It is fairly uncontroversial to say that much of the best food in the world is born out of poverty. What were once peasant cuisines, based on making the most out of the limited things you had, are now the most sought after dishes. From the luscious slow cooked ragus of Italy to South American tamales or the thin but flavour packed soups of south-east Asia, these dishes based on cheap ingredients are all exceptional. Even in France, the spiritual home of high end cooking, it is the peasant dishes of French onion soup and cassoulet that really get people’s blood running.
New Orleans is a city with a storied history of poverty. Throughout the various colonial reigns that have marked the city there has always been a significant proportion of the struggling poor. So it is only fitting that one of their most iconic dishes is named for these poor people.
The po’ boy came into existence during a streetcar workers strike in 1929. As they were out on the picket line, a local deli owner got some crunchy French baguettes, filled them with salad and took them out to the “poor boys” out on picket line. And with that, a local favourite was created.
There does not seem to be much required for a sandwich to be classified a po’ boy. As far as I can understand, the vital ingredient is the bread. French in style, it needs to have a solid crust on the outside to hold everything together, while the inside needs to be soft, giving white bread, able to sop up any juices that might flow into them. Get one of these and fill it up and you have yourself a po’ boy.
As to what goes inside a po’ boy, that’s a broader choice. While the original strikers probably had just salad in theirs, these days you can get anything from ham to crawfish to sausage to cheese. But there are two types of filling that dominate. One is roast beef. The other, fried seafood.
Roast beef is a heavy way to go. Slow roasted beef, I believe usually a quite wet roast, is shredded and served with the most important ingredient of all: gravy. And not just a little gravy, either, which is why it is so important that the bread can absorb some. This thick, brown and intensely rich sludge oozes all over the meat, and usually over your hands. It’s not a clean way to eat, but it is worth it.
The other pillar of the po’ boy pantheon in fried seafood. A somewhat lighter choice than the beef, these use pieces of crisp, deep fried shrimp or oyster, and sometimes a combination of the two, as the main filling. If done properly, the soft sweetness of the seafood is offset by the dual crunches of batter and bun. You can have it as is, or dressed (with lettuce, tomato, pickle and mayo – for my mind the better option), and you end up with a foot long roll that is perfect for any time of the day or night. It even rivals the souvlaki as the ultimate 4am drunken snack.
Po’ boys are ubiquitous in New Orleans. From the specialist places to local restaurants to supermarkets and drug stores, everywhere has po’ boys on the menu, at varying levels of quality. Some of the famous places, like Johnny’s in the French Quarter, are disappointing. The dressed shrimp boy I had there was way too dry, and seemed to be a little stingy on the seafood.
However, one of the other famous joints, Parkway Bakery in Midtown, is well worth the likely very long wait. Trying both their award winning roast beef and their shrimp, these were dense and filling, but had that depth of flavour you really need. It’s a historic old shack, but the place has great food.
That said, my favourite po’ boy came from a small Italian style deli in the French Quarter called Verdi Mart. Open basically all night (as is most of the city), the dressed shrimp I had there was packed with sweet, crunchy seafood. It was nicely moist, and incredibly easy to eat. My perceptions may be slightly skewed by the drinking I had been doing, but either way, this was a greatly enjoyable dish.
In the end, there is fundamentally nothing that different between a po’ boy and many other sandwiches around the world. But there is just that something New Orleans about it that comes through. And they are very proud of their po’ boy. Rightfully so, it seems.
Though the po’ boy is not the only iconic sandwich in New Orleans. It shares the limelight with the massive round of stacked deli meats that is the muffuletta. Again a sandwich with its history in the working classes. The working Sicilian immigrants were struggling to eat their antipasto plates on their knees, balancing their meats and cheeses and breads. One wise deli owner thought it would be easy to make a sandwich out of them, and so layered them on the large, soft Sicilian bread rolls, and a great sandwich was born.
That clever man owned the Central Grocery, a place that still sells hundreds of muffuletta every day, and where I got the version I ate. While you may have seen versions of this sandwich piled high with meats, this was a little more economical in its approach. Two layers of salami, one of ham, one of mortadella, one of mozzarella, and one of provolone sit between the sliced circular bread. Added to that is the thing that makes all the difference, the green olive salad, adding a sharpness to the dish. It is a great sandwich, though a half (as I ordered) is more than enough for a meal, even for someone like me.
As I have already written, the food culture in New Orleans is spectacular in general. But even if it wasn’t, even if the only thing this city gave to the culinary world were these two sandwiches, it would still be worth the trip.
Addendum: A few quick things I missed in my last post.
– The beignets at Cafe du Monde are a cliche, but when you’re talking a soft pillow of sweet fried dough, piled high with powdered sugar, I don’t mind being cliched.
– Mandina’s, a very pleasant local little restaurant, is famous for its turtle soup. As something I hadn’t tried before it was a must, and it is a really nice dish. Could I tell it was turtle compared to some other meat? I’m not sure, but it was rich and warming.