Étouffée and gumbo are dishes that have attained the status of icons in Louisiana cookery, but there is one more that shouldn’t be left out of any roll call that summons the flavors of south Louisiana. For several days the notion of a big, hearty oyster po’ boy has been haunting my lunchtime thoughts. Po’ boy is another name for a submarine sandwich, called a sub in some cities, hoagie in others. The name given to the submarine-like “po’ boy” has an interesting history connected to a 1929 streetcar workers’ strike in New Orleans. Sometime in the mid-1910s brothers Benny and Clovis Martin left their home in the Acadian region of the state for New Orleans. Both brothers worked as streetcar conductors until opening a coffee stand and restaurant in 1922. Their years in the railway employees’ union and those spent working as streetcar operators eventually led to their small coffee stand becoming the birthplace of the po’ boy sandwich.
During the four-month strike against the streetcar company in 1929 Benny Martin served free sandwiches to his former colleagues in the union, and Martin’s employees began to joke about the strikers being “poor boys.” Not too surprising that the sandwiches were soon being called poor boys, shortened in the Louisiana dialect to po’ boys.
What makes a po’ boy special is the bread, and a good quality French bread freshly baked is essential. New Orleans French bread has a crunchy crust with a very light center, the result of being baked in old brick ovens. The loaves are about three feet long and maybe six inches in circumference. For a po’ boy the loaf is cut into foot-long pieces, which can be halved for those wanting a smaller sandwich. Traditional versions are served hot with a filling of fried chicken breast, shrimp, oysters, soft shell crab, catfish, crawfish, Louisiana hot sausage, roast beef and gravy, or other regional variations. When ordering a po-boy, the server usually asks a question of one word: “Dressed?” It’s not as silly as it sounds and refers to the po’ boy and what you want on it. A “dressed” po’ boy has lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, with pickles and onion optional. On a non-seafood po’ boy some will add mustard.
Lunch on Thursday was at Parrain’s, a popular restaurant in Baton Rouge not far from LSU. My friend Raymond and I went there the last time I was in town and enjoyed a delicious lunch, so with that memory, along with po’ boys in mind, we figured Parrain’s was a good bet. The daily specials included a softshell crab po’ boy that Raymond was quick to order, but the oyster po’ boy with a serving of peanut cole slaw was my choice. Mmm… Good! And the bloody Marys weren’t bad either.