I like my Po’ boys dressed, and you? Before you ask, read on to learn about Po’ boy history and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
Around 1910, brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin left their Acadiana region home in Raceland, Louisiana, for the big city of New Orleans. Both worked as streetcar conductors and about 12 years later opened a coffee stand which would eventually make Po’ boy (also po-boy, po boy, or poor boy for your Northerners) sandwich history.
Imagine New Orleans in July 1, 1929, hot, hot, and even hotter after heated negotiations with union streetcar motormen and the street car owners went icy cold. There were around 1,100 streetcar workers union jobs in jeopardy and things really started to heat up when the street car company invited non-union workers or “strike breakers” from New York who were known career criminals to run the street cars. This really upset the union supporters and more than 10,000 New Orleanians gathered downtown as strike supporters gathered and then burned the first car operated by a strike breaker.
Sympathetic to the cause, the public avoided the streetcar transit system for about two weeks. Times were hard for the union workers, so businesses donated goods and services to the union including the the Martin Brothers, former union streetcar workers themselves, who said “Our meal is free to any members of Division 194.”
The free meal ended up being a sandwich, but not just any sandwich and whenever the Martin brothers saw one of the striking men coming, one of them would say, ‘Here comes another poor boy.’ Hence the Po’ boy sandwich is born.
What is a Po’ boy?
Now, a “real” Po’ boy contains Louisiana fried shrimp, oysters, soft shell crab, catfish, crawfish, Louisiana hot sausage, fried chicken breast, or roast beef. Equally important is that a Po’ boy isn’t’ a Po’ boy unless it’s served on New Orleans Po’ boy French bread which has a crisp crust and a fluffy center.
You see, traditional French bread has narrow ends which doesn’t usually get eaten, so the Martins worked with a local baker to develop a 40-inch loaf of bread that retained it’s uniform, rectangular shape from end to end and simply filled their Po’ boys with your favorite meat or fried seafood.
How to order a Po’ boy
My first experience to a Po’ boy stand was quite embarrassing. I was a newbie to the Crescent City and when the waitress asked me what kind of Po’ boy I wanted. I replied in my most mid-western accent asking “What varieties of poor boy sandwiches do you have please?”
She graciously pointed to the menu wall and the seafood and meat combinations overwhelmed me, so I asked for an oyster poor boy. Then she asked me if I wanted it dressed or undressed? Luckily, a bystander helped me out explaining that a “dressed” Po’ boy has lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayonnaise and an “undressed” Po’ boy contains only the meat or seafood filling placed on the Po’ boy bread.
Since then I flock to New Orleans or anywhere is Southwest Louisiana, as often as possible because life without my dressed oyster Po’ boy is simply unbearable.