New Orleans yeast: A brief history of Leidenheimer’s bread
For your “Only in New Orleans” file: A German immigrant achieves fame and fortune making French bread. The immigrant was George Leidenheimer, who came to New Orleans from Deidesheim and set up a bakery bearing his name on Dryades Street in 1896. According to the company’s website, he first baked the heavy, dense brown breads of his homeland, but he found a more receptive market for French bread, with its crisp crust, which has served as the foundation for generations of po-boy sandwiches.
The bakery moved in 1904 to the brick building it still occupies at Simon Bolivar Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Its trucks ply the city’s streets daily, full of hot loaves of French bread to deliver to an appreciative clientele. It also delivers its bread as far west as Colorado, as far north as Maryland and as far south as Florida.
- The Leidenheimer Baking Co. motto, found on each wrapper, is “Good to the Last Crumb.” Many of the trucks feature the Bunny Matthews characters Vic ‘n’ Nat’ly.
- For years, commercials featured a catchy jingle acknowledging the company’s German-French heritage that is impossible to get out of your head: “Oooh, la, Leidenheimer /That’s what I said /Ooh, la, Leidenheimer /That’s French for bread.”
- While the story about the founding of the company is straightforward, the story about the origin of the po-boy sandwich is not. In fact, it’s as messy as an appropriately gloppy roast-beef po-boy. The traditional tale is that the sandwich was invented by the Martin brothers, Benny and Clovis, to feed striking streetcar conductors in 1929. According to a story on the website for the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival — held every fall — Benny Martin said the men were fed for free until the strike ended. Whenever a striker approached the Martins’ shop, Benny Martin said he or his brother would say, “Here comes another poor boy,” thus giving the sandwich its name.
- That story, while often repeated, appears to be apocryphal. A 1933 newspaper story about the sandwich indicated the brothers were selling their sandwiches near the French Market years before the strike, according to a 2016 story in The Times-Picayune. In that case, the “poor boys” were desperate truck farmers from St. Bernard Parish who had come in to sell their produce.
- The story goes back even further. In Sidney Bechet’s autobiography, “Treat It Gentle,” the legendary jazzman wrote of sharing ham po-boys in the 1910s with a fledgling cornet player named Louis Armstrong.
- More po-boy lore: On Dec. 7, 1851, The Daily Picayune wrote about fried-oyster sandwiches sold at Sam’s Saloon on St. Charles Avenue that, while unnamed in the story, sound suspiciously like what we know as po-boys.
Regardless of the sandwich’s origin, New Orleanians are passionate about their po-boys, and they crowd into sandwich shops to buy them — dressed, of course — while grabbing up fistfuls of paper napkins. A sandwich doesn’t have to be built on a Leidenheimer’s loaf to be called a po-boy, but if it is, it can be considered that much more authentic. Add a frosty bottle of Barq’s on the side, and you’ve just found yourself a bit of New Orleans nirvana.