The so-called poor boy (po-boy) sandwich originated from the Martin Brothers' French Market Restaurant and Coffee Stand in New Orleans during the 1929 streetcar strike.
Poor boy sandwiches, commonly known as “po-boys,” represent bedrock New Orleans culinary culture—in effect, the shotgun house of New Orleans cuisine. Celebrated as the Gulf Coast version of a submarine sandwich, the simple but satisfying po-boy outshines other examples of regional meals that were prepared primarily for laborers. The sandwich is as diverse as the city it symbolizes. The crisp, French bread loaves have served as a culinary crossroads, encasing the most pedestrian and exotic of foods: shrimp, oyster, catfish, soft-shell crabs, and fried eggplant as well as French fries and ham and cheese. Comfort food in other cities seldom exhibits such breadth.
Feeding the “Poor Boys”
Sandwiches served on French bread had existed previously, but the so-called poor boy sandwich originated in 1929 at the Martin Brothers’ French Market Restaurant and Coffee stand. After moving from Raceland, Louisiana, Benny and Clovis Martin had worked as streetcar conductors in New Orleans in the mid-1910s. They opened their restaurant in 1922. Years of transit service and former membership in the street railway employees’ union led to their hole-in-the-wall coffee stand becoming the birthplace of the poor boy sandwich. The term “poor boy” was first applied to the sandwich during the 1929 streetcar strike, and it began appearing in newspapers and on menus in the early 1930s. The new name displaced the older terms for large sandwiches—“loaf” and “loaves”—though a few of the oldest New Orleans restaurants retain the original terms.
Following increasingly heated contract negotiations, New Orleans streetcar motormen and conductors struck on July 1, 1929. The survival of the carmen’s union and 1,100 jobs was in question as the union battled management over control of the workplace; wages were not the issue. Transit strikes throughout the United States provoked emotional displays of public support, and the 1929 strike ranks among the nation’s most violent examples. For two weeks, crowds prevented the streetcars from being run by criminals imported as “strikebreakers.” The many support letters from businesses offering material goods and other aid included one from the Martin Brothers. It declared, “Our meal is free to any members of Division 194.” Their letter concluded with, “We are with you till h–l freezes, and when it does, we will furnish blankets to keep you warm.”
Seeking to maintain a promise made to 1,100 men and their families, the Martins conferred with their bread supplier, John Gendusa, to create a new loaf especially designed for making several large sandwiches. Originally forty inches long, the loaf was striking because of its length and its new, uniform shape. Previously, most sandwiches were made using the traditional, much shorter baguette loaf, which bulged in the middle and tapered on the ends. The latter pieces, lopped off when making sandwiches, were mainly used to accompany plate lunches. The special loaf was an industrial-era innovation that allowed the Martins to keep feeding the strikers inexpensive sandwiches made of cheaper cuts of meat. The new loaf was literally a “special” order for the Martins. That original term, “special,” still appears on John Gendusa Bakery bread sleeves.
Now about thirty to thirty-two inches in length, the “poor boy loaf” is only one of the changes made to French bread in the city’s history. Poor boy sandwiches are emblematic of the Creolization expressed through New Orleans foods. By the mid-1800s, German and Austrian bakers dominated the baking trade in New Orleans; they altered the traditional French bread into a New Orleans variant characterized by a much lighter loaf with a crisp crust. The first “poor boy” loaves were baked by African Americans toiling in a bakery run by an Italian immigrant who supplied Cajun restaurateurs in the French Market. This cycle continues. The recent advent of Vietnamese cuisine in the city has caused most Louisiana residents to rebrand what most Americans know as the bánh mì sandwich as a “Vietnamese po-boy.”
The term “poor boy” likely was applied ironically because the striking street railway workers had been among the highest-paid workers in the city since unionizing in 1902. Restaurant owners and customers were careful to use the term “poor boy” when referring to the strikers and the sandwich; they were distinguishing between these newly impoverished workers and the traditional vagrants—likely called “po’ boys” at times—who were often seen begging for food around the French Market and other downtown neighborhoods. Destitute black and white “po-boys” received handouts that may have included stale bread loaves rendered palatable with a ladle of roast beef “debris.” Some accounts elide these two scenarios and describe the streetcar workers receiving handouts via the back kitchen door. “Po-boys” relied on handouts, but these “poor boys” were treated as vanquished heroes following their “lost cause” battle against the transit and utility service monopoly.
