There have been interesting stories coming from Madison, WI about the national and international support for those defending their rights to collective bargaining. Tangible proof is the activity at Ian’s Pizza on State Street, which  has been delivering pizza to the capitol protesters nearby. Pizza orders have been called in on behalf of protesters from all 50 states and from as far away as Cairo – as in Egypt, not Illinois. (see “From Cairo to Madison, Some Pizza”)

A similar story took place in New Orleans over 80 years ago and the result was not just union and community solidarity, but the creation of the region’s most beloved sandwich.

Streetcar Riot, August 1929.

In the summer of 1929, there were transit strikes throughout the United States, and among the most acrimonious was in New Orleans. After heated negotiations broke down, the streetcar motorman and conductors of Division 194 went on strike. On July 5th, the company brought in strike breakers (reputedly criminals from New York) to push back the union and its supporters and reopen the streetcar line. Over 10,000 union members, supporters, and spectators showed up to watch the strikers disable and burn the first car to try to go into service. A protracted shutdown and strike ensued.

When the streetcars did start running again most locals avoided them, both in sympathy with the motormen and for fear of violence. In addition, the striking workers received goods and services from citizens and local businesses. One of those businesses was Martin Brothers’ Coffee Stand and Restaurant, then at the French Market. However, Clovis and Bennie Martin were not your average restaurateurs. When the  brothers first moved to New Orleans from the town of Raceland in Arcadian Louisiana, they worked for the streetcar company and were members of Division 194. So as businessmen, they vowed to feed their former co-workers until the strike ended.

Martin Brothers, St. Claude and Touro.

The workers needed sustenance to walk the picket line, so the brothers asked a local baker to produce a larger and more regular loaf than the traditional French loaf.  They would cut these into 15 or 20 inch sandwiches, filled with their traditional fillings. So basically, they “super-sized” their sandwiches in order to feed the “poor boys” while they were on strike. And once the workers returned to work, the people of New Orleans remembered the sandwich, the “po-boy,” and the Martins’ generosity.

Soon thereafter, the stock market crash precipitated the Great Depression and many more New Orleans residents were out of work. The Martin’s moved their restaurant to St. Claude Avenue; and during such hard times, New Orleans families continued to depend on the brothers’ generous sandwiches to help get by.  They sold a 15 inch po-boy for a dime and the larger size for 15 cents. A lettuce and tomato sandwich was free.

Shrimp Po-boy from Jimmy's Discounts in Gentilly, March 2010.

The brothers eventually went in different directions, but their spirit and their gastronomic creation live on along the Gulf Coast. Po-boy shops abound and the sandwich’s popularity has spawned its own preservation society and festival. Click here for more on the po-boy and the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival.

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