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People come from all over the world to sample New Orleans’ unique and wonderful cuisine but, to locals, nothing epitomizes the city’s food more than the po-boy sandwich. The simple but delicious creation on French bread began with a streetcar strike in 1929, when Bennie and Clovis Martin of Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant offered sandwiches to streetcar workers for free. Story has it that, whenever a striking worker approached, Bennie Martin commented, “Here comes another poor boy.”
The Martin Brothers used the “debris” from a pot of cooking roast beef to line the French bread, thus laying the groundwork for the city’s most traditional style of po-boy. Later, fried seafood was used, including the now ubiquitous oyster loaf. When adding lettuce, tomatoes and the occasional pickle, the po-boy becomes “dressed.”
Today, New Orleanians serve just about everything on their trademark French bread and call it a po-boy, which is why a festival in honor of the city’s most famous sandwich has become a huge hit. The New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival started in November 2007 as a way of enticing people back to Oak Street, an area of merchants, bars and restaurants in Carrollton, an uptown neighborhood named for a hero of the Battle of New Orleans. Like most areas of the city, both urban decay and Hurricane Katrina had taken its toll.
Oak Street merchants were applying to become part of the Main Street program by the National Trust of Historic Preservation and needed a “cultural preservation” element, explained Hank Staples, the current producer of the festival and owner of the street’s famous Maple Leaf Bar. Thus, the festival was humorously titled the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival.
“Everyone thought it was a little weird at the time, but it was hugely successful,” Staples said.
First-year attendance was approximately 10,000 individuals, according to Staples, followed by 2008’s festival, which attracted 30,000 visitors. Last year, the festival attracted 50,000 people and was named the Best Food Festival of 2010 by Gambit Weekly of New Orleans.
“We’re expecting a crowd of about 60,000 this year,” Staples said.
The 2011 festival has grown to include music on three stages, 45 po-boy vendors (up from 35), a children’s village and a history center, showcasing the unusual history of the commercial corridor, which once hosted gambling. Numerous artists will be selling artwork as well.
In addition, there will be a competition for the best po-boys in various categories with styles ranging from traditional to shrimp remoulade and duck confit. Last year’s winners included smoked fish, grilled shrimp with blackened avocado and fried chicken with Chisesi ham. And not to ignore the sandwich’s origins, there is a roast beef po-boy category (Sammy’s Deli on Elysian Fields won last year with its garlic-stuffed roast beef po-boy).
“GW Fins will serve a fried lobster po-boy,” Staples said. “That was the darling of last year’s festival.”
The festival has been popular with restaurants as well as diners. In fact, there is a waiting list for vendors and, according to Staples, the festival had to turn away the legendary New Orleans restaurant, Commander’s Palace.
This year’s vendors include four of the Brennan family restaurants as well as Emeril’s Delmonico, Coquette, Pascal’s Manale, Grand Isle Restaurant, Boucherie, Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant and several others.
Admission to the festival is free, and visitors pay each vendor for food. New this year, however, are VIP wristbands, which allow participants into rest areas, which offer free draft beer and a place to sit as well as the privilege to skip lines when purchasing po-boys. There will also be three sky lounges, similar to Mardi Gras reviewing stands.
Oak Street has received a new lease on life after the storm, with updated infrastructure and sidewalks. The street is home to numerous restaurants and clubs, including the Maple Leaf, Jacques-Imo’s, Cowbell and Oak Wine Bar & Bistro.
New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festivalwww.poboyfest.com
The festival is held on Oak Street in uptown New Orleans on Nov. 20 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.