The history of the po’ boy becomes a culinary journey around New Orleans.
When I was a kid, going into the city was a big adventure for me. I grew up in the River Parishes, so when my dad would tell us all to pile in the car to head into the city, I knew it was a special occasion. Typically when we headed into the city, it was to go out for a special meal, to visit Audubon Zoo or to go shopping for school clothes. One of the things I couldn’t wait for when I started my own family was to take similar family adventures throughout New Orleans to create the same special moments for my son. One of our most recent journeys all started with a trip to the library. My son chose the book How to Dress a Po’ Boy by Johnette Downing, and, with that, a fun family journey began.
The book is cleverly written as a song, detailing exactly how much New Orleans love goes into “dressing” a po’ boy — down to the Blue Plate Mayonnaise. Our 3-year-old son jumps for joy every time we start to sing that little ditty, and, what started out as playful nightly reading and singing became a citywide adventure that, when he gets a little older, will also become a New Orleans history lesson.
Almost every dish that originated in New Orleans has an amazing story behind it. Whether it is the tale of how red beans and rice became standard Monday fare for laundry day or how everyone in New Orleans has their own special way to make a gumbo, we all know that many meals come with a tale of color, history and culture behind them.
The history of the po’ boy is simple, but it’s a really interesting story. Back in the early 20th century, the Martin brothers, who moved to New Orleans from Raceland, got their start in New Orleans as streetcar conductors. Just a few years later, they opened the Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant in the French Quarter. In July 1929, a transportation strike rose up in New Orleans. The Martin family stood by their fellow conductors and offered them free sandwiches while the strike continued. When they saw another striker coming to the restaurant, they would say, “Here comes another poor boy!” Not much longer, the sandwiches took on the name, and a culinary legend was born.
Everyone has their favorite po’ boy. For some, it is the airy, light bread topped with extra pickles and the golden glow of battered and fried shrimp that fall out with each bite. For others, it is the taste and feel of roast beef debris and gravy dripping down your arms and chin. Whatever your favorite, the po’ boy is one of the most delicious foods to come out of New Orleans.
One of our favorite things about a restaurant that exclusively sells po’ boys is the fact that it is also very family friendly. Most po’ boy shops are loud, wide open and are very casual. Po’ boy tasting makes for a perfect Saturday lunch date for the whole family, including ours. As you can imagine, once that obsession with the book started with our son, the song got stuck in our heads, and we started to take him around the city to start our own po’ boy journey around New Orleans.
Our first try was at Mahony’s Po-Boys on Magazine Street. Our son’s first po’ boy was fried shrimp, covered in pickles and ketchup, which he ate while we sat on the sidewalk patio for a nice view of the trees along Magazine. While we people-watched and enjoyed our sandwiches, our son took to eating the sandwich like he had been doing it his whole life. His tiny little 2-year-old appetite took a turn for the adult when he took a huge bite into that delicious sandwich. Ever since, he pretty much sticks with the fried shrimp as his favorite.
Our next destination was the famous Parkway Bakery and Tavern. I figured, hey, if it is good enough for the president, than it is good enough for me! Again, our little fella requested a shrimp po’ boy, and, once again, he gobbled it up. His favorite part of Parkway was the really old vintage car in the courtyard — and the ability to eat outside!
These days, our son is quickly approaching age four, and he is already becoming a connoisseur of the po’ boy sandwich. Our trips to the city have become a way that not only nourishes our tummies, but also our souls. We have many more places we intend to try; some of the next places in line for our journey include Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar, Parasol’s and Johnny’s Po-Boys.
Of course, there are so many more po’ boy restaurants around New Orleans that we are adding to the list. With that in mind, I’d like to close with this: If having too many great places to find a good po’ boy is a New Orleans problem, that’s a problem I’ll always be happy to have.