When it comes to a cheap, quick meal, most people think of fast food. However, not only does fast food have generally little to no nutritional value, but it is also seriously lacking in culture. Now, it is easy to argue that everything has some sort of culture, but I’m talking about a meaningful history, and an idea represented through consumption that eaters want to be a part of.
The po boy, on the other hand, combines history and culture with an inexpensive sandwich option. As with many culturally important and region-specific sandwiches, there are lots of stories about how the po boy was created. Generally, though, this sandwich’s early beginnings are agreed upon. During a streetcar strike in 1929, the Martin brothers, Bennie and Clovis, both former streetcar workers, vowed to feed every man involved. They partnered with John Gendusa to create a larger, yet inexpensive sandwich. Gendusa’s bread was bigger than the usual sandwich bread, and came to define the New Orleans-style French bread. The Martins served spare bits of roast beef and gravy on this bread, and after supplying enough of them to the “poor boys” that came to eat, the name stuck to the sandwich.
Today, roast beef is still one of the most popular and common po boys, along with the fried seafood varieties, available thanks to New Orleans’s location. Po boys are served “dressed” with shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles and mayo. They are also generally the cheapest sandwich on any menu, from restaurants to delis to convenience stores. This creates and interesting situation. The po boy was born out of the need for inexpensive food, so it is almost comforting to see that it has not left this part of its identity behind in the growing foodie culture of America. On the other hand, this position does not encourage much quality control. After all, very few people will complain if the cheapest sandwich doesn’t quite live up to their expectations. To counteract this laziness and to uphold and honor the po boy’s history, some establishments take great pride in their sandwiches and make a point of it, too. Furthermore, the New Orleans Po Boy Preservation Festival was created to keep the sandwich and its place in the city’s culture alive.
Sadly, the po boy pictured in this post is not from one of the places that puts emphasis on creating an exceptional sandwich. I discovered this sandwich in a po boy joint that supposedly had the best in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, this was apparently not a neighborhood that has remarkably high food standards, instead continuing the po boy’s history as a meal for those who might otherwise be unable to afford one. I got the classic roast beef, dressed. Though the sandwich was tasty, it was good in the way that cheap food is. It was very obvious that customers frequenting this establishment were not foodies. And while the sandwich itself was not spectacular, I definitely had a po boy experience reminiscent of its early days.
When I found out the bus was going to New Orleans, I was over the moon as the city is home to a very special sandwich: the muffuletta. Not only does the muffuletta originate in New Orleans, but its creation is also specific to one grocery store, which is still open. In the early 1900s, Central Grocery was a market that catered to the Sicilian farmers that worked nearby. In traditional Sicilian fashion, the farmers would buy meats, cheese, and bread, and eat it all separately. Now considering that the farmers weren’t having nice, sit-down lunches, but instead attempted balance all of these ingredients on their laps, the meal was a bit perilous. Luckily, the owner of Central Grocery, Salvatore Lupo, noticed these lunchtime difficulties, and figured out that the whole meal could be combined into one, easy to eat sandwich. This sandwich, a phenomenal composition of capicola, salami, pepperoni, ham, swiss, provolone, and marinated olive salad, gets its name from the round muffuletta loaf that its served on. And though the bread plays a defining role, it is actually the olive salad that truly makes a muffuletta. In fact, this is so much a part of the muffuletta that Central Grocery sells it by the jar, for your own sandwich making adventures.
As a person who loves food more than almost anything, and who will try pretty much everything, there is nothing better than finding great local foods. If there is a defining food of a culture, I want to be eating it. When eating with a local, I generally use the “I’ll have what she’s having” approach. This gives me the opportunity to branch out and try new and exciting things, in addition to getting to truly experience the culture. The muffuletta is one of these foods, an embodiment of New Orleans culture. It is also an interesting example because much of this culture is heavily influenced by its French history. This sandwich, on the other hand, is a key part of the New Orleans food culture, but finds its roots in Sicilian tradition.
Now, I’m a big fan of the “italian sub.” I love the combination of meats, and the fact that while it is a pretty common sandwich, many establishments manage to make it their own. And though the muffuletta could easily fit into this category due to its origins and ingredients, it really is in a class of its own. Yes, it has components that you won’t find in any other italian sub, and its own bread, but what truly sets the muffuletta apart is its place in New Orleans culture, as well as in the sandwich culture in America. Search online for the best muffuletta in New Orleans, and you’ll find heated battles between die-hard fans. Everyone has their favorite muffuletta joint, and there are quite a few places around New Orleans that specialize in this unique sandwich. Furthermore, the muffuletta left the Crescent City and can now be found in sandwich shops all over the country.
And let me tell you, this sandwich is amazing. The bread is soft, but dense enough to soak up most of the oil from the olive salad. The addition of swiss takes away a bit of the sharpness of the provolone, creating a cheesy, but balanced platform on which the meats can shine. And the olive salad…brilliant. Made from the classic giardiniera (pickled celery, cauliflower, and carrot) with the added bonus of olives, oregano, garlic, and lots of olive oil, it’s tangy and savory with a bit of a bite, matching it perfectly with every other ingredient in this sandwich.
Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that if you find yourself in New Orleans, you must try a muffuletta. You’ll get a great taste of New Orleans culture. At the risk of offending any muffuletta-heads, I highly recommend going to Central Grocery. After all, it is where the sandwich was originally created, and they still make excellent sandwiches today.