Perhaps no humble sandwich comes dressed with as many stories as the New Orleans po'boy. Dating back to the 19th century, the fried oyster version was called "the peacemaker" because it was offered to angry wives when their husbands stayed out too late. But it was reborn as the po'boy during the Great Depression, when so many great American sandwiches, including the sloppy Joe, came of age.
The po'boy tale begins in 1929, when New Orleans's streetcar workers went on strike, and Bennie and Clovis Martin — the owners of a local coffee stand and former streetcar workers themselves — announced they would feed the strikers free sandwiches. In a letter to the union, they pledged: "Our Meal is free to any members of Division 194. . . . We are with you till h--l freezes, and when it does, we will furnish blankets to keep you warm."
So what was in these free sammies?
By most accounts, the Martins' free sandwiches were filled not with oysters or meat but with a much cheaper, carb-loaded combo of fried potatoes and gravy. You can still get this type of po'boy in New Orleans, in fact. In her book Gumbo Tales, Sara Roahen talks about having to lie down on the floor after eating one: "I could only guess that digestion had usurped all available energies."
Even the standard po'boy bread owes itself to the Martins, who worked with their baker to create a new shape that wasn't tapered at the ends, so as to yield more uniform sandwiches. And what of the name? Said Bennie Martin, "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.'"