Thursday, May 20, 2004
Oysters Stuffed in Toast: Po’ Boy, Peacemaker, Oyster Loaf
By ROGER M. GRACE
The po’ boy, concocted in the New Orleans’ Old French Market, is a loaf of french bread split lengthwise and stuffed. The filling typically is seafood, quite often deep-fried oysters.
Lettuce or cole slaw, tomatoes, and mayonaisse or salad dressing are among the ingredients that are often tossed in.
Though there are conflicting accounts, it’s generally thought the sandwich was originated by two brothers, Clovis and Benjamin Martin, at their restaurant in 1929. The streetcar workers were on strike and hungry, and the brothers provided left-overs on loaves of bread to them at no charge, feeding the “poor boys.”
That information is found in numerous sources. An article that appeared last year in the New Orleans Times-Picayune elaborated. It explained that the brothers were former streetcar conductors, and reported:
“Michael Mizell-Nelson, an assistant professor of English at Delgado Community College, has studied the 1929 streetcar strike extensively. His documentary, ‘Streetcar Stories,’ includes a portion on the po-boy’s origins.
“The strike was particularly bitter, and Mizell-Nelson has a copy of a letter the Martins wrote professing their allegiance to their former colleagues. In a letter addressed to ‘the striking carmen, Division I94,’ the brothers wrote, ‘We are with you till hell freezes, and when it does, we will furnish blankets to keep you warm.’
“They provided free sandwiches to the carmen for the duration of the strike. Whenever a striker would come by, one of the brothers would announce the arrival of another ‘poor boy,’ hence the sandwich’s name.”
Though originally filled with meat scraps and gravy, fried oysters or fried shrimp were soon substituted, the shellfish being in large supply and inexpensive in the gulf city of New Orleans in those days.
(Po’ boys crammed with fried oysters can be found locally at the “Gumbo Pot,” a cajun food stand at Farmer’s Market.)
This is not to say, however, that the Martin Brothers were the first to serve cooked oysters on a whole loaf of bread. “Oyster loaves” had been served for many decades, though the oysters were not fried, at least in the earlier days; the bread was hollowed out, rather than split; and butter was commonly used, rather than lettuce or tomato.
“The Virginia House-Wife” by Mary Randolph, published in 1985, provided this 1824 recipe for oyster loaf:
“Take little round loaves, cut off the top, scrape out all the crumbs, then out the oysters into a stew pan with the crumbs that came out of the loaves, a little water, and a good lump of butter; stew them together ten or fifteen minutes, then put in a spoonful of good cream, fill your loaves, lay the bit of crust carefully on again, set them in the oven to crisp. Three are enough for a side dish.”
The dish caught on here on the west coast. Kevin Starr, in his 1997 book, “The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s,” included this reference to the sunrise days of the 1900s:
“Especially strong in the cuisine of San Francisco was seafood, as might be expected, with an elegant local white fish, the sand dab, emerging as a special favorite, along with the redoubtable oyster loaf (a long loaf of heated sourdough French bread stuffed with oysters and appropriate sauces), a favorite late-night meal of the sporting set.”
Shortly after the turn of the century, Levy’s, a seafood restaurant in Los Angeles, offered a half loaf of bread stuffed with oysters for 35 cents, and a whole loaf for 70 cents. A choice was given of mollusks from the east coast or from California. (By 1915, Levy’s in San Diego was charging 40 cents for a half loaf and 80 cents for a full one.)
“Helen Brown’s West Coast Cook Book,” published in 1952, called the dish “Treasure Island Oyster Loaf.” (The “man-made” Treasure Island, constructed in the San Francisco Bay, was the site of a 1939 World’s Fair and the location of a Charlie Chan film.) By then, oysters in the loaves were breaded and fried.
La Médiatrice, or “the peacemaker,” was the name given the oyster loaf in New Orleans in the 1800s. The James Beard Foundation, on its website, explains:
“Men out late carousing in the French Quarter brought home the golden toasted loaf, hollowed out and stuffed with hot creamed oysters or perhaps buttery fried oysters, as a peace offering to their jealous wives. The loaves were sold all over the Quarter for pennies. In 19th-century oyster-crazed America, the loaf was known elsewhere too. The original Joy of Cooking (1931) includes a recipe, although by then the loaf had metamorphosed into Creamed Oysters in Bread Cases, which sounds better suited to a ladies’ lunch than to making marital amends.”
Oysters were, and are, not only stuffed in loaves, but served, more simply, on top of toast. The name of at least one of the oysters-on-toast dishes is no less intriguing than “po’ boy” or “peacemaker”: “angels on horseback.” To find out how that’s prepared, tune in next week.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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