500 Po Boys: Calliope Beer Works at Oak Street Po Boy Festival

2023 Oak Street Po Boy Festival in New Orleans

One of the doctrines of the New Orleans po boy scene is that brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin ‘invented’ poor boy sandwiches in the late 1920s to feed striking streetcar workers.

But the truth is slightly more complicated.

It’s July 1, 1929, and the Amalgamated Association of Electric Street Railway Employees, Division 194, is on strike. 1,800 unionized streetcar drivers and motormen simultaneously walk off the job and onto the picket lines.

2023 Oak Street Po Boy Festival in New Orleans

The Martin brothers, former city railway employees and Division 194 conductors, pitched into the union’s efforts by promising to feed the striking workers sandwiches which became known as poor boys.

“Our meal is free to any members of Division 194…We are with you until hell freezes, and when it does, we will furnish blankets to keep you warm,” proclaimed the Martins.

The meal? A fried potato and roast beef gravy-stuffed French loaf.

Martin Brothers’ Coffee Stand and Restaurant opened in the French Market in 1922. The men had been deep in foodservice for nearly a decade when their former colleagues went on strike and thus were uniquely aligned to stand in solidarity.

2023 Oak Street Po Boy Festival in New Orleans

And upon opening in 1922 the brothers offered, according to their own description: “sandwiches of half a loaf of French bread generously filled with whatever one desired, from roast beef to oysters.”

This was well before the ‘poor boy’ was said to have been invented to feed the strikers.

Meanwhile in the Treme neighborhood…

Hot Jazz: From Harlem to Storyville by David Griffiths, page 29.

Joseph “Joe Sheep” Lambert, a Creole gentleman, operated a restaurant at Dumaine and N. Claiborne that sold po boy sandwiches for a nickel well prior to the streetcar worker’s strike.

Miss Victoria, Mahogany Blue Baby Doll at 2023 Oak Street Po Boy Festival

Armand Charbonnet reflected back on the glory days of Treme in a Times-Picayune article from 2009. “Joe Sheep’s sandwich shop used to open up at 6 in the evening and close about 2 in the morning. He had 5 cent stuffed crab, 5 cent stuffed tomatoes. The highest sandwich he had was 15 cents for hot sausage.”

Joe Sheep’s restaurant in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. An early progenitor of the po boy sandwich. Louis Armstrong favored their red beans and rice. Image courtesy Hogan Jazz Archive, Special Collections, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library. Tulane University.

As we now see, the classic New Orleans po boy has a thousand mothers, each claiming primacy.

Stand in a crowded barroom on a Saturday night in the 3rd Ward and inquire aloud as to where one may purchase a poor boy and you may find yourself instantly corrected as to the proper verbiage. Most folks nowadays call them po boys.

Calliope Beer Works beer-ia po boy at 2023 Oak Street Po Boy Festival

On a recent Sunday morning I drove across town from my 9th Ward home to the riverbend to visit this year’s Oak Street Po Boy Festival. I had barely walked onto the grounds when I saw Calliope Beer Works’ vendor booth and noticed they were selling a whimsical take on the classic Jalisco, Mexico dish birria.

The word birria itself derives from the onomatopoeic berrear which in Spanish means to bleat or bawl. Nowadays, at least in the U.S, birria is nearly interchangeable with well-seasoned brisket or beef roast cooked into a tender stew and served on tortillas.

Calliope Beer Works’ vendor’s booth at 2023 Oak Street Po Boy Festival

Calliope’s chef Amber Benson played up the restaurant’s nanobrewery status by calling her restaurant’s entry in the festival beer-ia, beer-braised birria brisket with pickled onion and dipping sauce.

That dipping sauce is the engine that drives this po boy. I imagine the chef tending to a vast black pot filled with bones as she slowly reduced her brew down to a dense, meaty consommé à la the ancient Creole cooks who trotted out daube glacé to their well-heeled patrons at old school restaurants like Antoines and Galatoire’s.

2023 Oak Street Po Boy Festival

And the beef proper? Lawd heaven as the local y’ats exclaim when they tie into an especially good po boy. The brisket has been well-cooked but stopped shy of being too tender. Too tender? Yes, we’ve all had someone’s uncle Guillaume show up at the baptism with his famous grillades that had been cooked into an unappealing mush.

This cow did not die in vain.

Parkway Bakery and Tavern vendor’s booth at Oak Street Po Boy Festival

And the grace note of pickled onion is most welcome as it stands firm against the deep taste of the braised beef. To pleasantly complicate things further there is a subtle hint of Vietnamese flavors somewhere in this chef’s creation.

I could swear I’m eating at a bánh mì joint out in Village de’Lest.

2023 Oak Street Po Boy Festival

I started my 500 Po Boys Project years back and it’s places like Calliope Beer Works that keep me excited to continue exploring New Orleans, the best eating city in the United States.

Breads on Oak vendor’s booth at 2023 Oak Street Po Boy Festival

Research portal:

In Transit, Volume 12, Issue 6. Analysis of Electric Railway Operating Costs and the Cost of Living as Related to Wages of Conductors, Motormen and Other Trainmen (1920)

New Orleans States [newspaper]. November 5, 1929. Page 2. [early mention of po boy sandwich]

Library of Congress

Hot Jazz: From Harlem to Storyville by David Griffiths

Hogan Jazz Archive, Special Collections, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library. Tulane University.

Times-Picayune archives

Lost Restaurants of New Orleans by Peggy Scott Laborde, Tom Fitzmorris

The New Orleans Underground Gourmet by Richard Collin

Crabby Jack’s vendor’s booth at 2023 Oak Street Po Boy Festival

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