No longer held in November, the 10th Annual Oak Street Po-Boy Festival will take place on October 23. The festival is free and open to the public and pets are allowed.
The Oak Street Po-Boy Festival’s website gives us an interesting history of the sandwich: Bennie and Clovis Martin left their Raceland, Louisiana, home in the Acadiana region in the mid-1910s for New Orleans. Both worked as streetcar conductors until they opened Martin Brothers’ Coffee Stand and Restaurant in the French Market in 1922. The years they had spent working as streetcar operators and members of the street railway employees’ union would eventually lead to their hole-in-the-wall coffee stand becoming the birthplace of the poor boy sandwich.
The streetcar motormen and conductors began a strike on July 1, 1929 that put 1,100 jobs at risk. When the company attempted to run the cars on July 5 using strike breakers, jeering crowds stopped them. More than 10,000 New Orleanians gathered downtown and watched strike supporters disable and then burn the first car operated by a strike breaker.
A sympathetic public participated in great numbers by avoiding the transit system, which remained shut for two weeks. The Martin Brothers offered free meals to members of Division 194: ”We are with you ’till hell freezes, and when it does, we will furnish blankets to keep you warm.” In order to maintain their promise, the Martins provided large sandwiches to the strikers. Bennie Martin said, “We fed those men free of charge until the strike ended. Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say, ‘Here comes another poor boy.’”
The traditional French bread’s narrowed ends meant that much of each loaf was wasted, so the Martins worked with baker John Gendusa to develop a 40-inch loaf of bread that retained its uniform, rectangular shape from end to end. This innovation allowed for half-loaf sandwiches 20 inches in length as well as a 15-inch standard and smaller ones. The original poor boy sandwiches offered the same fillings as had been served on French bread loaves before the strike, but the size was startlingly new.
The streetcar motormen and conductors eventually lost the strike and their jobs. The continuing generosity of the Martins as well as the size of the sandwiches proved to be a wise business decision.
The Oak Street Po-Boy Festival is on Sunday, October 23,10 a.m.-8 p.m. Two stages with music by Ambushin’ Bastards featuring Jake Eckert, Reggie Scanlan, Doug Belote, John Gros and Dave Malone; the Original Gentlemen; Corey Henry’s Treme Funktet; Los Po-Boy-Citos; Khris Royal & Dark Matter and Darcy Malone & the Tangle