The Rich Legacy Behind the Po’Boy Sandwich

The classic oyster po'boy (Source: Shutterstock / Jean Faucett)

What’s more Southern than a Louisiana loaf filled with breaded and fried oysters, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo? If you’re like us, almost nothing beats the taste of a po’boy sandwich, and like so many facets of our lives down south, there’s a great story behind it. Indeed, there’s more to know about a po’boy than how to bread shrimp. Find out what makes the po’boy good, and the people behind what makes its history even better.

What exactly is a po’boy sandwich?

Like Southern accents, gumbo, and grits, there are a million answers to this. But most po’boys start with a French baguette (often called a Louisiana loaf) and a protein filling – usually, but not always, consisting of shellfish or fish – served hot with any variety of toppings and sauces. And importantly, it’s full-on satisfying and easy on your wallet.

While the po’boy looks a lot like the classic Italian submarine sandwich (or sub), there are significant differences. The po’boy loaf is characterized by a crispy exterior and light, fluffy interior, whereas classic Italian bread is chewy and soft throughout. Po’boys also typically include fish (more about that later), while Italian subs lean heavily on Mediterranean diet staples: cheese and cured meats. Italian subs are also generally served cold, whereas we like our po’boys steaming.

The history

Fish-based loaf sandwiches are probably timeless, but we know for a fact that they were around in the late 19th century in port cities like San Francisco and New Orleans. It wasn’t until the end of the 1920s, however, that the term po’boy made the rounds down south. Legend has it that brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin coined the term for sandwiches they were serving in their New Orleans French Market coffee shop at the time.

The origin story is quite heart-warming, actually. As history tells us, the po’boy saved the day during a protracted New Orleans transit strike in 1929 when many striking streetcar workers were struggling to make ends meet. Things were already bad due to the onset of the Great Depression, and without jobs, conditions for working people in the city worsened. Benny and Clovis, former streetcar workers themselves, supported the strikers by feeding any hungry worker who couldn’t afford to pay. Working with a local baker, the brothers used a 40 inch-loaf to make oyster-filled sandwiches for the hungry customers. As destitute strikers came their way, one brother would say to the other, “Here comes another poor boy.” The brothers’ kindness was widely lauded and has since become a symbol of New Orleans’ generous spirit

Birthplace of the po'boy as we know it (Source: poorboysandwiches.com)
Birthplace of the po’boy as we know it (Source: poorboysandwiches.com)

Recipe variations

Typical ingredients for a fish-based po’boy include catfish, ocean perch, and tilapia, though any flaky white fish will do. Shellfish favorites are oysters, shrimp, crab, and crawfish. Shrimp should be mid-sized, about 16-20 per pound; any larger and you’ll get more than a mouthful, any smaller and they get lost in the loaf. Breading can range from basic breadcrumbs and egg to full-on hot Cajun spiced-breading. Deep-frying the oysters is most common, but pan-frying or oven-roasting them is acceptable for those of you who want to avoid the calories and mess of a deep fryer. Fish toppings generally include drizzled butter and pickle slices.

Chicken, also breaded and deep-fried, is sometimes seen in the po’boy sandwich, though less frequently. And if you like your po’boy meaty, you can slow-simmer a tough beef cut in beef broth with garlic, pepper, bay leaf, thyme, and any additional spices you favor. Shred with a fork, and load up your loaf.

The beef po'boy with gravy (Source: Shutterstock / Chuck Wagner)
The beef po’boy with gravy (Source: Shutterstock / Chuck Wagner)

The beef po’boy with gravy (Source: Shutterstock / Chuck Wagner)Both chicken and beef po’boys include gravy, and po’boys of all kinds can include lettuce, tomato, mayo, mustard, rémoulade, and/or Louisiana hot sauce. Really, almost anything goes.

Sauces
Just about any sauce is game (Source: Shutterstock / MaraZe)

Where to get your po’boy sandwich in New Orleans

For a great shrimp po’ boy head over to Guy’s Po-Boys (just west of Touro). Owner/Chef Marvin Matherne fills his loaves with well-seasoned fried shrimp followed by a layer of mayo, pickles, lettuce, tomato, and ketchup. There’s a grilled shrimp variation that’s just as good. Cash only, please.

One of New Orleans’ first po’boy restaurants, the Parkway Bakery & Tavern (mid-city), has been doing it right for nearly 100 years. While the fried shrimp is top-notch, go for the slow-roasted beef soaked in savory brown gravy, or its newest variation, steamed corned beef brisket.

If you’re uptown, check out the Adams Street Grocery for a hearty helping of shrimp, fish, or roast beef and gravy po’boys. A favorite among nearby Tulane students, the tiny corner grocery is takeout only and can get crowded at lunch.

Finally, Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar (also uptown) has a long history of serving up some of the best po’boys around. Enormously popular, Domilise’s has been in business for over 100 years and serves both seafood and beef po’boys to please. As this NOLA mainstay is another favorite among students, expect to see hungry crowds from Tulane and Loyola lining up.

Do you have a favorite po’boy recipe or restaurant? Let us know at editors@southtosoutheast.com.