Bite and Booze by Jay D. Ducote

Monday, April 11, 2016

From Paris with Love: The Tradition of Po-Boys & Bánh Mì in South Louisiana

by Sydney Blanchard

bánh mì
Grilled Pork bánh mì at Dang's in Baton Rouge

The po-boy can be found on just about any menu at any restaurant in South Louisiana. This Southern sandwich tops lists of Louisiana foods to try, and even President Obama had to get his paws on one when he recently traveled to Baton Rouge.

Despite the po-boy's status as Southern staple, few people know its origins.

Recently, one of our Instagram followers suggested we investigate po-boys and compare them to the Vietnamese bánh mì that have increased in popularity in the past few years.

The history, and their similarities, makes for a fascinating read.

History of the Po-Boy

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The story goes that in the early 20th century, brothers Benny and Clovis Martin from Raceland, Louisiana, made their way to New Orleans and took jobs as streetcar conductors. Years later, the brothers opened a sandwich shop near the French Market where they invented a more symmetrical alternative to the French loaves they'd been using for their sandwiches, resulting in sandwiches more consistent in size. 

When New Orleans streetcar conductors went on strike in the 1920s, the Martin brothers agreed to feed the strikers for free, calling out, "Here comes another po-boy," any time a striker entered their shop. 

Thus, the sandwiches became known as po-boys.

Po-boy Bread

If you're chowing down on a po-boy at a restaurant in South Louisiana, there's a good chance the French bread you're eating came from Leidenheimer's in New Orleans. The Leidenheimer Baking Company, founded in 1896 in New Orleans by George Leidenheimer, a German immigrant, has been producing crispy New Orleans style French bread for the last hundred years. 

Crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, the perfect loaf of French bread acts as a vehicle for other delicious ingredients. 

Po-boy Fixins

There's virtually no limit to what you'll find inside a po-boy. Fried shrimp, catfish and oyster po-boys tend to be what's on most menus, but roast beef and gravy and ham and cheese po-boys are popular with locals. Hot sausage, meatballs and even French fries can make an appearance on a po-boy, and dressed they include lettuce, tomato and mayo.

History of the Bánh Mì

The bánh mì represents the marriage of French and Vietnamese culture resulting from years of French colonial rule in Vietnam. This French-style baguette loaded with Vietnamese ingredients is often referred to as a Vietnamese po-boy in South Louisiana. In the 1970s, Vietnamese immigrants flocked to the United States to escape communism, and many chose to immigrate to Louisiana due to its Catholic missionaries and hot, wet climate. Today, Louisiana boasts a large Vietnamese population, and Louisianans are enamored with the exotic flavors of Vietnamese cuisine. 

Bánh Mì Bread

The traditional bánh mì bread recipe calls for a mixture of Asian rice flour and wheat flour that results in a single serving of bread. While softer and more moist than typical po-boy bread, the crunchy, crispy exterior resembles that of French bread.

Dong Phuong Bakery is to bánh mì as Leidenheimer Baking Company is to the po-boy. Since the early 1980s this Vietnamese bakery has been providing bánh mì bread to Vietnamese restaurants across New Orleans. 

Bánh Mì Fixins

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Here's where the bánh mì differs from the po-boy: generally, bánh mì include a pate spread, fatty ham and roasted pork, mayonnaise (from the French), shredded carrot and radish, cucumber, cilantro and raw jalapeño. 

Bánh mì are also typically smaller than po-boys in size, making them perfect side dishes, snacks or light meals. 

Do you have a favorite po-boy? What about a favorite bánh mì? Let us know in the comments.

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