Po’Boy History

The Case of the Disappearing Po’ Boy Heritage

By Beattie McNeal

In recent decades a phenomenon that has gone largely unnoticed by the general public has swept throughout our fair city, Po’ Boy Ignorance.  Most people have not the slightest clue of how Po’Boy’s became such a staple in the New Orleans diet.  When asked of the origins of the Po’ Boy Wayne Radosta, co-owner of Radosta’s Po’ Boys, said

“F$#@ if I know, some earl or some sh$# probably invented it.”

Liuzza’s owner Michael Bordelon provided the less colorful but equally ignorant response of

“Dunno.”

If these Po’ Boy gurus are unaware of this regal sandwich’s origins, how can we expect an average Joe to know any better?  In their defense, there are a few competing stories of the origin of the word Po’ Boy.

The most popular story is that it was invented in a New Orleans deli owned by Clovis and Benjamin Martin, former streetcar drivers who opened a restaurant in the 1920s. When streetcar drivers went on strike in 1929, the brothers  supported them and created an inexpensive sandwich of gravy and spare roast beef they would serve the unemployed workers out of the back  of their restaurant. When a worker came to get one, thekitchen would yell “here comes another poor boy!”  The name became associated with the sandwich, eventually shortened to “po” boy.

Another competing theory comes from author and Po’ Boy enthusiast Jay Harlow.   In The Art of the Sandwich, Harlow suggests that the name comes from the French word pourboire meaning “for drink.” This was the tip one leaves a serving person or a delivery boy. These tips could buy a sandwich, which became known as a poor boy sandwich.  The Peacemaker, a precursor to the poor boy sandwich these serving boys could buy, was the name for an oyster loaf. The Oyster Loaf was a whole loaf of French Bread that was split, hollowed out, and buttered.  It was then filled with with fried oysters and sprinkled with lemon juice and pickles. The name comes from husbands from the 1800’s who would come in late from a night at the whore houses with the sandwich in order to smooth things over with the wife.

One stubborn restaurant in Bay St. Louis named Trapani’s insists that the name po’ boy came from a sandwich shop in New Orleans. If a patron was new to the bar and bought a nickel beer, then he got a free sandwich with it.  This was sometimes referred to as a “poor boy’s lunch.”

In recent years there has been a renaissance of sorts among many of the Po’ Boy community.  Groups such as those that run the Po’ Boy Preservation Festival (http://www.poboyfest.com/) seek to glorify this tasty bit of culture and spread Po’ Boy knowledge.  If they succeed maybe one day we can all live together in Po’ Boy nirvana, where everyone respects the bit of history that has found its way onto their plate.  Until then I guess simply enjoying eating Po’ Boys will have to do.

Sources:

Harlow, Jay. The Art of the Sandwich. Complete Numbers Starting with 1, 1st Ed ed. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1990. Print.

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