By some accounts, the history of the po-boy is straightforward. Benny and Clovis Martin, who had moved to New Orleans from their hometown of Raceland, came up with the famous sandwich to support striking streetcar workers in the Crescent City in 1929. Legend has it that, when one of the men would come into their restaurant, a cry would ring out: “Here comes another poor boy.” That man would be issued a sandwich on the house, and a culinary legend was born.
That’s the best-known story, anyway — or at least since the late 1960s, when it was first aired publicly, 40 years after the streetcar strike. Prior to that, the Martin brothers gave a different account of how they had created the po-boy, saying it had been named for the blue-collar truck farmers and other laborers who patronized their restaurant at the old French Market.
That’s just one of the complications with this official history. There’s also the fact that we know there were sandwiches very similar to the po-boy long before 1929. We have pictures and descriptions of them. Louis Armstrong, who moved away from New Orleans in 1922, wrote in his autobiography about buying po-boys with his earnings from delivering coal as a teenager; jazz pioneer Sidney Bechet, who left New Orleans in 1917, gave a similar account in his own autobiography. (A note to language sticklers: The first specific published reference to the sandwich, from a New Orleans newspaper in November 1929, describes a “po-boy,” not a “poor boy,” being served to people in Plaquemines Parish.)
The peacemaker, now considered a po-boy variant, dates back to the 1870s. And then there’s this description from a New Orleans newspaper in 1851 of a to-go sandwich sold by a local saloon: “A big loaf of bread is ‘dug out’ — reserving a crust end as a stop — any quantity of delicious fried or broiled oysters is piled in; the top is neatly put on; and a gentleman can carry home his loaf and his ‘dozen’ — all hot — or have them brought home, for a lunch or a relish to dinner…”
But hey, I’m not here to start an argument. Maybe there was a popular food product known as a po-boy before the Martin brothers began slinging sandwiches in the late 1920s, but it would have lacked the most important ingredient: the po-boy bread created by John Gendusa’s bakery and supplied to the Martins starting in 1929. Without that bread, with a sublime crust and billowy soft inside, a sandwich is just a sandwich.
So, while it may be fair to say the Martin brothers didn’t singlehandedly create the po-boy, they certainly perfected and standardized it, and they made it famous. They recognized the marketing possibilities afforded by the po-boy name, and they made sure it stuck. What is now recognized around the world as a po-boy comes directly from them. So the next time you bite into a po-boy, remember that you’re tasting a piece of history.