Correction to This Article
A previous version of this story misstated the number of people who attend the Jazz & Heritage Festival annually. More than 400,000 people attend the festival each year.

Smart Mouth: NOLA's po-boy sandwich has a rich tradition

By Eliza Barclay
Sunday, April 11, 2010

New Orleans is not like other cities, and its Jazz & Heritage Festival is not like other music festivals: It's wonderfully chaotic and yet orderly, with blaring brass bands that squeeze through the crowd and performances scheduled for 6:05 p.m. that actually start at 6:05 p.m.

So don't expect popcorn, cotton candy or customary slick franks in starchy buns here: This is a music festival that takes food very, very seriously. To methodically sample its well-priced offerings over the course of a late April weekend is to dip into this region's exceptional cuisine.

The rows of stalls in the food areas have a bit of an Old West storefront feel, and few vendors have changed either their look or their food in the past 20 years. But behind the simple wooden facades, smoking and roasting in hot mobile kitchens, awaits an ace lineup of Louisiana vittles.

Some Jazz Fest loyalists insist on the superiority of crawfish bread (juicy bits of crawfish in a gooey mass of three cheeses enclosed in a crusty pocket) or crawfish Monica (crawfish clinging to rotini pasta in an alfredo sauce). But I salute the humble po-boy, which at Jazz Fest comes in 14 glorious forms.

What is a po-boy? It's a sandwich, always made with fresh French bread (in New Orleans there are two or three preferred bakers for Jazz Fest sandwiches) and usually spare on fillings. These sandwiches are not jammed with meats or oozing with condiments. They are elegantly simple and stand in sharp contrast to another New Orleans sandwich, the muffuletta, which involves cured meats stacked in an orderly pile. The po-boy, and especially the four-or-so-inch versions at Jazz Fest, is more delicate than the macho muffuletta.

Despite the po-boy's many charms, some are worried about its future. The organizers of the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival, held annually in November, say that Hurricane Katrina flooded many neighborhood po-boy shops, dangerously cutting into the city's supply of the sandwich. Out-of-towners, however, might question the need for po-boy activism, especially after a tour of Jazz Fest's impressive assemblage of sandwiches.

Fried oysters are perhaps the most celebrated of po-boy fillings, and because Washington has its own laudable versions of this sandwich (the ones at Hank's Oyster Bar and Eatonville come to mind), a wise visitor to Jazz Fest will zero in on others. Tempting options abound, including succulent pork, fried gator, Cajun duck, crawfish sausage or even turkey with spicy, vinegary giardiniera, or pickled vegetables.

While the po-boy innards kindle most of the attention, the bread shouldn't be overlooked. And the history of breadmaking and the po-boy are intimately entwined. According to Michael Mizell-Nelson, a historian at the University of New Orleans, the name was coined in 1929, when a pair of brothers sympathetic to a group of streetcar strikers decided to help out the "poor boys" by fixing them extra-large sandwiches. The original po-boys were filled with luncheon meats and made with specially ordered 40-inch loaves (longer and thicker than traditional loaves). Though the sandwiches were popular long before the Depression, sandwich makers around the city, especially those specializing in the "oyster loaf," eventually adopted the names poor-boy and po-boy.

Today, po-boy bread is less crusty and has an airier, fluffier crumb than typical French bread, says Michelle Nugent, Jazz Fest's food director.

Po-boy vending, or vending any food at Jazz Fest, for that matter, is no small catering feat. More than 400,000 people pass through the fairgrounds every year, and vendors need to feed them quickly and cheaply. Vance Vaucresson, a third-generation Creole sausagemaker and purveyor of excellent hot sausage and crawfish sausage po-boys, says that fellow vendors, who uphold a certain po-boy camaraderie, are likely to lend him bread or seasonings if he runs out.

Po-boys go for $5 to $10 at the festival, with fried oysters at the top end. Last year, the food booth with the consistently longest line was the one selling the cochon (pronounced "cooshawn" by locals) de lait po-boy. The tender shredded pork butt in this sandwich comes from suckling pigs, and is seasoned and slow-cooked for 12 hours in a pit. Adorned with cabbage, carrot and a zesty horseradish sauce, the sandwich is a standout.

Proprietor Wanda Walker still swoons over her cochon de lait sandwiches even after 12 years of serving them at Jazz Fest. "When you open those pit doors in the morning and you smell that pork, oh ho, you just want to go crazy," she says.

If a thorough exploration of the po-boy at Jazz Fest seems insufficient, consider returning in November for the preservation festival. Surely, this winsome sandwich should never die.

Barclay is a Washington writer.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, April 23-25 and April 29-May 2.

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