Thursday, July 9, 2015

Them Poor Boys at John Gendusa Bakery.

New Orleans is a mystical culinary land that speaks its own language... in shrimp Creole, beignets, gumbo and Hurricanes. For the food lover, it is a destination like no other, a chance to speak that tongue and let the crumbs roll off. Some items, like Bananas Foster, Oysters Rockefeller, pralines, call to a higher and mightier position; others speak more to the common man, such as the Monday tradition of sitting down with a bowl of red beans and rice.

Yet none ties together those from every walk of life than the food of the working man... the poor boy. And on this most recent visit to New Orleans, I had the chance to step inside the blistering furnace, John Gendusa Bakery, into a realm of ovens and hand-tucked dough.

New Orleans was once spotted with bakeries, but after Katrina just a handful came back and
continued the tradition. Like others, I have grown to understand that the bread made in New Orleans is like nowhere else in the world, and you can't duplicate the combination of incredibly crusty, slightly salty, pillow pliant centered loaves north of I-12. Some would say I-10, but then some would be making a major mistake and leaving out John Gendusa Bakery.

The Gendusas came over from Sicily, and John Gendusa opened the original bakery on Touro Street back in the early 1920s. Gendusa loved having fresh bread - in Italy at that time, there was a bakery around every corner. So when he came to the states, he started up his own bakery. That's John and his wife Margherita in the photograph. That bakery would become integral to the creation of a New Orleans signature dish.

Street car set aflame during 1929 strike.
In the summer of 1929, streetcar motormen and conductors were at odds with the streetcar railway over contracts. On July 1st that year, the streetcar union voted to strike, and it was on. The first streetcar operated
by a strike breaker after the start of the walkout was set ablaze. For two weeks, folks stayed off the cars. Many New Orleanians were behind the strikers... especially Bennie and Clovis Martin, the proprietors of the Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant in the French Market. Before they opened their store in 1922, they'd been streetcar operators themselves. They supported the strikers in many ways, including giving them free meals.

“Our meal is free to any members of Division 194. We are with you till h--l freezes, and when it does, we will furnish blankets to keep you warm,” read one of the many letters the Martins wrote. When the Martins saw another striker head for their door, they'd remark "here comes another poor boy."

But how did Mr. Gendusa get involved? Well, the Martins were doing what they could to make a living -- after all, you can't just feed folks for free out of thin air -- so they offered large sandwiches to those hungry strikers. They were making those sandwiches on French loaves. Problem with French loaves? They taper at the ends, so if you use it to make one big sandwich to cut into smaller sandwiches for people, they're not all going to be uniform. And there'd be some waste. So they got together with John Gendusa and came up with a 40" long roll that was rectangular on both ends. And thus the poor boy was born.

Jason and John Gendusa.  John's grandfather (Jason's great-
grandfather) was the original John Gendusa from Sicily.
Jason Gendusa is the fourth generation of his family involved in the business. He may have had the hardest row of all his family to hoe... since his was the generation to return after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to rebuild. One of the levees that failed after the hurricane was just four blocks from the
bakery on Mirabeau Avenue. Gendusa came back in and, with his father, cleaned and repaired equipment and restarted the shop. The bakery opened a little more than a year afterwards.

This particular visit to John Gendusa Bakery was facilitated by the Southern Foodways Alliance in coordination with its Summer Symposium, which this year was held in New Orleans. A previous, similar symposium was held ten years ago here, mere weeks before Katrina would change everything.

This June day, with the temperature fluctuating in the 80s, sweat was a given. We were instructed to dress lightly and warned of the heat.  I was expecting it to be over 100 degrees when we walked in the door.  I wasn't expecting quite how it would smell.  Baking bread is a heavenly scent,
but what it smelled like inside John Gendusa Bakery, I hope Heaven actually smells like.  It was overwhelming and beautiful and heady.

Jason was kind enough to start us out with a taste, probably the wisest thing he could do, since I have known grown men grumble about gnawing off their own arms at scents less pure and appetizing.

