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Monday, November 16, 2009

The Origins of the Poor, Poor Po'Boy.

Is there any food with a more mysterious name than the po'boy? Today, while reading an article in the New York Times about how New Orleans po'boys are disappearing (NOOOOO! SAVE THE PO'BOYS!), I discovered the origin of the sandwich's name.

First though, I'd already checked the Oxford English Dictionary for clues to the po'boy's meaning, and found this:

[< PO' adj. + BOY n.1 Compare POOR BOY n.]

More fully po' boy sandwich. A type of sandwich, originating in New Orleans, consisting of a hollowed-out French loaf variously filled with oysters, prawns, meat and gravy, etc. Cf. POOR BOY n.

Ok, sounds delicious. If you're not familiar with the OED, one of the more fascinating features is the Quotations portion of each entry (in both the print and the online resources). This lists the first time the word or phrase was used in print -- which, if you think about it, is kind of amazing. Think of the team of folks it takes to track this stuff down! Anyway, I was amused by the source of the po'boy's first printed form (and the rest of them for that matter):

1932 New Orleans Classified Telephone Directory 108/2 Po Boi Sandwich Shoppe Inc. 1951 N.Y. Herald Tribune 4 July 7/8 The beginning of the Po' Boy sandwich we credited to a sandwich shop in New Orleans. 1978 C. TRILLIN Alice, let's Eat 166 Three hours after we had arrived..I was settled under a tree, almost too full to finish my second hot-sausage po' boy. 1984 P. PRUDHOMME Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen x. 268, I think they're superb on sandwiches; we use them on our po boy sandwiches made with French bread and various fillings. 2003 Time Out N.Y. 3 Apr. 35/4 New Orleans raised chef Richard Pierce is serving po'boys and jambalaya at this new restaurant.

I am a big fan of the OED, and browse it for fun more often than you should know about. I have never seen a telephone directory used as a print source, but hey, it works.

This brings us to the article I read this afternoon. Allow me to quote at length from "Saving New Orleans Culture, One Sandwich at a Time":

That’s where Michael Mizell-Nelson, a University of New Orleans historian, came in.

Researching a violent 1929 streetcar strike, during which 1,100 members of the Amalgamated Association of Electric Street Railway Employees walked off their jobs, Dr. Mizell-Nelson confirmed how the sandwiches acquired their name and their form.

Similar sandwiches existed before the strike, Dr. Mizell-Nelson learned. And the term “poor boy” was already in use, applied to, among other groups, orphaned children.

But in 1929 a sandwich called the poor boy was something new. Fashioned to be wider, to accommodate generous and equitable slices from a loaf, the bread was first baked by John Gendusa at the request of the New Orleans restaurateurs Bennie and Clovis Martin. (Today, Jason Gendusa, great-grandson of the founder, still works the ovens at John Gendusa Bakery, playing a feisty David to the Goliath that is Leidenheimer.)

The Martins were onetime streetcar workers who, at the height of the strike, pledged to feed their former colleagues at their sandwich and coffee stand. “Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming,” Bennie Martin later recalled, “one of us would say, ‘Here comes another poor boy.’ ”

Over time, by way of various elisions, both vernacular and purposeful, po’ boy or po-boy became the widely accepted renderings of poor boy. In the process, as vowels and consonants were swallowed, the roots of the sandwich were, too.

Mystery solved! Now who's going to go get me a shrimp po'boy with a side of fries?


  1. Now the question is where do you get a good po'boy in Jackson?

  2. Que Sera Sera has a pretty good one, but that's the only one that comes to mind.


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