The Origin and Evolution of the Po’Boy Sandwich: A Culinary Icon

The po’boy sandwich, a beloved culinary creation of New Orleans, holds a special place in American food history. Its humble beginnings and unique characteristics have captivated taste buds and sparked curiosity for decades. This comprehensive guide delves into the fascinating story of the po’boy, exploring its origins, variations, and enduring popularity.

The Birth of the Po’Boy: A Tale of Solidarity

The po’boy sandwich traces its roots back to the heart of New Orleans in 1929. Amidst the city’s vibrant streetcar culture, a labor strike by the Electric Street Railway employees unfolded. In a gesture of solidarity, the Martin brothers, proprietors of Martin Brothers’ French Market and Coffee Stand, offered free sandwiches to the striking workers.

These sandwiches, generously filled with fried potatoes, gravy, and roast beef on French bread, became a symbol of support and sustenance for the strikers. The Martin brothers’ compassionate act earned them the moniker “poor boys,” a term that affectionately described the struggling workers.

From “Poor Boy” to “Po’Boy”: A Culinary Transformation

As the popularity of the Martin brothers’ sandwiches grew, the name “poor boy” underwent a subtle transformation. The apostrophe, a linguistic quirk unique to New Orleans, was added to create “po’boy,” a term that captured the sandwich’s humble origins and its enduring appeal.

Variations and Innovations: A Culinary Tapestry

The po’boy sandwich, while rooted in tradition, has evolved over the years to embrace a wide range of variations. Seafood, a cornerstone of New Orleans cuisine, has taken center stage in many po’boy creations. Shrimp, crab, and oysters, with their fresh flavors and nutritional value, have become popular fillings.

Other variations include:

  • Fried Chicken Po’Boy: Crispy fried chicken tenders nestled in a fluffy French bread roll.

  • Roast Beef Po’Boy: Thinly sliced roast beef, often topped with gravy and debris, a flavorful meat mixture.

  • Vegetarian Po’Boy: A plant-based alternative featuring grilled vegetables, tofu, or tempeh.

The Po’Boy’s Enduring Legacy: A Culinary Treasure

The po’boy sandwich has transcended its humble beginnings to become an iconic symbol of New Orleans and a beloved culinary creation enjoyed far beyond the city limits. Its versatility, affordability, and delicious taste have captivated food enthusiasts for generations.

Today, the po’boy stands as a testament to the resilience and creativity of the New Orleans spirit. It is a culinary treasure that continues to delight taste buds and bring people together over shared meals.

What is a Po-Boy?

Despite being straightforward—a sandwich on a half loaf of bread usually made with basic ingredients—a po-boy is a favorite among Louisiana cuisine enthusiasts, and for good reason!

But what really is a po-boy? Well, it’s a sandwich that can be made with a wide variety of fillings, as long as traditional po-boy bread is used. Po-boy bread is a French bread loaf, but the bread is made a little differently. It’s typically made with less flour and more water than a traditional baguette, which results in a loaf that is lighter, fluffier, and less chewy. This variation on the traditional baguette recipe was developed during the 1700s as a result of the humid climate of the Gulf South, which made it difficult to grow wheat. Wheat was imported, but this was very expensive, so bakers found ways to make less flour last longer by creating their variation of baguettes.

Nowadays, po-boy fillings come in a wide variety from Louisiana to other places, but classic fillings include shrimp, oysters, catfish, soft-shell crabs, and even ham and cheese. Our menu at Felix’s BBQ With Soul includes po-boys stuffed with shrimp, andouille sausage, catfish with cheese, and Chicago-style sausage. Of course, these are served with fries on the side!

How Po-Boys Got Their Name

The most commonly told story of the origin of po-boys two brothers named Benny and Clovis Martin and their French Market Restaurant and Coffee Stand.

After relocating from Raceland, Louisiana to New Orleans in the middle of the 1910s, Benny and Clovis worked as streetcar conductors until opening their restaurant in 1922. A significant factor in the invention of the po-boy sandwich was the brothers’ experience as streetcar conductors and their prior membership in the street railway employees’ union.

The story goes that this sandwich, which the Martin brothers served to striking workers during the 1929 streetcar strike, earned the nickname “poor boy” or “po-boy.” The Martin brothers sent a letter expressing their support, saying, “Our meal is free to any members of Division 194”. But this letter refrained from using the terms “poor boy” or “po-boy” or even from mentioning that the free lunch provided to striking employees would be a sandwich.

For a few reasons, New Orleans historians are not totally persuaded by the Martin brothers’ account of the 1929 strike. This story has a lot of contradictions, like the fact that local newspapers didn’t report it for 40 years after the strike happened. Furthermore, the Martin brothers presented an entirely different account of how the poor boy was invented prior to 1969, one in which they made the sandwich for farmers, dock workers, and other “poor boys” who came to their restaurant.

The term “po-boy” is thought to have originated from the French phrase “pour bourre,” which means “for tips.” According to this version of events, in the late 1800s, Ursuline nuns gave beggars the tips of their French bread loaves. However, given that there is no proof of a link between “pour bourre” and “poor boy,” this story seems implausible.

How The Po’Boy Became a New Orleans Obsession — How We Eat


What does po-boy mean?

A po’ boy (also po-boy, po boy derived from the non-rhotic southern accents often heard in the region, or poor boy) is a sandwich originally from Louisiana. It traditionally consists of meat, which is usually roast beef, ham, or fried seafood such as shrimp, crawfish, fish, oysters, or crab.

What is the difference between a sub and a po-boy?

Though the sandwich is New Orleans’ take on the sub/torpedo/hoagie/hero/grinder style of sandwich, the fillings of a po’ boy are generally hot–fried seafood or shredded roast beef in gravy–accompanied by remoulade, tomato and lettuce, sometimes pickle, on a crusty section of baguette.

What’s the difference between a po-boy and a muffuletta?

Po boys usually have lettuce, tomatoes and etc. A traditional muffuletta consists of one muffuletta loaf, split horizontally. The loaf is then covered with a marinated olive salad, then layers of capicola, salami, pepperoni, emmentaler, Ham and provolone.

What was the po-boy in the 1920s?

It is widely believed that the Po’boy was invented in the 1920s by the Martin brothers, two former tram drivers who wanted to support a tram strike. The brothers decided to give free sandwiches to the “poor guys” who went on strike, and the sandwiches quickly became popular with others as well.

Why is it called po’ boy?

Its name, “po’ boy,” is thought to have originated from the term “poor boy.” Legend has it that the name was given to this iconic sandwich during the 1929 streetcar strike when the Martin brothers, Bennie and Clovis, former streetcar conductors, opened a sandwich shop to support the striking workers.

Why is a po’ boy so popular?

As it turns out, the classic po’ boy gained its unique place in American culinary history as a result of a difficult time. Originally known as a “poor boy” sandwich, its history dates back to 1929 during the Great Depression. At this time, New Orleans streetcar conductors went on strike.

Where did the term ‘poor boy’ come from?

A popular local theory claims that the term “poor boy” (later “po’ boy”, etc.), specifically referring to a type of sandwich, was coined in a New Orleans restaurant owned by Benjamin (“Benny”) and Clovis Martin, former streetcar conductors originally from Raceland, Louisiana. The Martins established their eatery in 1921.

Why is it called a ‘po’ boy’ in New Orleans?

The name was eventually shortened to “po’ boy” in typical New Orleans vernacular, and thus, the po’ boy was born. Ultimately, the delicious creation symbolized the generosity and camaraderie of the Martin brothers and the resilient spirit of New Orleans.

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