The State of the Loaf

It’s not a New Orleans poor boy without the bread.

A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.

Judging from the number of poor-boy sandwiches consumed in New Orleans each day, it may be hard to believe that those long, crisp loaves could be endangered. However, with the closing of Alois J. Binder’s bakery this fall, only two of the city’s original, old-line, French bread bakeries remain in business. Leidenheimer’s, the city’s oldest bakery, founded in 1896, and John Gendusa Bakery, harkening from 1922.  

While some 21st century poor-boy purveyors like Boucherie and Killer Po’Boys promote Vietnamese banh mi bread from Dong Phuong bakery on their menus, most stick with tradition.

The concept of the endangered poor-boy loaf is not new. Back in 2004, Sandy Whann and his sister, Katherine — fourth-generation owners of Leidenheimer’s — realized national newcomers like the Subway franchise were gaining a foothold in New Orleans. It seemed that national advertising had begun to sway the tastes of the next generation, who were choosing fast food over their parents’ beloved poor-boy sandwich. The Whanns believe, as do many New Orleanians, that the poor-boy represents an element of gastronomic culture, a sandwich with a sense of place. So, together with some like-minded poor-boy lovers they formed the Po’boy Preservation Society, the genesis of today’s annual Oak Street Po-Boy Festival.

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The Strike that Started It All
The bottom line is, you can’t make a real poor-boy without a loaf of New Orleans French bread. John Gendusa, III is an authority on the subject.  His grandfather, the original John Gendusa, baked the first poor-boy loaves for Martin Brother’s Grocery back in 1929 during a streetcar strike. The Martin brothers had been streetcar conductors themselves once, so they generously offered free meals to all striking conductors. Together, John Gendusa and the Martin brothers sketched out on brown paper the length a sandwich would have to be in order to feed not just the “poor boys,” but their families as well.

The ends of the loaf were blunted to make servings equal from end to end.

It’s in the Water
No matter how it’s shaped, the bread dough itself is where the magic lies. Light and fluffy with a shatteringly crisp crust, both John Gendusa III and Whann agree that New Orleans water affects the taste and texture of the final product. Gendusa recalls that back in the 1950s, two of his father’s master bakers tried to open a poor-boy bakery of their own just 80 miles away in Baton Rouge. Even with John Gendusa’s help, they never managed to replicate New Orleans French bread.

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A Sad Farewell
While the small Gendusa family bakery mourned the loss of Binder’s, Sandy Whann expressed disappointment. He said he had tried to help the Alois J. Binder family keep their brand alive, just as his father, Robert J. Whann, had done with Reising in 1990 and more recently, in 2004, with Angelo Gendusa’s bakery.  Early in his career, Robert Whann had observed the growth of in-house grocery store bakeries and decided to pursue domination in New Orleans restaurants.  The purchase of Reising yielded the grocery store business, where today that bag of Reising pistolettes sits next to the Leidenheimer Zip loaves, all crafted from the same magical dough.

Duck, Duck, Bread
“The much smaller Angelo Gendusa bakery came with a wonderful customer base,” said Whann. It also came with another New Orleans bread rarity – the cap loaf.  What was first called “duck bread,” was originally about 14 or 15 inches in length, distinguished by a flap of dough turned back across the top, giving the illusion of a sleeping duck. When, over time, the bread size reduced, the small flap became more reminiscent of the tassel on a cap ­— thus the name.  The only place you’re likely to encounter cap bread today is at Arnaud’s Restaurant, where it still remains their preference.
With all the cultural identity locals find in a loaf of bread, Whann says he feels a great responsibility.  “New Orleans claims the richest culinary heritage in America and our French bread holds a special place in that.” At Leidenheimer’s, it’s always “good to the last crumb.”

Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, Louisiana Eats! Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.

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