The lefty history of New Orleans’ iconic po’ boy

A fierce, beautiful old letter shows the famous sandwiches were meant to feed striking workers for free

Topics: Eatymology, American Regional Cuisines, New Orleans, Food,

The lefty history of New Orleans' iconic po' boyThe Martin Brothers' letter to striking street car workers

I’m working on a guide to the sandwich glories of New Orleans, but came across something I wanted to share with you right away: the letter that gave birth to the po’ boy sandwich — a fierce, beautiful piece of humanity and lefty worker solidarity.

The history of the po’ boy — New Orleans’ answer to the sub, hero and hoagie — is like all creation myths, maybe a bit murky. There’s controversy around the edges, but most people seem to agree that the po’ boy was invented by the Martin brothers, Clovis and Bennie, who owned a restaurant and coffee stand in the French Quarter in the 1920s.

When the city’s streetcar conductors organized a strike in 1929, the Martins, former conductors themselves, offered to feed any hungry strikers who came their way for free. To do so, they contracted with a baker, John Gendusa, to make exceptionally large, rectangular-shaped loaves of bread that they could fill quickly and cut into sandwiches big enough to feed the strikers and their families.

The strike turned violent and lasted for months, and as more and more streetcar workers came to the Martins’ shop, they would call out to each other, “Here comes another poor boy.” In hilarious New Orleans fashion, the phrase stuck to the sandwiches.

But it’s this letter, that the Martins wrote to the streetcar workers, that caught me yesterday. Its language is so strong, so muscular in its solidarity with the strikers, that I choked up a little. Really, you should click on the link to see it in its full typewritten, typo-ed glory, but it reads:

New Orleans, La. August 6th. 1929,

To the Striking Carmen, Division I94,

Dear Friends,

You Might Also Like

We are with you heart and Soul, at any time you are around the French Market, don’t forget to drop in at Martin’s Coffee Stand and Restaurant, Cor(ner) Ursuline & North Peters Sts. Our meal is free to any members of Division I94.

We have thirty nine employees, all riding Jitneys to help win the strike.

We are with you until h–l freezes, and when it does, we will furnish blankets to keep you warm.

With best wishes to your cause, we are,

Your friends and former members

of Division I94


Clovis J. & Bennie Martin

For more history of the po’ boy, check out the Po’ Boy Preservation Festival website.

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Cities without landmarks

    Slide 1

    Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada


    Cities without landmarks

    Slide 2

    Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia


    Cities without landmarks

    Slide 3

    Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, U.S.


    Cities without landmarks

    Slide 4

    Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

    Robert R.,

    Cities without landmarks

    Slide 5

    Colosseum, Rome, Italy


    Cities without landmarks

    Slide 6

    Taj Mahal, Agra, India

    Sergio Coelho,

    Cities without landmarks

    Slide 7

    Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy


    Cities without landmarks

    Slide 8

    Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


    Cities without landmarks

    Slide 9

    Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France


    Cities without landmarks

    Slide 10

    Lost City of Petra, Jordan

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>