Did you know that po-boys have been available in New Orleans for only 86 years? Oh, I’m certain the venerable sandwich, served on a portion of a French loaf, has been around much longer than that, but the name wasn’t used until 1929, within the lifetime of some of the most elderly of New Orleanians.
I got to thinking about that when I read that this Sunday will mark the 10th anniversary of the annual Oak Street Po-Boy Festival, held along a commercial strip of Oak Street in the Carrollton neighborhood Uptown.
Quoting from Wikipedia, my go-to expert, “In the late 1800s fried oyster sandwiches on French loaves were known in New Orleans and San Francisco as ‘oyster loaves,’ a term still in use. There are countless stories as to the origin of the term ‘po’ boy.’
“A popular local theory claims that it was coined in a New Orleans restaurant owned by Benny and Clovis Martin, former streetcar conductors. In 1929, during a four-month strike against the streetcar company, the Martin brothers served their former colleagues free sandwiches. The Martins’ restaurant workers jokingly referred to the strikers as ‘poor boys’ and soon the sandwiches themselves took on the name. In Louisiana, this was naturally shortened to po’ boy.”
When I moved here almost 60 years ago, I first enjoyed po-boys bought at Tranchina’s, an eating place just off St. Charles and only a block or two from Canal Street. The Times-Picayune and The States-Item were in the old T-P building, which fronted on Lafayette Square. So when my co-worker/friends and I got tired of the fare at the little restaurants nearby, I’d traipse over to Tranchina’s for a sack of po-boys. (One thing I especially liked about the place was the nice man at the counter, who’d beckon me forward no matter how big the crowd of men waiting to be served.)
Then I got engaged to be married to a local and my gastronomic adventures really began. Bobby took me to the Parkway Tavern, a favorite of his from high school days; to the lakefront; to Mother’s — where I really liked the “debris” po-boy; to a hamburger spot close by the Orpheum Theatre, where he’d always refuel himself after movies; to Mandina’s on Canal Street and many other places.
We also went to Central Grocery, where I learned to like the muffuletta, although not nearly as much as an oyster po-boy.
Nowadays, I stick to a place on the West Bank where they embrace oysters, shrimp, roast beef or ham and cheese in the kind of bread I like best: warm and a little crunchy and a bit thiner than some of the loaves you buy these days. No big fluffy, doughy insides!
Structure has always been important to me — to build a hamburger correctly you must put the meat over mustard, catsup and onions on the bottom part of the bun, and top that with pickles, then tomato and lettuce in that order and spread may on the top part of the bun — but po-boys are easy: the meat is encased in mayo-covered bread with lettuce and tomatoes on one side. If it’s oyster or shrimp, you dribble a bit of lemon juice over it and then squirt on the catsup.
I remember from past years that the offerings on Oak Street are delicious.
The Oak Street Po-Boy festival is open to the public, family friendly and free to attend. This one-day-only event goes from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and features live music, arts, handicrafts and – of course – booths offering many different types of po-boys.