Po-Boys have been a New Orleans staple since their conception in 1929. The submarine-like sandwich was invented by Bennie and Clovis Martin, former streetcar conductors who opened Martin Brothers’ Coffee Stand in the French Market in 1922. During the nationwide transit strikes of 1929, the Martin brothers vowed to feed their former coworkers. When they’d see the strikers coming, they’d say, “Here comes another poor boy” and the Po-Boy was born. Since then, people have been stuffing these sandwiches with everything from fried oysters to Thanksgiving leftovers.
Like most of our festivals, there were crafting and art booths, music stages and other activities but the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival also features a book fair and a lecture series on the history of the neighborhood from Civil War stories and high school integration to Russian cake history. The VIP wristbands (which get you to the front of many lines) have now been extended to neighbors who lose their parking and Sunday serenity to the festival every year. This year, the VIP pass also got you free Abita beer and food prepared by volunteers. The cream of broccoli soup was outstanding and the perfect thing to start a cold day (50 degrees). There were too many desserts to choose from so I had a bite of yummy key lime pie, a deliciously gooey brownie and a plate of fresh cut fruit.
We started the Po-Boy feasting with one I was looking forward to since missing it last year – the Waffle Boy from Palate made with fried chicken on a sweet potato waffle with pickled slaw. The waffle was a bit soggy but I enjoyed it’s taste. Then we got caught up in the Bone Tone Brass Band’s second line. They passed out kerchiefs and super-long baguettes from Leidenheimer for us to wave in the air as we sang to Go to the Mardi Gras. Po-Boy bread is just as important as what fills it and Leidenheimer is the master. The bakery was founded in 1896 by the German immigrant George Leidenheimer and his family continues to make their crispy-crusted, light-as-cotton-candy-inside French bread today.
We followed the second line down to Breads on Oak hoping to find last year’s seafood au grautin Po-Boy, but this year they were serving a Wild Mushroom Bourguignon ($6). I don’t eat mushrooms but it looked great and they kindly replaced it when my friend dropped the sandwich one bite into her meal. Next was Best in Show 2012 winners Palace Cafe for their Peace Breaker Po-Boy. The hearty sandwich contained roast beef, fresh spinach and shaved red onion topped with fried P&J oysters and sauce foyot.
This year, one street was dedicated to food trucks. We listened to the New Generation Brass Band while waiting in the super-long (no VIP’s) line for Food Drunk. Their Drunken Pig Po-Boy of 15 hour applewood smoked pig braised in Pabst, pickled green tomato relish, caramelized Vidalia onions, Creole mustard/beer sauce on duck fat toasted bread ($8, $5 for 1/2) was well worth the wait and became my favorite Po-Boy of the day. We also enjoyed their crab and crawfish mac and cheese with 7 cheeses topped with Panko crumbs ($8, $5).
Marc Paradis of Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, a beloved band that we unfortunately missed earlier, walked by with a clipboard yelling for members of the “pork group” to join him. Lucky dog – he was a judge. And he’s just one of the many wonderful NOLA characters found at the festival. We also saw a child playing drums on the street for hours, plenty of Saints fans dressed for game day despite our team having the day off and, of course, Po-Boy Fest staple – the woman in the window. I look for her every year and was disappointed at first to find the cold kept her window closed and her tucked behind it. But, later, she could resist the milling crowd of food-lovers below her no longer so I got to wave to her and got a wave back. I’m still not sure why I love seeing her there every year so much but she and her colorful house bring me joy.
We ended the Fest with the Grammy-winning Rebirth Brass Band as the sun set over the river bend. It was too cold to stand still but they got our feet moving right away. Afterward, I enjoyed eating some of that super-long baguette from Leidenheimer spread with butter. Yum.
Once again, I seem to have missed many winners so I guess I’ll have to try to eat more next year – starting with Seither’s Seafood and Slow Food New Orleans! Here are the winners of each category:
Oyster – Red Fish Grill: BBQ Oyster
Shrimp – Seither’s Seafood: Blackened Shrimp & Avocado Po-Boy
Specialty Seafood – Seither’s Seafood: Seafood au Gratin
Beef – Slow Food New Orleans: Beef Slow Boy
Sausage – Slow Food New Orleans: Chaurice & Kim chi Po Boy
Pork- Bratz Y’all : Drunk Pig
Specialty Meat – Boucherie: Smoked Mixed Grill Doner Po-boy with Garlic Sauce