Friday, October 14, 2011

I Ate WHAT??

I ate WHAT???...

Last year, my friend, Terese, came in town for her first visit to New Orleans from California.  Being an avid lover of all things New Orleanian, she had a “to-do” list of things she wanted to experience during her trip.  The list read as follows:
·         Eat Jambalaya

·         Eat a Shrimp Po-Boy

·         Eat a Roast Beef Po-boy

·         Eat Crawfish Etouffee

·         Eat a Hubigs Pie

·         Eat Red Beans and Rice

·         Eat Beignets

·         Drink a Hurricane

We spent several days checking off items on her list, researching and polling locals to find out who made the best of each dish.  I proudly gave her the brief histories I knew of the city and its quirky culture, determined to prove that life here is better.

On a recent return visit to New Orleans (her third trip now), Terese’s list, much shorter than the last, started and ended with a “Surf and Turf” Po-Boy from Parkway Bakery.  We went straight from the airport to the restaurant and got there at 9:30pm, just in the nick of their 10pm closing time.  I’d never been there at that hour before, when the noisy, busy wonderfulness of the lunch and dinner scenes died down.  The place had a few locals, leisurely wrapping up their current meals and chatting about the next, as New Orleanians always do.  The employees had a moment to chat as they joked around with us and didn’t give even one indication of being annoyed that we came in so late.  One man in particular, a manager perhaps, came outside to our table for a chat, bringing us each an official Parkway Bakery paper hat, which we proudly wore throughout the rest of our meal.  I beamed as I watched her eyes light up over the enormous bread as she took her first bite and was once again proud of my city and its unique heritage.

We mentioned to the manager that Terese was from out of town and that this was her first request when she got off the plane.  I’m sure he’d heard this before, but he didn’t show it as he welcomed her back.   She told him how much she loved it.

 “I don’t know what it is,” she said, “but you can’t get this kind of sandwich in LA.”

 “You know, I’ll let you in on a secret…,” the manager replied.  We sat, Po-Boys in mid-air, holding our breath as we waited for him to tell us the secret recipe for the coveted roast.

And then, in just eight short words, he shattered my illusion of all that is uniquely New Orleans.  “It’s just Yankee pot roast on French Bread!”

My reaction to this statement was one I did not expect.  Aside from practically spitting out my food, I felt slightly insulted and a little embarrassed.  Here I was, bragging about our local flavor and how you just can’t create it in the same way anywhere else.  And here was this guy, elaborating on a common recipe that any Yankee with a pot and a clove of garlic could throw together.  It was as if my Southern Belle ancestors had taken over my body at the sound of the word “Yankee.”  I hastily searched for an excuse.  Being a considerably below-average cook, I couldn’t argue the recipe.  So I threw out the first thing that came into my head.

 “It’s the bread!”  I spat out, a little too loudly.  “The bread is different here because of the humidity and the water.”  I was unable to fathom, let alone accept, that one of my favorite local dishes wasn’t local at all.

I knew at least some part of that statement was true, but didn’t go on because I was really just trying to change the subject back to our one-of-a-kindness and away from the dreaded Yankees.

After Terese left, I decided to look up the history of the Po-Boy.  To my relief, the most informative site,, said nothing about the Yanks.  While the recipe for an authentic  roast beef Po-Boy was not specified, the article explains that the first sandwich of its kind was created by two Cajun brothers who relocated to New Orleans to open a French Market coffee stand.  During an unsuccessful streetcar drivers’ strike in 1929, the Martin Brothers offered free food to any union streetcar driver.  The popular campaign brought out-of-work, empty-pocketed members of Division 194 to the stand daily.  To keep up with the demand, the brothers partnered with a nearby baker, John Gendusa, to create a 40-inch loaf of bread, rectangular from end to end, that would yield a 20 inch half-loaf sandwich, feeding more workers than its pointy-ended, 30 inch predecessor.  

Bennie Martin said, "We fed those men free of charge until the strike ended. Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say, 'Here comes another poor boy.'” 

You know the rest…

And so, while I accept that my favorite Po-Boy shop’s recipe is of….ahem…northern influence, I sit proudly at their table, paper hat atop my head, knowing that, while “they” may have claim to the flavor of the meat, we’re the ones who made it better by putting it on the bread—our bread…the humid bread made with our very own water!