To view images of the sandwiches at the Po-Boy Preservation Festival--and the people who enjoyed them--click here for a slide show.
In the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005, the Battle of Oak Street was waged along a stretch of shops in the Carrollton neighborhood. Like retail locations across the city, stores along Oak Street suffered extensive looting in the aftermath of the storm. Some of the looters were genuinely desperate for basic supplies; others were opportunistic thieves.
According to historian Douglas Brinkley, a series of racially charged confrontations ensued when Oak Street's merchants--who were mostly white--banded together and armed themselves in an effort to protect their properties from the increasingly brazen looters. "It was white versus black, merchants versus neighborhood residents," Brinkley writes in The Great Deluge, one of the most comprehensive accounts of Katrina. Fists flew and shots were fired, though luckily no one was badly injured. Still, the damage to the neighborhood--physical and otherwise--was unmistakable.
Four years later, in a jarring juxtaposition of the sort frequently encountered in this still-recovering town, Oak Street played host to a rather different kind of conflict: an Ultimate French Bread Fight. The showdown was part of the third annual Po-Boy Preservation Festival, a celebration of the city's famed sandwich and an attempt to spur Oak Street's revival. It pitted Jared of "Subpar Sandwiches"--a stand-in for Jared Fogle, the risible Subway spokesman--against the spirit of John Gendusa, a Depression-era New Orleans baker credited with inventing the extra-wide loaves of French bread that define the po-boy.
Traditional iterations like fried shrimp, fried oyster, and roast beef po-boys competed for attention with less orthodox varieties, such as a fried bread-pudding po-boy and a chicken-liver po-boy.
"I've laid waste to sandwich shops from Wichita to Timbuktu," taunted Jared, as the crowd booed. "New Orleans ain't any different!" But the spirit of Gendusa felled this cocky foe, landing a knock-out blow to the head with a sturdy po-boy loaf. An emcee lead the crowd in a victory chant: "They say, 'Eat crap!' We say, 'Fight back!'"
Down the street, a slightly more high-brow appreciation of the po-boy was on offer at a series of panel discussions organized by Michael Mizell-Nelson, a labor historian at the University of New Orleans who has delved into the hotly contested origins of the sandwich's name. While researching a streetcar-workers strike launched in New Orleans in 1929, Mizell-Nelson discovered that the term was first popularized by the Martin Brothers coffee stand, whose proprietors were former streetcar operators. In solidarity with their erstwhile co-workers, the Martins offered free sandwiches throughout the strike to all members of the streetcar-workers union. Every time one showed up, a call would go out: "Here comes another poor boy!"
"A lot of people miss the sarcasm in the term," Mizell-Nelson noted. "The strikers were hardly 'poor boys.' They were well-paid members of a strong union. Among working people in New Orleans at that time, they were sort of aristocrats."
Photo by Justin Vogt
That sort of irony is hardly limited to the po-boy's past. Consider, for instance, that the festival drew more than 20,000 visitors--even though it is premised on the idea that the spread of chains like Subway and Quiznos, coupled with the post-Katrina closings of some local bakeries and po-boy shops, has imperiled this treasured culinary tradition. A few years ago, Sandy Whann, a festival organizer whose Leidenheimer Baking Company is one of the major local suppliers of po-boy loaves, began to fear that the sandwich's decline threatened the fabric of the city's distinct culture. "I worried that young kids who were susceptible to advertising from the big chains might migrate away from the po-boy shops in their own neighborhoods," he explained. "Going to those places teaches you to interact with other people from your community, and that ability is part of what brought this city back after Katrina."