It’s a jolt to find a recipe for what amounts to an oyster po-boy in Jane Grigons’s English Food, but even if we concede that anywhere there are oysters and mankind the oysters are bound to end up on someone’s table between two pieces of bread, Griegson’s foray into New Orleans cuisine is still no less than a British assault.
Grigson’s recipe–“Oyster Loaf”–begins: “This is one of the best of eighteenth-century dishes,” she begins, adding, “It was taken to America, and became popular in New Orleans in the eighteenth century, where it acquired the endearing name médiatrice.” In this simple statement Grigson covers a lot of ground with a host of erroneous assumptions, not the least of which is the po-boy’s English origins. To begin with, though the British made a heroic effort to capture New Orleans in the winter of 1814-15, the city was never under British rule. Granted, in the late 1800s oyster sandwiches on French loaves were known in New Orleans as well as San Francisco as “oyster loaves”, a term still used in San Francisco, but Grigson’s recipe calls for the oysters to be placed on a bun after being sautéed in butter and poached in sour cream as well as “double” cream, a uniquely British ingredient. It’s more stew in a bread bowl than a sandwich.
The earliest known account of what eventually came to be called a po-boy was published in The Daily Picayune on Dec. 7, 1851: “A big loaf of bread is ‘dug out’ – reserving a crust end as a stop – any quantity of delicious fried or broiled oysters is piled in; the top is neatly put on; and a gentleman can carry home his loaf and his ‘dozen’ – all hot – or have them brought home, for a lunch or a relish to dinner.” The legend of what Grigson calls the médiatrice is fraught with confusion, involving even James Beard in the likely fanciful legend of a sandwich involving various ingredients brought home by a carousing husband to his irate wife—no doubt waiting up with a rolling pin—as a “peacemaker”. Such is the case with the name po-boy (and its various spellings) as well, with diverging claims of authenticity.
Though Grigson’s sumptuous English Food certainly deserves every bit of praise it has received since its publication in 1974, her claim that the English oyster loaf is the predecessor of NOLA’s po-boy is as useless as Pakenham’s final, fatal assault on Old Hickory.