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What's Po-Boy to Do, but to Star in a Big Easy Fest, November 22, 2009

From John T. Edge in The New York Times: THIS month, New Orleans is having a party for the po’ boy.

At the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival on Nov. 22, as brass bands play and celebrators hoist drinks, serious-minded panelists will tell tales of long-lost po’ boy shops. They will speak of the import of this city’s signature sandwich, piled with roast beef and gravy or corn-flour-breaded and fried shrimp, slathered with mayonnaise, paved with sliced pickles and sliced tomatoes, strewn with shredded lettuce, wrapped in butcher paper.

Cooks, from restaurants as varied as Emeril’s and Jack Dempsey’s, will fry, stuff, dress and wrap for what is expected to be an overflow crowd.

And in what organizers are calling a French Bread Fight, a combatant portraying Jared Fogle, the calorie-conscious Subway pitchman, will square off against a combatant representing John Gendusa, the baker who, in 1929, fashioned the first modern New Orleans-style, French bread loaf, the base on which po’ boys have since been built.

If all goes the way it’s planned, as fragments of crust fly and a partisan crowd shouts, Mr. Gendusa will beat Mr. Fogle with a loaf of stale bread.

Such sturm and staging is good fun, but the sobering thought is this: If a sandwich needs a street festival, for which press coverage has been curried and stale bread weaponized, then that sandwich might be imperiled.

Po’ boy preservationists recognize a range of culprits, inside and outside the city limits.

A creeping monoculture is the most frequently cited threat, exemplified by chains like Subway and Quiznos, which are making inroads south of I-10.

Katherine Whann, who, along with her brother Sandy Whann, operates Leidenheimer Baking Company, the city’s dominant baker of po’ boy bread, frames the struggle in practical as well as cultural terms.

“Most po’ boy shops don’t have off-street parking,” she said, from a perch at Hermes Bar in the French Quarter, as she bit into an oysters Foch po’ boy, stuffed with fried oysters, smeared with pâté. “They don’t have advertising budgets. They don’t have Jared. But what they do have is a history in this place.”

A problem that’s more difficult — possibly reflecting a drop in expectations set by fast-food purveyors — is that the quality of some po’ boy shops has declined.

Of course, many still hew to tough standards.

The uptown stalwart Domilise’s Po-Boys, in business more than 75 years, cranks out textbook roast beef po’ boys and fried oyster po’ boys, cooking each batch of bivalves to order, and piling all on Leidenheimer bread, delivered twice daily.

At Zimmer’s Seafood, a working-class market established in 1980 in the city’s Gentilly neighborhood, the proprietor Charleen Zimmer buys Louisiana shrimp from her cousin. (Her husband, Craig Zimmer, works a shrimp boat, too.)

When a customer orders a fried shrimp po’ boy, she reaches first into a bin of iced shrimp, then for a coating of corn flour. And her bread could not be fresher, for Mrs. Zimmer buys sesame-seeded loaves from her neighbor, John Gendusa Bakery.

But a recent tour of old-guard makers found that some paradigmatic players, like Mother’s, a tourist favorite in the central business district, are not aging well.

In suburban Metairie, Radosta Grocery, a beloved checkered-cloth joint, still cooks top rounds for roast beef po’ boys. But Don Radosta, an owner, said slicing lettuce for sandwiches is now too laborious. Instead, he buys shredded iceberg, delivered in plastic-wrapped bundles. And he’s not alone.

Preservationists rail against the lowering of standards. In response, they’re setting standards of their own and, perhaps, kindling a renaissance.

Benjamin Wicks, proprietor of Mahony’s Po-Boy Shop on Magazine Street, open since the summer of 2008, is a raver and ranter with the heart of an old-timer. He makes money selling soft-shell crab po’ boys but also offers po’ boys made with liver cheese, a cold-cut analogue to liverwurst, to signal his respect for the sandwich’s Depression-era roots. New York Times Full Story

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