Skip to content

Poor Boy. Po’ boy. Po-Boy. Oh, boy…

What's in a name? The poor boy sandwich, also known simply as a po' boy or po-boy, has its origins in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. The sandwich has a rich history that dates back to the 1920s.

The term "poor boy" is said to have originated during a streetcar strike in 1929. Two brothers, Benny and Clovis Martin, who were former streetcar conductors, opened a sandwich shop in the French Market. To show support for the striking streetcar workers, they offered free sandwiches to the unemployed men. Legend has it that when one of the brothers saw a hungry striker coming, he would say, "Here comes another poor boy," and the name stuck. It ultimately caught on and became a staple of New Orleans casual dining fare.

By some accounts, Benny and Clovis Martin had already been selling such sandwiches for years prior, but the streetcar strike story appears stuck in the collective local consciousness.

In the years that followed, the local vernacular being what it is, the name morphed to a lazily-spoken "po' boy". Some restaurateurs even printed it (and still do) on menus and signage as "Po-Boy". The originally-coined name is barely seen in print, let alone spoken. While you may hear the long, French loaf used referred to as poor boy bread, a sandwich made with it is rarely called that.

In fact, it would almost seem the number of people insisting on the original "poor boy" being the sandwich's one, true name is confined to a single local food writer. Call it anything else within earshot of same at your peril.

The true po' boy sandwich is made with French bread, which is light and airy with a crispy crust. It is usually filled with a variety of ingredients, such as roast beef, fried seafood (shrimp, oysters, or catfish), ham and cheese, or sausage.

Ham po' boys can be served cold or grilled hot, and the best shops offer it both ways.

Sausage usually means one of three: smoked, Italian or hot. Hot sausage can be had in either link or patty form; better shops offer both.

Almost anything can be made into a po' boy, hamburger patties, chicken fried steak and Italian meatballs come to mind, the latter served with a copious amount of red gravy (local-speak for marinara) and topped with Provolone cheese.

Sometimes seen offered is a budget version made with french fries and roast beef gravy.

One popular variation of the po' boy is the "debris" sandwich, which features shredded roast beef and the flavorful drippings from the cooking process. Another well-known version is the "peacemaker," a po' boy with both fried oysters and shrimp.

Most po' boy shops will have a "special" with a unique name on the menu, however, it is most often observed to be just a combination of ham, roast beef and Swiss cheese, perhaps with the addition of some Creole mustard.

The roast beef po' boy is the standard by which all are judged. The meat must be slow-cooked to fall-apart tender, the gravy rich and garlicky. The sloppier, the better. The best are rated by how many napkins are needed to completely finish the sandwich.

The standard po' boy is twelve inches long. Some shops have reduced that length over time, but anything less than nine or ten inches offered as a full-size po' boy is frowned upon.

For the lighter appetite, half po' boys are also typically offered, and better shops make them an inch or more longer than half of a full-size.

Not often seen these days is the "whole loaf" po' boy, made on an entire, almost three-foot long loaf. Koz's in Harahan still does them, as did its predecessor Po-boy Bakery.

Some shops offer their po' boys on a version of the bread encrusted with sesame seeds. Those that do will usually offer the traditional, un-seeded bread on request.

Pro-tip: When ordering a po' boy, you will typically be asked if you want it "dressed". That simply means do you want shredded lettuce, sliced tomato and sometimes dill pickle chips added. Some would also consider mayonnaise as part of "dressed". Although most shops don't charge extra for it, some do, usually to the tune of an extra 50 cents.

Trivia: Mother's, on Poydras Avenue in the Central Business District, uses shredded cabbage instead of lettuce to dress its po' boys.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *