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."
Such dark warnings about the demise of the po-boy were difficult to square with the massive turnout and the sheer number of dedicated purveyors. 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. By and large, though, it was a typically New Orleanian mélange of Creole standbys: thick remoulades and hearty etoufees barely contained between generous slices of French bread.
One of the longest lines formed at a tent run by beloved Carrolton restaurant Jacques-Imo's and its offshoot, Crabby Jacks. Their fried green tomato and shrimp po-boy was the hot call. Doused in an orange-hued, aromatic remoulade of perfect consistency, it easily outshone the slow-roasted duck po-boy that put Crabby Jacks on the map a few years ago.
Down the street, an enormous crowd also gathered at Que Crawl, a purple truck manned by chef Nathaniel Zimet, whose barbecued shrimp po-boy won raves. ("Mary, mother of God!" an apparently sober woman shouted to no one in particular after taking her first bite.) Zimet was also slinging a surprisingly lean and moist pulled-pork po-boy, dressed with a tart, crunchy purple-cabbage slaw.
A panel of local food critics awarded the festival's official "Best in Show" prize to Grand Isle restaurant, for its "Shrimp Caminada" po-boy. Named after a tiny fishing hamlet south of New Orleans that was ravaged by a hurricane in 1893, chef Mark Falgoust's creation married the po-boy with the East Asian flavors that have crept into southern Louisiana cuisine thanks in part to the region's vibrant Vietnamese community. The base consisted of a chile-garlic butter in which the shrimp was cooked along with parsley, a bit of anchovy, and lime juice. Atop the shrimp, Falhoust laid a slaw of cabbage, shredded carrots, and red bell pepper, spiced with cilantro, mint, and basil, and then dressed with a touch of rice wine. Sandwiched between two slices of Leidenheimer bread, the Caminada was a flavor machine.
But some po-boy purists scoff at that sort of frippery--and, in fact, at the festival itself. Indeed, the most celebrated po-boy shop in town, Domilise's, doesn't participate. Nor does Guy's Po-Boys, an Uptown favorite run by Marvin Matherne for the past fifteen years. The festival, he complained, had a kind of "carnivalesque" atmosphere. "In that environment, I can't make a sandwich that will represent me, that I can put my name on," he said. He shook his head briefly, then returned to the task at hand: dressing a po-boy with a handful of shredded lettuce, which sat precariously atop a steaming mound of shrimp, perfectly grilled and spiced.