“I’ll just have a sandwich.”
That simple phrase is probably uttered millions of times every day because people often think of the proletarian sandwich as nothing more than a quick fix. It’s the go-to solution when we can’t think of anything better to put in our bellies. It’s typically about convenience.
You can eat a sandwich on the run. You can prepare one with a few simple ingredients in your fridge without turning on the stove. Or you can easily buy one at any of the omnipresent corporate sandwich shops that dot every strip mall, gas station, and airport terminal. Sure, those places serve a need. They are efficient, predictable, and standardized. However, they also represent everything that frustrates me about the McDonaldization of food culture.
Guess what. It doesn’t have to be that way. Just try a po’ by sandwich and you will agree.
A Different World
In November, I traveled to a city that is worlds apart from most major metropolitan areas. It’s a place with a culture, traditions, and geography unlike anyplace else in the United States. It almost feels more European than American.
I’m talking about New Orleans. Which, by the way, is pronounced “New OAR-linz.” Not “New Or-LEENZ” and never ever “N’awlins.” They don’t say that. Seriously.
I went there in search of the perfect po’ boy sandwich, which it turns out is like searching for the perfect beer. The one in front of you at any given moment might seem like the best ever. Then you try another and realize your world has just been rocked.
This dripping hunk of heaven changed the way I look at sandwiches. Po’ boy ingredients are virtually limitless, but one thing they all have in common is the bread. The recurrent base is a light, New Orleans-style French bread loaf. The bread has a delightfully crunchy crust that shatters like glass when you crack the surface. The inside is a fluffy pillow ideally suited to sopping up gravy or holding a liberal dollop of mayonnaise.
Every po’ boy has the same basic toppings: lettuce, tomato, pickle, mayo. Beyond that, the filling can be sloppy roast beef, or golden-brown fried seafood such as oysters, shrimp, crawfish, or crab. You even find versions with chorizo or Andouille smoked sausage.
Fair warning: Po’ boys are not a pedestrian, one-napkin affair. It helps to have a roll of paper towels nearby.
It’s fair to say that the po’ boy is the polar opposite of what you get at chain sandwich shops. It is the antidote to conformity and sameness. But it’s also not a hipster sandwich. A proper po’ boy is a window to the past that is void of any artisanal ingredients. You aren’t likely to find many local places tainting the city’s signature sandwich with fancy-pants ingredients such as hummus, avocado, or heritage pork shoulder.
Good to the Last Crumb
Bread is in my DNA.
Not that yeast is literally flowing through my veins, but I have been baking bread since I was a wee lad. It’s the first thing my Granny Ashton taught me to make, and to this day I still love the ritual, art, science, and aroma of bread making.
In New Orleans, the finest po’ boy bread has a similar heritage. The preeminent baker of the irresistible loaves is Leidenheimer Baking Company, a family-owned endeavor founded by namesake George Leidenheimer in 1896. The bakery has been in the same brick building on Simon Bolivar Avenue since 1904, and George Leidenheimer's descendants operate it to this day.
According to the company’s website, Leidenheimer originally baked the heavy, dense breads he grew up with in his native Germany. After settling in New Orleans, he found fame by producing French bread with a crisp crust. More than a century later, Leidenheimer bread is still made using the same time-honored process.
On this most recent trip to New Orleans, I lost count of how many times I bit into the crunchy goodness of a po’ boy loaf. It was quite a sacrifice to eat so many fantastic sandwiches. These are the extremes I go to for you, my dear readers.
At po’ boy shops across the city, and no matter the fillings and toppings, the bread was the one constant. It was consistently flaky on the outside and had the texture of cotton candy on the inside.
Granny Ashton would approve.
This is part one of a two-part series on New Orleans’ signature sandwich, the po’ boy. In part two, I will tell you about the history of this iconic sandwich and share some stories of the po’ boy joints I visited.