The 1929 defeat experienced by the most visible representatives of the city’s unionized workers took place as the city’s longshoremen and other trade unionists also lost ground. The sight of the former members of the “aristocracy of labor” carrying large sandwiches home to their families amounted to free advertising for the charitable Martin Brothers. Within a couple of years, they had relocated to a much larger space on St. Claude Avenue at Touro Street, placing the restaurant less than three blocks from the Gendusa Bakery. The Martins continued to treat the poor boys well, but the move from the working class quarters to a main street location meant that African American customers were now officially discriminated against. Photographs depict black customers dining in the French Market stall; those same customers were required to endure “colored” window service in the new location.
The lengthy, unresolved strike, along with the sandwich, accompanied New Orleans into the Great Depression. Imitators of all sorts sprang up as the sandwich and its name spread throughout the city, state, and much of the Gulf Coast. The Martins employed almost forty waiters and waitresses, and remained open twenty-four hours a day. A sixty-five-car parking lot was often filled, so cars regularly parked on side streets and were served by carhops. To prepare their specialty—roast beef poor boys—the Martins bought between twelve and twenty-two head of cattle at a time and employed their own butchers. They also made their own mayonnaise. Children in the 1930s, including the late New Orleans Fire Department Superintendent Bill McCrossen, insisted, “You could get a sandwich anywhere, but you could only get a poor boy at Martin Brothers.” The Martins opened a few restaurants in other parts of the city, but these venues closed eventually. Their most famous location moved a block away to 1940 St. Claude and closed permanently in 1973.
Debate over the Name
Controversy over the origins of the term “poor boy” surfaces frequently now that most who remember the 1929 strike have passed away. A popular legend of the strikers being fed French-fry po-boy sandwiches still circulates—how insulting it would have been to feed these former union brothers potatoes with gravy on bread escapes notice. Further, in a 1949 interview, Benny Martin cited the French-fry poor boy as a recent aberration favored by teenagers. Most of the original po-boys featured cheaper cuts of meat.
Some argue that the term “poor boy” was a corruption of the phrase pour bourre, which translates as “for tips.” This story maintains that Ursuline nuns gave the tips of their French bread loaves to beggars in the late 1800s. Indeed the sisters as well as many others provided handouts to the poor; however, no documentary evidence to suggest that New Orleanians were ordering “poor boy” or “pour bourre” sandwiches has turned up in any newspaper articles or restaurant menus from this period.
The poor boy sandwich represents a rooted connection to a familiar corner grocery or bar or restaurant—the establishments that served almost all the poor boy sandwiches consumed in the city. The sandwich also symbolizes the lengthy arc of decline in status suffered by organized workers in the city from the mid-1900s on.
The term encompassed both white and black working-class New Orleans. The contracted form, “po’ boy” or “po-boy,” was spoken by many from the outset, but most white New Orleanians, well aware of the sandwich’s origins, refused to use the informal term. Restaurant menus and signs maintained the original spelling until the 1970s, when the shortened form began to predominate. Some white racists mined comedy from the sound of African Americans pronouncing the poor boy name as “po’ boy”; however, the informal version functioned as a form of class and race minstrelsy because the term could also serve to ridicule poorly educated white New Orleanians whose speech closely resembled that of their black neighbors.
The shift from “poor boy” to “po-boy” in print as well as conversation started when counter-cultural white college students in the late 1960s and 1970s began to both celebrate and denigrate the city’s working class. Local media, particularly newspaper journalists, began to portray white working-class New Orleanians in almost minstrel terms. Now termed “Yats,” they had long been the butt of jokes based on dialect; by the 1970s, however, working-class whites had become the favored target for abuse after it had become less acceptable to demean blacks in print. Its multiple meanings as both racial slur and commemoration of white working-class, union heritage exemplify the interconnectedness of race in New Orleans working-class neighborhoods.
Many locals enjoy debates over whether to call the sandwich a po-boy or a poor boy, but despite Louisianans’ professed love for the local delicacy, other franchise sandwich restaurants continue to gain ground throughout the region. The New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival (now Oak Street Po-Boy Festival) launched in 2007; the festival has brought more attention to the delicacy for at least one day each year, but the lure of cheap food continues to eat away at the po-boy customer base.