Lately, I’ve been craving a glorious po’boy. I must confess, I only ever eat them when I visit New Orleans (although there are versions of it served all over the U.S.). The po’boy is not as firmly entrenched in the North Carolina gastronomy pantheon as it is in Louisiana. And so I am on a hunt to find out if there are any places here in North Carolina that make a version worth mentioning. If anyone has a recommendation, please do share it with us.
So what exactly is a po’boy?
It is a sandwich, similar to what other parts of the U.S. call a submarine sandwich or a hoagie. The po’boy, however, is a concept born in New Orleans (NOLA) – conceived in hard times and built out of excess. This signature sandwich can include (but is not limited to) fried seafood (oysters, crawfish, shrimp, catfish, softshell crab, etc.), roast beef, sausage, and fried potatoes. Some folks refer to the bahn mi as a “Vietnamese po’boy.” I want to include an important side note about the rich Vietnamese culinary history in Louisiana that began with refugees moving here after the Vietnam War. Why New Orleans? One NOLA tourism website states:
“…the sub-tropical climate and proximity to water appealed to many Vietnamese immigrants. Also, a large percentage of Vietnamese newcomers were Catholic, and both New Orleans and national Catholic charities were spearheading efforts to help new residents find jobs and housing in the city.”
Every November, NOLA also supports the popular annual Oak Street Po-Boy Festival, to celebrate the sandwich. It was canceled in 2021 due to the pandemic, including “because of difficulty staffing the busy pop-up booths along Oak Street while also manning their permanent locations.”
The po-boy further defined
The Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans offers these details:
“These sandwiches are a twentieth-century addition to the Creole menu. They are one of few foods almost only eaten out and not fixed at home. As the story goes, there was a turbulent streetcar strike in 1929 that lasted for months. The strikers were picketing in front of Martin Brothers Coffee Stand on St. Claude Avenue. The Martin brothers, Benny and Clovis, had been streetcar workers themselves, so they were sympathetic to the strikers.
Knowing that the strikers were not earning money while they were striking, the Martin Brothers made sandwiches out of the ends of roast beef for the strikers. The Martin Brothers called the strikers poor boys who needed the support of the community. The reference to the strikers became the name of the sandwiches fed to them.
The story is further embellished by the explanation that the shape of the French bread in the city was not the familiar baguette, but a shape called the gigot, a shape that had a tail. When using the gigot to make a sandwich, the tail would have to be cut off. To stop the waste and to make the sandwich more efficient, the loaf—now the po’boy loaf—was made the same shape from one end to the other.
Po’boys are part of the overstuffed sandwich phenomenon of the Depression. What are served today as po’boys are probably much more substantial than what may have been served to streetcar strikers. It is said that those sandwiches were either sandwiches which might have had bits of meat gravy in it or perhaps potato sandwiches. The 1901 version of the Picayune’s Creole Cook Book has a recipe for a Mediatrice (Mediator or peacemaker) or an oyster loaf made from French bread partially hollowed out. The bread taken from the inside of the loaf is cooked with oysters and cream in a pan. When hot it is spooned back into the loaf and served. It was called the Mediatrice to be given as a peace offering to the wife of a penitent, but late, husband. The idea of a sandwich was not new in the twentieth century.
There was a time it was said that franchise sandwich shops like Subway or Quiznos could not get a toehold in the city, because the city was so bound to its po’boys. But finally the forces of homogenization made the people of the city allow room for franchise sandwich shops. Using preserved meats is cheaper than making po’boys by starting with raw roasts and fresh seafood. But traditional po’boys are holding their own. “