Po-Boys & Muffulettas – A Brief History

7 Aug

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In preparation for our New Orleans dining adventure, I was doing a little research on some of the city’s culinary traditions. I found these interesting tidbits on the web site for the world famous Leidenheimer Bakery, makes of the finest breads for po-boys and muffulettas.

During the early years of the 20th century, two brothers, Benny and Clovis Martin, migrated to New Orleans from rural Raceland, Louisiana. When the Martins first reached the city, they found employment as streetcar conductors. Later, they opened a sandwich shop near the French Market and made a culinary discovery: if they concocted sandwiches out of the traditional loaf of French bread, with its tapered ends, the resulting sandwiches would vary in size. The solution was relatively simple: the modern, more or less symmetrical po-boy loaf, which could be cut into equal size sandwiches.

As for the name, during the late 1920’s, the New Orleans streetcar conductors went on strike. The Martins vowed to feed their striking brethren for free. When one of the strikers entered their shop, the call went out: “Here comes anther po-boy!”

The ingredients that go on a po-boy are virtually limitless, depending on one’s imagination: hot roast beef with gravy, ham and cheese (known in New Orleans as a “combination”), fried seafood (oysters, shrimp, softshell crabs, catfish), hot sausage, meatballs–even French fries. When the New Orleans po-boy is “dressed,” the reference has nothing to do with fashion: “dressed” in New Orleans nomenclature means that lettuce, tomatoes, and mayonnaise are added. Po-boys are the great equalizers of New Orleans culture, consumed by workingmen, bankers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, Mardi Gras Indian chiefs, and Carnival Kings. What the finest po-boys have in common is bread baked by Leidenheimer, “Good to the last Crumb” since 1896.

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The muffuletta is an Italian-style sandwich invented by Salvatore Lupo in 1906 at Central Grocery in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The origins of the name are vague. Some sources say that it was named after one of Lupo’s best customers: others believe that the name refers to the distinctive round sesame seed-coated bread. What’s unanimous is that the muffuletta is one of the tastiest of all New Orleans culinary creations.

The traditional New Orleans muffuletta is stuffed with ham, salami, various cheeses and marinated olive salad. Muffuletta variations include seafood, turkey, and even a vegetarian version, with grilled eggplant substituted for the meat. The key ingredient is the bread, which has to remain crusty despite the onslaught of melted cheese and olive oil. For this reason, master muffuletta makers demand bread baked by Leidenheimer. www.leidenheimer.com

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