The Lives and Loaves of New Orleans

New Orleanians have had a taste for French-style bread since colonial times. As the late historian Michael Mizell-Nelson wrote in New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories, “By 1820, almost sixty bakers—most of whom were French—ran small- to medium-sized businesses. A few bakeries were large enough to afford horse-and-wagon delivery, but the majority continued to dispatch slaves carrying bread loaves in wicker baskets.”

New Orleans-style French bread, which is less dense and has a thinner crust than traditional French baguettes, is still in heavy production, partly owing to the city’s obsession with po-boy sandwiches. If anything defines the po-boy, it is the bread that gives it form. These days, however, it’s often the hands of German and Italian bakers—descendants of other prominent immigrant populations—that mix, knead, and form the “French” loaves in New Orleans. Now, the loaves are delivered by bread truck, in some cases twice a day, to the city’s many groceries, restaurants, po-boy shops, and corner stores with sandwich counters.

Forty years ago, following the fall of Saigon, 2,100 Vietnamese refugees resettled in the Greater New Orleans area with the aid of the local Catholic Diocese. Members of this exiled community quickly began contributing to the fishing, oyster, and shrimping industries across the Gulf Coast.

In all corners of the metropolitan region, they also opened pho shops, groceries, bakeries, and sandwich counters. Because of its resemblance to the po-boy — the city’s air-pocketed, flaky-crusted, French-loafed sandwich — the bánh mì became the local Vietnamese community’s most notable contribution to the New Orleans table.

In this project, we highlight bakers of Vietnamese, German, and Italian heritage, as well as a few of the hardworking po-boy makers (and one oyster loaf partisan) who keep those bakers in business.

~ Sara Roahen


SFA oral history work in Louisiana is made possible with support from The Ruth U. Fertel Foundation.

Interviews

Camille “Cam” Boudreaux

Cam Boudreaux and his wife, April Bellows, cooked in the kitchens of fine dining restaurants for many years before opening Killer Poboys in 2012, a no-sign sandwich shop secreted in the back of the French Quarter’s Erin Rose bar.

Charles Joseph “CJ” Gerdes

CJ Gerdes’s grandfather Joe Casamento opened the restaurant in 1919. CJ has never known a life without Casamento’s, the oyster and fried seafood house in Uptown New Orleans that’s known for its immaculate tiles and for closing every summer.

Jason Gendusa

Jason Gendusa is co-owner of John Gendusa Bakery, and the fourth generation to operate the family-run business in New Orleans.

Linh Garza

Linh Garza is the second generation owner of Dong Phuong Bakery, located in New Orleans East.

Marvin Matherne

Marvin Matherne purchased Guy’s Po-Boys from Guy Barcia in 1993 and made good on his childhood fantasy.

Myra Bercy-Rhodies

Myra Bercy-Rhodies opened Freret Street Po’Boy and Donut Shop in Uptown New Orleans in 2009.

Ngoc Le and Triet Tra

Triet Tra and her husband Dong Huynh opened their convenience store-meets-Vietnamese deli in 2012. They serves specialties like bánh mì, pho, bun, and bánh xèo.

Sal LoGiudice

Sal LoGiudice’s grandfather Nicolo Evola opened United Bakery in New Orleans in 1943. Sal eventually took over the bakery. It closed in 2005 after the floods following Hurricane Katrina.

The Takacs Family

The Takacs family opened Pho Tau Bay in New Orleans in 1982. It honors the chain Tuyet Takac’s father once owned in Vietnam.

Tia Moore-Henry

Tia Moore-Henry owns Cafe Dauphine with her husband and sister-in-law. Along with its po-boys, the restaurant features Gulf seafood pastas, baby back ribs, stuffed bell peppers, and gumbo made with a five-hour roux.