Issue 50
Prairie Grains

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Prairie Grains is the official publication of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers, North Dakota Grain Growers Association, Montanta Grain Growers Association and South Dakota Wheat, Inc.

Copyright Prairie Grains Magazine
February 2003

Po’ Boys: From Barge to Bakery

What Would New Orleans be Without This Sandwich – And What Would This Sandwich Be Without Spring Wheat?

New Orleans (pronounced by true Cajuns as “Nawluns”) is famous for its cuisine, and the signature sandwich in this city on the southern tip of the Mississippi River wouldn’t be possible without the key ingredient produced by farmers on the northern end of the Mississippi—spring wheat.

According to culinary historian Linda Stradley, who outlines the history of American foods on her web site, www.whatscookingamerica.net , the poor boy—or po’ boy, as Cajuns call it—was invented by two brothers, Clovis and Benjamin Martin, in 1929 at their restaurant in the French Market. Legend has it that this sandwich began during a local strike of streetcar workers. The two brothers took pity on those “poor boys” and began offering sandwiches made from leftovers to workers who came in. Some sources say the sandwiches were free, while others say they were sold cheaply at 5 to 15 cents, which would buy a sandwich filled with gravy and trimmings (end pieces from beef roasts) or gravy and sliced potatoes.

Soon the sandwich was being filled with seafood, most notably fried oysters and fried shrimp. In those distant days, shellfish was abundant and cheap. The affluent joined the crowd because, at lunch or snack time, a po’ boy filled with oysters was quicker to consume and easier to digest than one filled with roast beef.

Now, you can find po’ boys with a variety of tasty fillings such as meat balls and smoked sausage.  They are served either “dressed” with a full choice of condiments (such as mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomatoes) or “undressed” (plain). What distinguishes the true po’ boy from just any hoagie or sub sandwich is its traditional emphasis on seafood such as shrimp, catfish, and crawfish as a filling. Whatever choice of seafood, it’s almost always coated in a light cornmeal batter and deep-fried.

French bread also distinguishes the po’ boy in this city that is rich in French culture. Crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, French bread is the soul of the po’ boy sandwich, and you will rarely find any other type of bread used.

True connoisseurs of French bread want it fresh, not soggy from humidity, nor too rigid from exposure. The 40-inch loaf is cut into four to five sections at sandwich shops and restaurants and often toasted to bring out the aroma of the French bread, when po’ boys are served with your choice of fixin’s.

Ooh, That Smell
The smell of hot French bread that has just come out of the oven is beckoningly irresistible at the Alois J. Binder Bakery.  Located at the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans, the bakery’s slogan is “The Happy Baker with the Light Brings You Hot French Bread” – and they fulfill that promise 365 days of the year.

The Binder family name has been associated with the French bread baking business in New Orleans since 1916. Alois J. Binder, Jr., known to all as ‘Butz,” has worked in the family bakery since he was seven years old. Even though Binder is in his mid-70s, he still works at the bakery daily.

Binder says years of experimenting has taught that there is no flour which makes as good a French bread than that milled from hard red spring wheat. The flour that arrives at the bakery is American-grown spring wheat, according to Binder. The wheat is barged down the Mississippi River where it is milled to meet the specifications of French bread bakers in New Orleans. The flour used at the Binder bakery is milled at the Horizon-Port Allen, Louisiana mill as well as the Horizon Milling facility in Houston, Texas (both former Cargill facilities).

Transportation plays a large factor in the cost of the flour, according to Binder. He also uses flour from the ADM milling facility in Destrehan, Louisiana, just a few miles up-river from New Orleans. He currently receives his flour in bulk distribution tankers. The modern Alois J. Binder Bakery off-loads bulk flour shipped from the mills via a vacuum system into several 50,000-pound tanks that are located in an air-conditioned, climate-controlled storage room. Binder feels his product’s quality is much more consistent by having the flour temperature maintained to his desired level. Once sucked into the bakery vacuum system, the flour never touches human hands again.

The flour is dispensed from the holding bins via a large vacuum pipe system into one of three large 500-pound mixers. Resembling a concrete mixer, the greased container is chilled throughout the mixing process, since the flour and liquid’s rolling and tumbling generates a large amount of heat. If allowed to become heated, the dough would start the rising process; however, now is not the time for the yeast explosion.

Once it makes it through this timed process, the dough is mechanically made into balls about the size of a tennis ball. These balls of dough are then mechanically placed into small rectangle proofing bins, where the dough “rests” for about 18 minutes. The proofer hold 540 pieces of dough on each cycle.

Reaching the correct size, the dough is dropped out of the proofing bins onto a conveyer belt heading to the molder. After being rolled by two large stainless rollers, with each roller moving against the direction of the conveyer belt, the molder makes 40 pieces per minute. It now proceeds to the reciprocator where each dough piece is rolled into a 40-inch long rope of dough.

After being placed onto Teflon baking sheets, the dough ropes are placed onto a tray and stacked onto a rolling cart standing about six feet high and holding over 12 tray slots. The cart is then rolled into the “proof box,” maintained at a temperature of 102 degrees F. and a humidity of 85-90%. The “proof box” has a capacity of 2,400 pieces of dough. Here, the dough raises. After the yeast has done its work, the racks of raised dough are moved out and replaced by others. The cart with the raised dough is now the “ready rack” that is moved to the oven.

The worker has just four minutes to load this large horizontal shelf with the loaves of raw dough into the oven. Just as he finishes sliding the last rack of uncooked loaves of bread in the oven, the oven shelf begins to revolve and bring up another 4-foot by 10-foot shelf. The baker starts the process again and again throughout the night. The ovens have ten revolving trays baking 1,200 loaves an hour.

Once the bread comes out of the oven, it is placed onto conveyors, which rolls the baked bread to another areas where the loaves are hand-sleeved into preprinted paper wraps. The wrapped 40” long loaves are then pushed to the loading area, where the baked bread is rolled into trucks for delivery.

The bakery processes 5,000-8,000 loaves of bread daily.  Some loaves are shipped as far away as Jackson, Mississippi (about 200 miles) on a daily overnight freight line. These loaves are put into special cardboard boxes to protect the bread during shipping. Indeed, it would be distressing for the bread to get this far—from raw spring wheat to a fresh finished product—only to have the grocer or restaurateur buy a limp or broken-in-half loaf of po’ boy French bread.

Vance is a freelance writer in New Orleans, the “po’ boy sandwich” capital of the world.