ORIGINS OF THE PO-BOY
The origin of the Po-Boy sandwich is shrouded in mystery and lost in the haze of time. Some say that in 1929 the Martin brothers, Benny and Clovis, served the first Po-Boys to striking streetcar motormen and conductors. It’s a good story, and there is indeed mentioned in the Times-Picayune from 1929 that the Martin brothers did write an open letter offering to provide free meals to the strikers, but the sandwich wasn’t referenced.
Further research reveals that fried oysters on a fresh French-style baguette were in numerous cookbooks dating back to the 1760s. Legendary Jazz musicians Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet both mention in their autobiographies that they often ate “poor boy” sandwiches after work as early as 1910.
Where and how they began isn’t as important as how this sandwich has defined itself as iconic. It’s up there with other dishes such as Central Grocery’s Muffuletta, Bananas Foster at Commander’s Palace, or Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s.
There are literally hundreds of variations of the Po-Boy. What they all have in common is the New Orleans style Po-Boy bread or baguette. The freshness of the bread is one of the key attributes of the sandwich. The outside should be crunchy and flaky, while the interior should be soft, airy, and slightly chewy. At least half a dozen bakeries in New Orleans supply the bread to restaurants that don’t make their own. Leidenheimer’s, Gendusa, Gambino’s, Pouparts, La Boulangerie, and Alois J Binder’s are a few, and all of them put out a great product. Leidenheimer’s, which also owns Reising’s brand, can be ordered to your home for a reasonable price through nolacajun.com.
If you can’t make it to the Po-Boy festival, don’t fret. You can still have the authentic experience of sampling some of the best New Orleans has to offer. Check out Frankie & Johnny’s on 321 Arabella St., Domilise’s on 5240 Annunciation St., Antoine’s – Hermes Bar on 713 Saint Louis St, or Johnny’s Po-boys on 511 St. Louis St.
The weather for this year’s festival was unpredictable (as it often is). The date of the festival was moved without notice to travelers after Tropical Storm Nate pummeled the area. Keep this in mind if you plan to attend this festival from outside New Orleans. Watch the weather reports and frequently check in with the official festival website Po-Boy Festival. The owner of the vacation rental I stayed at was kind enough to let me know the dates changed to re-book my flight.
Once the festival did get underway, the weather was perfect. It was a pleasant 72 degrees with a light wind (if you are from the south, you know this is as perfect as it gets). The crowds, while substantial, were mainly locals. The mood was a casual, controlled, and safe atmosphere instead of other outdoor events that sometimes plague New Orleans (Mardi Gras). There were plenty of impromptu vendors with free-flowing alcohol, though I did not see one fight or even anyone getting too carried away.
While not listening to local brass bands, everyone’s attention was focused on tasting as many different Po-Boys as possible. There were 75 different types for this year’s competition. I let the size of the lines tell me which Po-Boys to try first. The fillings ranged from the simple fried shrimp Po-Boy with mayo, lettuce, and tomato to the more complex, like the Kung-Fu Po-Boy Seared Ahi Tuna, Avocado, and cucumbers topped with Dragon Sauce, Eel Sauce, Sriracha and sesame seeds entry from Seither’s.
The competition was fierce and broken down into seven categories. These are the Po-Boy Fest Winners:
Best Seafood – Red Fish Grill’s BBQ oyster Po-Boy (flash-fried oysters tossed in Crystal BBQ sauce, romaine lettuce, tomato, red onion, house-made blue cheese dressing)
Best Shrimp – Siether’s Pee Paw Po-Boy (Gulf Shrimp, applewood smoked bacon, pecans, and grape tomatoes, tossed in their Remoulade Dressing served on a Dong Phong Loaf with crispy iceberg shreds)
Most Original – Simone’s Market’s Lebacajun Po-Boy (Hashweh: ground lamb, pine nuts with tabbouleh and yogurt sauce)
Best Sausage – Brat’s Y’all’s Drunk Pig (slow-roasted pork, marinated in dark beer, topped with mustard, homemade sauerkraut & caramelized onions on a fresh bun)
Best Pork – Vincent’s Godfather Po-Boy (meatballs, brisket, Italian sausage, basil, mozzarella cheese, and red sauce)
Best Poultry – Simone’s Market’s Smoked Fried Chicken Thigh Po-Boy (smoked, then fried boneless chicken thigh topped with jalapeno buttermilk slaw, pickled sweet peppers)
Best Beef – Bienvenue Bar and Grill’s Hickory Smoked Prime Rib Po-Boy (slow-smoked prime rib, thinly sliced with smoked Gouda, horseradish mayonnaise and served with roasted vegetable au jus)
The Oak Street Po-Boy Festival is yet another reason to see this great city. I’ve visited New Orleans multiple times for different reasons. Every time I’ve gone, I have left the city wanting more. I’ve always been struck by the atmosphere and vibe. The music, food, people, and the mix of old and new architecture all combine to make New Orleans a truly unique American experience. New Orleans knows how to put on a party. Everyone I saw was having a great time.
The details were well thought out, including a Jumbotron TV to watch the Saints vs. Bills game that played that morning, tons of unique food, live bands, great drinks, and even free face painting. The Oak Street Po-Boy Festival isn’t just about food; it’s about the unique culture, the mix of people, drinks, and music New Orleans is known for. I highly recommend checking this one out.