BILOXI, Miss.— It’s early morning and I’m sitting in my hotel room at the Beau Rivage, 25 floors above the Mississippi Sound, about to start a day that will end with a great benefit concert for Extra Table. As I look across the water towards Horn Island I find myself thinking— not of seafood, but— of bread.
As a kid, my family had a small fish camp way up the Pascagoula River. My youth was spent shrimping, crabbing, fishing, and skiing in these waters. My love of seafood was born here. Despite the amount of time I spent in New Orleans, my love of po-boys was forged on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The earliest po-boy I can remember eating wasn’t at The Acme Oyster Bar in New Orleans, but at Rosetti’s in Back Bay Biloxi. The po-boys on the Mississippi Gulf Coast are slightly different than po-boys of New Orleans. Down here they often prefer the pressed variety.
I have never researched the origin of the pressed po-boy, but if I had to guess, I would imagine it started with immigrant Croatian fishermen. In the early part of the 20th Century thousands of Croatians immigrated to the Mississippi Coast. They were fishermen in the old country and they became fishermen in their new home. They also opened up restaurants.
Croatia is located directly across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. Both the west coast of Italy and the eastern shores of Croatia share a sea filled with seafood. The pressed po-boy actually might be the fault of the Germans and the Brits. You see the Brits holiday in the South of France. To get away from the Brits, the French holiday in Spain, the Germans holiday in Italy, forcing the Italians cross the Adriatic into Croatia (the Spanish don’t holiday, they sleep until noon year ‘round).
It’s my theory that the Italian Panini (the pressed sandwich with salami and various cheeses) made its way across the Adriatic from Italy to Croatia. There it was still pressed on a flat-top griddle but was replaced with seafood. Once the Croatians emigrated to the American South, they brought the pressed version with them and combined elements of New Orleans po-boys with the fresh seafood they were catching and deep frying, and the pressed po-boy was created.
If it didn’t happen that way, it should have.
Just a few blocks from where I sit this morning is the former location of Desporte’s Bakery in Biloxi. This place was responsible for decades of excellent French bread until Hurricane Katrina completely washed away the entire building in 2005. Only a slab stands today.
The key to a good po-boy is the bread, and to my taste Desporte’s Bakery in Biloxi made the best French bread. Period. New Orleans’ purists would scoff at the previous statement, and that’s O.K. Unfortunately Mother Nature wiped Desporte’s off of the map, so they are no longer around to have a taste test or cutting. I purchased Desporte’s’ French bread for the first 15 years the Crescent City Grill was open. It was delivered fresh and we used it for po-boys and for bread pudding.
I don’t know too much about the original bakery other than the things I heard. I believe it was originally operated by Italian emigrants who brought a massive baking oven from Europe that had to he kept on 24 hours a day. I was told that there was a standing order with the Biloxi Fire Department not to cut off the gas because the bricks would constrict and it would ruin the oven. I don’t know if that’s the truth, but it’s a great story. Either way, the bread that came from that oven was amazing.
After Katrina we searched for good, fresh French bread for years. We went through several types and brands but none could compare to Desporte’s. No one was delivering fresh French bread 100 miles north out of New Orleans up I-59 to Hattiesburg and we didn’t have the manpower to send an employee every day to pick up bread. It was during this period that we realized how spoiled we had been when Desporte’s was open.
Every bread we tried for years never worked. However, around a year ago we met a man who drives fresh bread from New Orleans to our part of the state. Two of the greatest bakeries in New Orleans are Leidenheimer and Binder. My knee-jerk choice was Leidenheimer. “That’s the biggest name in bread down there. That’s who we’re going to use.”
“Not so fast,” said one of my managers. “Lets do a cutting.”
We tried both breads side-by-side, untoasted. Then we tried each bread side-by-side, toasted. Then we made a fried shrimp po-boy and a roast beef po-boy. The results were unanimous. The Binder French bread made fresh daily at the Alois J Binder Bakery on Frenchman Street in the Marigny was the winner hands down. We had finally found a replacement for Desporte’s.
A month ago we changed the cut of beef we were roasting and the recipe for beef gravy, and now we are actually better off than we were before Katrina. It took us 10 years, but we are back and better than ever. That’s the feeling I get when I visit the Coast. It’s still not quite the same as it was pre-Katrina, but in many ways there have been major improvements. Of course they will never be 100% “back” until someone opens another bakery like Desporte’s.
Pork Tenderloin Po Boy
1 tsp Paprika
1 tsp brown Sugar
1 Tsp Kosher Salt
1 tsp Chili Powder
1 tsp Dry Mustard
1 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground
1/4 tsp Ground Cinnamon
1 tsp Ground Coriander
1-2 Tbl Olive Oil
2 Pork Tenderloins, approximately one-pound each, cleaned and trimmed
6 8-inch French bread, split down the middle
2 cups Green Leaf Lettuce, shredded
3 Roma Tomatoes, slice thinly
1/2 cup Red Onion, shaved paper thin
1 Recipe Chutney Mayonnaise
Combine the dry spices in a small mixing bowl, blend well.
Lightly brush the tenderloins with the olive oil and spread the dry spice mixture over the pork. Press the spice mixture firmly into the pork.
Prepare the grill and cook over direct medium heat until the pork is barely pink in the center, about 15-20 minutes (155 degrees). Turn the pork 2-3 times while cooking.
Remove the pork from the grill and allow to rest 5-10 minutes. While the pork is resting, grill the po boy bread for 1-2 minutes on each side.
Spread the chutney mayonnaise on the toasted bread. Slice the pork into one-eighth inch thick slices. Place several slices of pork on each roll and top with shredded lettuce, tomato and red onion.
Yield: 6 sandwiches
1 Tbl Olive Oil
2 Tbl Yellow Onion, minced
1/4 tsp Salt
2 tsp Garlic, minced
1/2 tsp Curry Powder
2 Tbl Sherry
3/4 cup Chutney
3/4 cup Mayonnaise
In a small sauté pan, heat olive oil over low heat. Place the onion, garlic, salt and curry powder and cook for 1 minute. Add sherry and cook until almost dry. Remove from heat and cool completely.
Once the cooked mixture is cooled, combine with the remaining ingredients. Store covered and refrigerated until ready to serve.
Yield: 1 1/2 cups