New Orleans Celebrates Its Favorite Sandwich at the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival

New Orleans may be a foodie haven, but it doesn’t get much better than this humble sandwich. During an annual festival, chefs get creative to celebrate it.

Lisa Romerein/Getty

On a street corner in New Orleans, three men in their late 20s—all wearing some variation of blue—look at each other without talking. A mass of people rush by them, but as with thousands of other people on Oak Street, the men just chew, savoring every bite. A musician in the brass band Bone Tones plays his trumpet in one hand and holds an Abita beer in the other as his group starts a second line down the street. They march past a local art shop selling the official poster of the 2013 Oak Street Po-Boy Festival, a drawing of an alligator sandwich in a nod to the fried alligator po-boys being sold this year.

Away from the commotion, Reyne Beatmann, 60, from nearby Mandeville isn’t worried about the crowd, just the stain on her coat. Her second po-boy of the day was to blame.

“The marinade’s juice was dripping down my coat,” says Beatmann. “And I don’t care. I’m going to clean it when I get home. It was so good.”

All around her, people wipe the corners of their mouths, enjoying their food just as much as she did. With each bite, they celebrate not just the po-boy sandwich, but its unique place in New Orleans history.

Founded in 2007, the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival, originally called the Po-Boy Preservation Festival, was organized in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was started out of a national trust for historic preservation program as an initiative to help rejuvenate the city’s culture. In most food-obsessed cities, a sandwich with a working class name might get overlooked. But not in New Orleans. In this city, a common sandwich gets an entire festival in its honor.

The po-boy traces its roots back to the New Orleans streetcar labor union strike in 1929. During the strike, brothers Clovis and Bennie Martin owned a small coffee shop and restaurant in the French Market. To show their solidarity with the strikers, the Martins gave their union brothers free sandwiches. Bennie Martin is quoted referring to the strikers as “poor boys,” most likely engendering the sandwich’s name. To fill demand, the Martins collaborated with baker John Gendusa who developed a 40-inch loaf of French bread to reduce waste. Today, the po-boy is an 85-year-old staple that symbolizes the city’s resiliency. Around 10,000 people attended the first festival, but the number ballooned to nearly 50,000 people last year.

“We’re trying to get people to think of the sandwiches more than just a few times a year,” said Dr. Michael Mizell-Nelson, associate history professor at the University of New Orleans, who helped organize the festival and runs the preservation panels. “We want people to keep in mind that it’s small business history.”

Few people know more about the sandwich’s resiliency and history than Jason Gendusa, a fourth generation baker from the po-boy bread originating family. After Katrina, his family’s bakery was submerged in nearly eight feet of water. But now, thanks in part to grants and preservation efforts, the bakery is thriving.

“When people come from out of town they always want to try a poor boy sandwich,” Gendusa says. “The sandwich is something you can’t get anywhere else than New Orleans.”

Gendusa, who has early memories of playing GI Joes in flour at his family’s bakery, says the po-boy bread is unique to the city and cannot be replicated in any other city, not even Baton Rouge, about 80 miles from New Orleans. Companies in other states have collaborated with the John Gendusa Bakery to try and re-create the famous bread, but each attempt has failed. He cites the city’s weather and water as the winning combination. A key ingredient to French bread is steam, and it doesn’t get much steamier than the Mississippi River.

“The bread is like an artist’s canvas,” he says. “Once you’ve got the bread, you can put anything on it.”

When it comes to the sandwich’s filling, the festival’s nearly 42 vendors run with their wild culinary visions. Ninja, a stop that caused a minor blockade on Oak Street, serves one of the most experimental po-boys—a sashimi creation.

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“I just ate a softshell crab po-boy,” says Irvine Blackburn, from New Orleans. “I plan to get shrimp as well as the catfish and also the roast beef.” Visiting from Virginia, Joan Jacobs, who says she’s over 60, ate her first ever po-boy, pulled pork from Blue Oak barbecue. “The bread’s what makes it—the crusty outside and the chewy inside,” says Kirby, who tried a barbecue shrimp sandwich from Pascal’s Manale. Gabrielle Taper, 19, sat next to her two teenage friends and nibbled on crawfish and Andouille, a type of sausage made from pork.

Most people on Oak Street could be heard calling the sandwich a “po-boy,” a colloquial contraction, and would probably brand anyone who refers to it as a “poor boy” as an out-of-towner. But some of the more old-school aficionados—like Beatmann and Gendusa—often still prefer “poor boy,” as it originally appeared on the Martin brother’s menu. The two letter distinction may seem trivial, but heated discussions—one of which occurred during a Po-Boy Festival panel in 2007—have erupted over the sandwich’s name. No matter what they call it, though, most sandwich eaters likely all agree on this: a po-boy tastes like New Orleans, and that’s pretty damn good.

After eating a shrimp remoulade po-boy, Mindy Marengo, 32, waits in line with her husband and three-and-a-half-year old son to try a smoked sandwich at Boucherie, one of the event’s longest queues. Boucherie looks intimidating and has a line that extends far enough down a side street that the crowd almost seems too distant to hear. The twenty-minute line, though, moves jazz-music fast. Boucherie serves a doner po-boy with garlic sauce—the same sandwich that caused Beatmann’s mess.

One bite of this sandwich—and the others served at the festival—is enough to make the mess worth it. After all, they are not only delicious, they also represent a piece of the city.

“The poor boy sandwich is part of our history and our culture,” says Gendusa. “It’s something you tie to New Orleans.”