Whenever a visitor arrives in our fair city on the crescent, it's almost inevitable that at one point or another, a poor boy is ordered by the hungry traveler. And its the only sandwich that "dresses" for the occasion, usually with iceberg lettuce, tomato slices and mayonnaise along with the diner's choice of filling, ranging from beef to ham and even french fries. Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook features a poor boy recipe on page 256 filled with fried oysters.
FrenchQuarter.com presents a story by Ian McNulty of the origins of the poor boy. In the 1920s, two brothers and former street car conductors, Clovis and Benjamin Martin, opened a restaurant on St. Claude Avenue. In 1929, the city's street car conductors went on a four-month strike. Taking on the cause as their own, the Martin brothers began to feed the strikers from the back of their restaurant, creating an inexpensive sandwich made of bits of roast beef slathered with gravy. When a striker would arrive, the call would go through the kitchen, "Here comes another poor boy!" Over time, the sandwich became known as a poor boy.
Wikipedia presents other stories of the origin of the sandwich, one of which comes from Jay Harlow's The Art of the Sandwich. According to Harlow, the term stems from the French phrase, pour boire, which means peace offering and referred to the sandwiches men would bring home to their wives after a late night on the town.
Wikipedia also correctly identifies the importance of the proper bread in order to have a genuine poor boy sandwich:
The sandwich is considered such an important part of New Orleans' culture that a festival has been created to celebrate it called the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival. Part of the festival is the collection of stories about the poor boy. In a question emphasizing the importance of the bread to an authentic poor boy is, "How far away from NOLA have you encountered po-boys (and how bad were they without authentic New Orleans French Bread)?"
A key ingredient that differentiates po' boys from subs, gyros and grinders is the bread. Louisiana French bread is different from the traditional baguette, in that it has a flaky crust with a soft, airy center. . . The crust of Louisiana French bread is very crispy--so much so that it is difficult to eat without leaving crumbs. But the interior is very light and airy, often less dense than regular white bread.
SOURCE: "New Orleans' Po-Boy Is A Rich Food Tradition"
SOURCE: "Po' Boy" 03/30/08
SOURCE: "Share Your Po-Boy Story"
photo courtesy of Jef Poskanzer, used under this Creative Commons license