Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Oyster Po ' Boys

Such a warm and beautifully rare sunny day yesterday in Pittsburgh! 

I've been planning a trip to New Orleans to visit my mother, and my thoughts have turned to spring in Louisiana and the great spring feasts we have of crawfish and crab and shrimp and, of course, our beloved oyster.  I love oysters any way and all ways--raw, baked in the shell with or without topping, sauteed, chopped and mixed into dressing, cooked into a gumbo, but my favorite and most sinful way to have them is fried on a loaf of French bread, a few sprinkles of Tobasco and ketchup, shredded lettuce and fresh Creole tomato slices, sliced pickles, a cold beer to wash it all down.  We call this creation an oyster "po'boy."  The oysters are battered and fried so they're brown and crispy on the outside and hot but just barely cooked on the inside.  Louisiana French bread has a flaky crust and an airy center.  The crust is so flaky, in fact, that you cannot eat a po'boy without getting crumbs all over you and this is part of the joy of it.  If you order a po'boy you'll also be asked if you want it "dressed," which means do you want it with lettuce, tomato, pickle, mayo.  Be careful how you answer this question.    Don't say you'd prefer it naked if you don't want it dressed. Just say you want it plain or without anything.

My father, who often stayed out after work drinking and carousing, would sometimes buy my mother a po'boy on his way home.   He'd give it to her as he stumbled in, warm and wrapped in butcher paper, a sort of peace offering.  For the longest time I thought of this as  a unique and somewhat touching story about my family--my mother loved po'boys. But Jay Harlow, in his book The Art of the Sandwich, suggests that the etymology of  po'boy is from the French pour boire (peace offering),  and that men (lots of men, not just my father) would often come home from a night out bringing the po'boy as a peace offering.  So that it seems to be a cultural phenomenon, not something particular to my family.

There are lots of other speculations about where the expression po'boy  came from, including that it was a sandwich served to poor working men, but I like this explanation the best because it fits my family story so well.

I like to think of my mother sitting in the kitchen as a young wife and mother, her anger at my young, drunk father who is already in bed subsiding as she opens the butcher paper and finds a warm po'boy waiting for her, already cut in two.  I imagine her grabbing the tabasco bottle that was always on the kitchen table, sprinking some drops on the oysters, maybe some lemon and ketchup, her mouth salivating, and biting into it, the crumbs falling all over her nightgown, the glorious mixture of the crusty bread, the crisp fried oysters, the shredded lettuce and tomatoes and pickles blessing her throat, the hot sauce reminding her of my father, and maybe as she eats she thinks of him and how he'd sit outside the house during oyster season with a sack of them, naked from the waist up, using a knife to cut open their shells, so like a woman's sex, if a woman's sex could be petrified, stabbing the flesh and eating them off the tip of the knife cold and sweet and salty.  

Maybe she'd forgive him, maybe not, maybe the oysters worked their gris gris on her and she'd slide into bed next to him when she was done, full, pouty, but feeling just  a little bit sexy.  He'd be snoring, his back turned to her, but she'd lie next to him, press her now rounded, full of oyster po'boy stomach against his back and sleep.

The best oyster po'boy I ever had was at Salvos in Belle Chasse, Louisiana.  Hole in the wall working class deli and restaurant. Very noisy, very cheap:  heavenly. 


  1. "From the French pour boire (peace offering)"--fascinating, especially in relation to this story. I love the way you write about food. Perhaps it's cultural, but you don't hold back--food is very clearly close to sex, but there's no guilt about either. I can't imagine writing about food so enthusiastically. For me there seems something so shameful about eating, weight, and perhaps even that sort of unabashed enjoyment.

  2. wonderful tale, piquant and fresh, sprinkled with a bit of etymology.

    (I confess - i found 'piquant' because 'pungent', which i tried first, wasn't quite right...)

  3. This had me beating a quick path to Acme's in the Quarter for a dozen on the half shell and a po'boy.