The po-boy purveyors of the Gulf South serve a vast variety of sandwiches. You’ve got your classic roast beef, often soaked in a bath of gravyFried shrimp and softshell crab are enduring favorites. Then you’ve got your hot sausage po-boy, your hamburger po-boy, or your basic sliced ham or turkey and cheese. Some places even serve a po-boy made with French fries and meaty gravy. And there are any number of combinations and lesser-known variants.
But for me, the king of po-boys will always be the fried oyster version. It’s always been my favorite. There’s something special about flash-frying fat, salty Gulf oysters, sealing in their flavor, and then piling them into a fresh po-boy loaf, with thinly sliced lettuce and tomato, pickle slices and a smear of mayo. Sometimes I add a dash of hot sauce, but more often, I don’t have the patience to tweak something that’s already thisclose to being perfect.
I know I’m not alone. And, in fact, the earliest known predecessors to the modern po-boy have one thing in common: their star ingredient, the mighty oyster.
Oysters are magical mollusks. They filter water. They create reefs that help slow coastal erosion and that minimize storm surge during hurricanes. In Louisiana, the oyster industry brings in hundreds of millions of dollars every year. And oysters have been a delicacy on the Gulf Coast for as long as there have been people here. These bivalves helped make our cuisine famous, and they are a mainstay on the menus of restaurants from Texas to Florida, and everywhere in between.
They also have a long history in sandwiches. The oyster loaf dates back to at least to the 1700swhen an edition of Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, the first cookbook published in America, provided this convoluted yet compelling recipe:
Take a quart of middling oysters, and wash them in their own liquor; then strain them through a flannel, and put them on the fire to warm; then take three quarters of a pint of gravy and put to the oysters, with a blade of mace, a little white pepper, a little horse-radish, a piece of lean bacon, and half a lemon; then stew them leisurely. Take three penny-loaves, and pick out the crumb clean; then take a pound of butter, and set on the fire in a sauce-pan that will hold the loaves, and when it is melted, take it off the fire, and let it settle; then pour off the clear, and set it on the fire again with the loaves in it, turning them about till you find them crisp; then put a pound of butter in a frying-pan, and with a dredging-box dust in flour till you find it of a reasonable thickness, then mix that and the oysters together; when they are stewed enough, take out the bacon, and put the oysters into the loaves; then put them into a dish, and garnish the loaves with the oysters you cannot get in, and with slices of lemon; and when you have thickened the liquor, squeeze in lemon to your taste; or you may fry the oysters with batter to garnish the loaves.
The oyster loaf’s first known mention in New Orleans came in an 1851newspaper ad that described hollowing out an entire loaf of bread, to fit in more oysters that would go into a loaf that had simply been cut in half lengthwise. But the interpretation of the modern oyster loaf depends on where you go. Many places simply call their oyster po-boy an oyster loaf. Others use sliced bread for a sandwich that they also call an oyster loaf.
Confusing things further is the peacemaker moniker. That name, a marketing gimmick, was first applied to an oyster sandwich served on a long loaf of bread in New Orleans. We’d recognize it as a grandfather of the po-boy today. The concept behind the peacemaker was that, when women were prohibited from patronizing the saloons of the city, they might be displeased that their husbands spent a great deal of time in those saloons. But their ire would be placated when their husbands came home with a piping hot oyster po-boy — it would bring about domestic peace.
Over the years, though, that definition has changed. Some places now call a sandwich that is half oyster, half shrimp a peacemaker, the thinking being that it offers a compromise to the discerning diner who has difficulty deciding between the two.
It can be confusing. There’s probably a punch line in development for a joke about an oyster po-boy, a peacemaker and an oyster loaf walking into a bar. But what’s clear is that whatever way you slice it, the oyster is right at home on a sandwich.