a po-boy and where it should be eaten, I'm still not sure I have a real answer about what makes the sandwich so distinct from all the other sandwiches in the world. Is it really just the bread? Is it the deep New Orleans history? Maybe the history together with the bread?
So I throw this question out to you, New Orleanians, and I hope you will provide me with some insight: What makes a po-boy a po-boy?