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A Brief History of the Po' Boy Sandwich

By Edited Oct 6, 2015 0 0

How the Po' Boy was born

An unlikely origin

As it turns out, unions have given us more than the 40-hour workweek, vacations and sick leave; they are also responsible for one of the greatest culinary inventions of modern time: the po' boy.  Although there is more than one origin story for the iconic sandwich, the most compelling version involves a strike by the Carmen's Union, a brotherhood of New Orleans streetcar workers, against New Orleans Public Service, Incorporated (NOPSI) in the summer of 1929.  NOPSI operated the streetcars where they worked, and the motormen and conductors had been negotiating for better wages and working conditions.   Talks continued throughout the spring but finally broke down in June, and the workers went on strike on July 1.

The strike would last until October of that year and resulted in damage and hardship for both labor and the transit company.  NOPSI attempted to provide alternative transportation on Canal Street to Uptown in the form of "jitney" buses in order to retain some semblance of service.  Striking workers set fire to a number of cars, damaged rails and overturned one streetcar in the area now known as One Canal Place.  It is estimated that the company lost as many as four million riders during the strike compounding the problems caused by the destruction of property.  Riders were inconvenienced, but the strikers were generally supported by public sentiment.

The months-long ordeal was a setback for the transit company, and was a painful economic episode for the workers.  Many of the strikers could not even afford to buy their lunch; furthermore, they did not want to leave the picket sites unattended as they looked for food.  Fortunately for them, help arrived when two brothers stepped up to help the picketers.  Bennie and Clovis Martin had a particular affinity for the transit workers because they had both worked as motormen after arriving to New Orleans in 1910.  Later, they became restaurateurs and by the time of the strike they were in a position to help their friends by providing sustenance during the long, hot days of that summer. 

The Martin brothers contacted a local baker, John Gendusa, and asked him to create a longer, narrower loaf than they had been using.  They took the loaves, cut them down the middle, loaded them with fried potatoes and beef gravy, and delivered the foot-long sandwiches to the "poor boys" on strike.  The term was later shortened to "po' boys" and given to the sandwiches instead of the workers.  Thus was born one of the classic dishes of New Orleans.  Modern versions feature much more than the plain fillings introduced by the Martins.  Fried fish and oysters are popular offerings, and the roast beef po' boy is one of the great creations of modern time. 

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