RICH LITTLE PO'BOY
This is a New Orleans sandwich of mythical proportions
PROPERLY CONSTRUCTED, the New Orleans oyster po’boy is a hungry dockhand’s dream come true: a crusty loaf of French bread generously stuffed with fried bivalves, slathered with creamy mayonnaise, and dressed with shredded iceberg lettuce, thinly sliced tomato, and tangy dill pickle chips. A cousin to the hoagie, the grinder, the hero, and the sub, this filling snack is the Crescent City’s native fast food, a workaday specialty in a city where portion control borders on cardinal sin. The oyster po’boy is just one of countless variations of the sandwich—spicy sausage, roast beef, and softshell crab among them—but the oyster version may predate them all. Creole cookbooks from the early 20th century mention hollowed-out bread filled with stewed oysters. These oyster loaves, as they were then called, had important social significance: errant husbands, arriving home late from the city’s saloons, often took along this po’boy precursor for their wives as a médiatrice, or peacemaker.
The history of today’s po’boy is less than clear, however, and consists of poorly substantiated myths and barroom tales. One apocryphal story traces the sandwich to the streetcar strike of 1929. To show solidarity with the striking workers, it is said, the grocer brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin fed the hungry men three-foot-long French loaves (supposedly made by a local baker named John Gendusa) that they had packed with gravy-drenched scraps of roast beef or fried fish. A single loaf apparently fed three “poor boys” in a snap. Contemporary, scaled-down versions of that behemoth still appear on local menus, but it is the oyster po’boy, based on cheap, plentiful, plump bivalves from the Gulf of Mexico, that seems to all but define the sandwich at lunch counters, late-night groceries, and after-hours bars. It represents the city’s historical and culinary bounty in action—and is an accessible indulgence to fuel a harried workday.