As a transplant to New Orleans, living here for slightly less than three months, I am still getting used to my surroundings. But last Sunday at the third annual Po’ Boy Preservation Festival, stuffed with seven po’ boys, enveloped by jazz and surrounded by ecstatic Saints fans celebrating the team’s 10th straight win, I felt fully embraced by my new home.
Based on Sunday’s festival, the nearly century-old po’ boy, appears to have a whole movement devoted to preserving and celebrating this expression of New Orleanian culinary creativity. “New Orleans and its people are all about culture, and the po’ boy is part of that,” said Jim Elliot, chairman of the Po’ Boy Preservation Festival.
The po’ boy is a simple sandwich, a comfort food in these parts, and it is deeply New Orleanian. Everyone eats them, and everyone has a favorite place to recommend. This festival, unlike Mardi Gras and many others the city hosts, is a “by the locals, for the locals,” Elliot said. It is the celebration — and preservation — of a sandwich that represents an important part of New Orleans’ history.
As explained on the festival’s Web site, the po’ boy was created by the Martin brothers, Bennie and Clovis, during the streetcar workers’ strike of 1929. Both streetcar workers themselves, the Martins opened a coffee stand in the French Market and promised to serve a hot meal to any streetcar operator in Division 194 who came by. To make good on their promise, the brothers made sandwiches on long French bread loaves. And the namesake? As each new person stopped in for their meal, the brothers said to themselves, “Here comes another poor boy.” About 80 members of the Martin family were on hand to take part in the celebration of their ancestors’ culinary contribution.
The festival was created to preserve the authentic po’ boy, but festival-goers seemed most intent on consuming — or at least sampling — as many spins on their city’s signature sandwich as possible.
“People always ask, ‘Are they serious? Preserving the po’ boy?’” said Elliot, who has been a part of the festival since it began in 2007. “The concern is that they are so labor-intensive when done in a mom-and-pop shop in the way that makes a good po’ boy. There was a concern that that would go away. And if the mom and pops die out, then the French bread makers would die out, and that’s the key component of the po’ boy.”
The po’ boy was alive and well Sunday as more than 25,000 people crammed the newly renovated Oak Street for six blocks. Forty-three vendors sold just about every kind of po’ boy imaginable: classic fried oyster, fried shrimp, bread pudding and one of the most popular, the Vietnamese BBQ pork po’ boy. The possibilities were endless.
Everywhere, people were hunched over their paper plates, shoving the remnants of the crackly-yet-soft French bread into their mouths, often stained by grease or remoulade sauce. The juice dripped off everyone’s fingers. The festival-goers seemed consumed by their sandwich, bumping into one another on the crowded street and shouting a congenial “Sorry dude!” as they passed.
One of my favorite po’ boys — the first I tried — was eventually chosen by 26 judges as the festival’s best in show. It was Grand Isle Restaurant’s Shrimp Caminada, named for a town near Grand Isle, La., that was destroyed by an 1893 hurricane. The po’ boy features shrimp sauteed in a spicy citrus butter and topped with herb slaw. It was an excellent combination of succulent Gulf shrimp and crispy greens, a rare treat on a po’ boy.
Next, I had to sample two of New Orleans’ most famous po’ boy shops, Parkway Bakery and Tavern and Mahony’s Po-Boy Shop. I was directed to Parkway’s side-street location by several ladies dancing with huge French loaves with arrows pointing in the appropriate direction. Parkway featured its famous roast beef po’ boy, which was huge, meaty and messy. Mahony’s fried oyster po’ boy, winner of best classic fried po’ boy in 2008, was dressed perfectly and featured massive, fresh oysters.
Last but certainly not least was the Vietnamese BBQ pork po’ boy. Featured on the cover of the Nov. 16 issue of New Orleans’ Gambit Weekly newspaper, the Bahn Mi from Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery was extra popular this year, particularly the barbecued pork topped with cucumbers, carrots and slaw. It won best pork po’ boy this year and had a long line during the entire festival.
“The Vietnamese po’ boy was awesome,” said Brad Holdress, an attendee at this year’s event. “The Parkway Bakery one was a good roast beef. I wanted to try the BBQ fried oyster and Mahony’s fried chicken liver, but I just didn’t have room.”
I asked a variety of people, usually with po’ boy in hand which sandwich was their favorite. The answer was overwhelmingly Emeril Lagasse’s fried green tomato, bacon and shrimp remoulade po’ boy. Another answer was the “ESP,” or Extra Special Peacemaker from the Palace Cafe, a fried oyster and shrimp po’ boy topped with brie fondue.
“We really liked the shrimp-zilla po’ boy. The shrimps were really nicely done,” said Donald Tatera, who flew in from California with his wife Kimberly for the po’ boy festival and the Thanksgiving holiday. New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Co.’s shrimp-zilla (packed with roast beef and shrimp) won the people’s choice award this year. “This is a very cool festival, and amazing food.”
Last year, the po’ boy festival netted $40,000. The Oak Street Main Street Association, the group that runs the event, contributed the earnings to various causes, including the Abeona House, a child-care facility that serves many children with learning disabilities, and a fire station that needed help after Hurricane Katrina. This year, proceeds will go to loans for other Carrollton neighborhood organizations. Additionally, the spirit of the po’ boy fest will carry on year-round through monthly meetings devoted to collecting archival evidence of the sandwich’s long history.
“If we don’t have this festival, who the heck knows what may happen!” said Elliot. “It gets a lot of publicity now in the paper, but five years ago it wasn’t getting that. [This event] is what we were hoping to happen, and that is a renewed focus on po’ boys. We want it to be a living, breathing thing.”
Catherine Lyons is a writer in New Orleans.