A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from August 12, 2018
Pour le Bois (sandwich) & Pourbois (unsupported “po’ boy” French etymologies)

It’s sometimes stated that the “po’ boy or “poor boy” sandwich of New Orleans, Louisiana, originated from the French “pour le bois” or “pourbois.” There does not seem to be any factual basis for this.

An article in the Minneapolis (MN) Star on December 15, 1937, stated:

“In the early days a great wood grew between New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain and many a man made his living by cutting wood and burning it into charcoal. The sandwiches were originally put up for these choppers. They were called pour le bois sandwiches—for the woods. New Orleans’ French quarter still calls them that. Drive across Canal street into the new section and the name changes before your eyes. There it becomes Pour Bois. And down a little further it becomes just plain Poor Boy.”

However, a check of the digitized newspapers The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), the New Orleans (LA) Item and the New Orleans (LA) States shows not one relevant citation of “pour le bois” or “pour bois” sandwiches.

The book Eating Your Words: 2000 Words to Tease Your Taste Buds (2004) by William Grimes states:

“The second is that it is from pourbois, a tip or gratuity. Supposedly, street urchins would knock at convent doors seeking a pourbois, and the nuns would give them a sandwich.”

There are no relevant citations of pourbois, either.


15 December 1937, Minneapolis (MN) Star, “In This Corner” with Cedric Adams, pg. 13, col. 7:
Origin
We HAD a mention here not long ago of Poor Boy sandwiches. Nat Finney, who has spent some time in New Orleans where the sandwiches originated, has a little background on them which shows how a name can change from one language to another at the same time in the same place and come out something entirely different from its origin. In the early days a great wood grew between New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain and many a man made his living by cutting wood and burning it into charcoal. The sandwiches were originally put up for these choppers. They were called pour le bois sandwiches—for the woods. New Orleans’ French quarter still calls them that. Drive across Canal street into the new section and the name changes before your eyes. There it becomes Pour Bois. And down a little further it becomes just plain Poor Boy.

4 July 1951, New York (NY) Herald Tribune, “Firecrackers and Sparklers Sizzle in Food Editor’s Mail” by Clementine Paddleford, pg. 7, col. 8:
BING-BANG—The beginning of the Po- Boy sandwich we credited to a sandwich shop near New Orleans. Philip A. Greco, of Stuyvesant Oval, writes that “When I attended St. John’s University we had an English course that dealt with modern words and their origin. Po’ Boy, I learned, is the English version of the sandwich called Pour le bois by the French lumberjacks. The sandwich was so named because it was their sole meal during the day in the forest. These sandwiches were made of a loaf of bread sliced through the middle and filled with meat, boiled cabbage or spinach, tomatoes, cheese and sometimes green peppers. The sandwich varied according to the amount of food remaining from the past evening meal. I am presently doing some research on the word ‘hero.’ As soon as I can trace the sandwich to its source I will send the material to you.

Google Books
Eating Your Words:
2000 Words to Tease Your Taste Buds

By William Grimes
New York, NY: Oxford University Press
2004
Pg. 28:
Because the poor boy comes from New Orleans, some insist that the poor boy has a French origin. Two theories contend. One is that it is from pour le bois, a meal taken into the woods by lumberjacks. The second is that it is from pourbois, a tip or gratuity. Supposedly, street urchins would knock at convent doors seeking a pourbois, and the nuns would give them a sandwich.

Posted by Barry Popik
Nicknames of Other PlacesBig Easy, City That Care Forgot (New Orleans nicknames) • Sunday, August 12, 2018 • Permalink