The line at Parkway Bakery and Tavern stretched 20 people long on NFL Opening Day 2010, but it only took ten minutes to get to the front and order a sandwich.
“Regular french fry po-boy with gravy.”
The guy taking orders looked at me. “That’s a big sandwich. You sure?”
“Just the regular size, right?” I said to confirm he heard me, a little wary that I was getting my 140-pound frame into trouble.
“Big sandwich,” he repeated ominously.
Five minutes later I had my sandwich wrapped and ready to eat.
The Golden Fried Potato Po-boy (a.k.a. french fry po-boy) at Parkway Bakery and Tavern is a hot mess of sandwich. When the Commander in Chief visited New Orleans in late-August for the fifth anniversary of Katrina, he and the First Lady opted for shrimp, which was a good choice because it’s hard to imagine the President – or anyone for that matter – handling the sandwich with grace.
The gravy (optional for an extra dollar) soaks through the lower half of the French bread, and when you finish eating you may feel like you’ve just strangled a greasy dishrag. A delicious greasy dishrag. The French fries form one massive starchy conglomerate thanks to the gravy and the dressing. And while gravy may sound like a strange topping, it actually includes a significant amount of debris and might be more accurately described as roast beef.
University of New Orleans Professor of History Michael Mizell-Nelson wrote the definitive history of the po-boy in his piece “French Bread” which was included in the Susan Tucker-edited New Orleans Cuisine – Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories. He examines many of the alleged origins, including the one that I was vaguely familiar with – the idea that nuns from the Ursuline Convent gave French bread to beggars, “poor boys,” in the French Market.
This is likely untrue, and Mizell-Nelson treats it as an attempt by some to connect the po-boy to an older, more French origin. The term “poor boy” was actually coined in the 20th century at a single coffee shop that also had a hand in the evolution of the po-boy’s bread. Bennie and Clovis Martin opened Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant in 1922, and eventually they asked their bread supplier, John Gendusa Bakery, to create a loaf of French bread that didn’t require the shortened ends to be lopped off and discarded. Thus, a longer, more even loaf of bread. The Martins were also streetcar conductors, and during the 1929 transit strikes, they offered free meals for strikers, whom they referred to as “poor boys.”
French fry po-boys are often cited as an example of the sandwich’s impoverished origins, but Mizell-Nelson notes that this is “akin to gilding the fleur de lis. The sandwich name itself denotes poverty, so one need not exaggerate by insisting that a starch sandwich was the ur-poor boy” (50).
In fact, the potato po-boy was not the ultimate cheap sandwich:
Rather than the potato, the overripe-banana poor boy better symbolized poverty in the city whose longshoremen off-loaded thousands of tons of the fruit each year. School children who unwrapped a banana sandwich “dressed” with mayonnaise at lunchtime immediately identified themselves as poor. (50)
Mizell-Nelson has provided an abridged version of his history to the 2010 New Orleans Po-boy Preservation Festival, which is this upcoming Sunday, November 14 on Oak Street. There’s even a link to the Martin Brothers’ original letter promising their support to the strikers.
Parkway will be serving a slow-roasted chuck roast po-boy, however, so if you’re interested in trying a legendary French fry loaf, you’ll have to visit their location in Mid-City. Parkway originally opened as a bakery in 1920, but it closed in the 90s and was reopened under new ownership in 2003. Local food critic Tom Fitzmorris’ review is here.
538 Hagan Avenue, NOLA 70119