The sanctity of the virgin oyster has been drummed into us quite heavily in the recent past. Truth be told, we at have been doing some of that drumming. Freshly shucked, flipped and eaten straight from the shell, briny juices and all, that’s the way to eat an oyster. A squeeze of lemon, perhaps, or a simple dressing of some sort, but that’s all that’s required. And when it comes to cooking them in any way? Hell no.
But there’s an exception to every rule, and in this case it might just be the oyster po’boy. Its evocative name alone gets us every time, and goes some way to identifying its roots. Say it with a Southern US inflection. There, doesn’t that just take you down the Bayou? Or more specifically to New Orleans, its birthplace.
For the uninitiated, a po’boy is a crunchy-crusted, soft-centred baguette stuffed with any manner of fillings – fried catfish, soft-shell crab, shrimp (prawns to us), Louisiana hot sausage, roast beef and gravy, even French fries and cheese.
Traditionally, Louisiana baguettes came in two-foot lengths. Po’boys were sold as “shorties”– half baguettes – or as full lengths. A “dressed” po’boy involves the addition of tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise (our version is spiked with smoky paprika and plenty of lemon for extra flavour).
As with most iconic dishes, there’s debate as to who invented it and where, and how it came to be named po’boy in the first place, but the strongest of these theories involves Benny Martin, a former streetcar conductor who opened a restaurant in New Orleans. During a four-month streetcar strike, Martin served free sandwiches to his former colleagues. The restaurant workers referred to the strikers as “poor boys”, which came to refer to the sandwiches themselves. Whether this theory is correct or not, there’s no doubt the folk of New Orleans take their po’boys seriously – there’s even a po’boy preservation festival dedicated to them.
In our book, the oyster po’boy is the king of them all. The oyster in this beauty is treated to more than a little heat – no flash under a hot grill Kilpatrick-style here. This time, the oyster is bathed and bubbled in hot oil. Fear not, though. It’s cloaked in a crisp crumb coat to protect its delicate beauty. And when you bite through that crunchy crust, the oyster yields softly and sweetly and does not disappoint.
Our version of the po’boy is on tiny rolls, all the better to nibble on, drink in hand. And the scale of the oyster is just perfect for this size. You could, of course, stay true to tradition and make a larger version with a baguette. But the beauty of this mini-version is you can indulge in more than one, with no feelings of over-indulgence attached.
Once hearty sustenance for striking workers, the po’boy has a history as colourful as its home town of New Orleans.