A crew of men worked the line creating poor boy loaves.  Once we got past where the light streamed in up front, further on than a set of cooling racks near the front door, we watched a dance of machine and mettle, dough being mixed, machines revolving to slip tubes of dough onto a
Rube Goldberg-ish contraption of differing sponges and conveyor belts, gents sliding the lengths over, straightening them, tossing them, expertly lining them up on baking sheets and sliding them into slots on racks.

Other bakers (I would assume every one of these guys could be considered a baker) hauled fully loaded carts of poor boy dough, muffaletta rounds and sandwich rolls into proofing chambers to rise... then on to the ovens and out to cool.

The motion never ceased, not one minute of the nearly hour spent on the property.

And every time a cart was rolled out of the room-sized oven, a steamy haze filled the entire bakery.

Gendusa says he and his dad know those machines inside and out... and that the recipe for the bread is pretty much what his great-grandfather came up with.  Sometimes, he says, the flour is perfect, and all that's needed is yeast, shortening, water... but sometimes the flour isn't up to snuff and some
protein has to go into it.  The bakery is ahead of the potential ban on trans-fats, with a slight change to the formula, but you'd be hard pressed to figure out what's changed.  These loaves are timeless.

Back in November 2011, Grav and I went to New Orleans to experience and document the po'boys of the acclaimed Oak Street Po'Boy Preservation Festival.  At the time, we were there for the numbers, and betwixt the two of us we managed to photograph some 80 loaf-
borne creations.  That festival was created in 2009 to save the poor boy.  You see, sandwich shops are popular all over the United States, and thanks to Jared Fogle (I met him once in my THV years... he was pretty reserved) and his epic weight loss, Subway found a pitchman and its strong foothold in the American market.  In fact, I am lead to understand that Subway has more outlets in Arkansas than any other chain.  That's saying something.

Poor boys aren't just food in New Orleans.  They are a staple of life uniting old and young.  Any thought of replacing the handheld everyman's meal with rubbery soft candy-cutter loaves from Subway, Quizno's, Firehouse Subs or any of the other contenders out there would be tragic. Thing is, a post-Katrina New Orleans losing its bakeries and its population had reason to fear the poor boy's homogenization.  That fear, thankfully, is no longer founded.

When our group emerged one by one, blinking in sunlight, the very light wind quickly cooled each of us.  We made our way to the other places we really wished to visit before congregating for the start of our sessions with Southern Foodways.

The loaves produced at John Gendusa Bakery go to restaurants and stores all over the area... and from what I hear, there's a guy out there shipping them across the nation, but I haven't found him yet.  Jason says no one in Arkansas is using his loaves, and that's a real shame, because as I said,
nothing really equals the bread in New Orleans. If you want a loaf, you'll have to head to the bakery yourself... and yes, they'll likely sell you a loaf, especially if you call first. Of course, if you call, you just might find some place
closer to your abode to pick up your bread.

For more information about John Gendusa Bakery, call (504) 283-2747 or check out the bakery's Facebook page. There's also a fascinating video and oral history
with Jason Gendusa on the Southern Foodways Alliance website.

For more on the history of the New Orleans Poor Boy Sandwich, click here.

Check out some of the po'boys we experienced at the Oak Street Po'Boy Preservation Festival in 2011.

Heck, check them all out.

And for the longest oyster po'boy story... another adventure for Grav and I, click this link.

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If you're interested in New Orleans, you may like:
The New Orleans School of Cooking
The Southern Food and Beverage Museum

Kat's recommendations for dining New Orleans:
Coop's Place
2 Sisters N 'Da East
Redfish Grill 
Desi Romano's
Cafe du Monde (more locations than just the French Quarter!)
Court of Two Sisters
Cooter Brown's
Ralph and Kacoo's


  1. This is the using his loaves, and that's a real shame, because as I said,
    nothing really equals the bread in New Orleans.

  2. How wonderful the bread is, looks very nice, thanks for your useful article.


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