NEW ORLEANS (AP) — In the hierarchy of New Orleans sandwiches, there’s the po-boy, the muffuletta then everything else. But a century ago, a simpler creation was perhaps the most famous sandwich in town, at least for a short period of time.
It’s mostly forgotten now. But the sandwich, as interpreted by one of its champions, is easy to reconstruct. The ingredients: two pieces of bread and a slice of bologna, served with a wink and a nod.
It was the result of the Louisiana Legislature passing Act 176 of 1908, also known as the Gay-Shattuck Act. The law, among other provisions, made it illegal to serve alcohol to women except at restaurants.
Enter what became known to readers of one local newspaper as “the ‘official’ sandwich,” described by a reporter for the New Orleans Item in January 1914. The writer, who was unidentified (stories almost never had bylines at the time), had paid a visit to a French Quarter business called the Haymarket.
The Haymarket, at 931 Iberville St., had attracted the attention of the authorities after a 15-year-old Russian girl was discovered drinking there. The owners, Charles and William Stock, were charged in Juvenile Court with violating another provision of the Gay-Shattuck law by letting a minor into their business. The case was thrown out after a police captain testified that the Haymarket was a restaurant, not a cabaret.
On the night of Jan. 6, the day after the charges against the Stocks were dropped, a reporter for the Item paid a visit to the Haymarket. “Between 11 o’clock Tuesday night and 2 o’clock Wednesday morning, there was but one order of food – food for eating purposes – served in the Haymarket,” the reporter wrote in a story published the next afternoon. “A dull night though it must have been. There were perhaps 50 customers who came and went during that time. Several were women.”
This would have been a problem, obviously, but the Haymarket was a restaurant and most definitely not a cabaret, no sir. So every time a woman was served a drink, it would be accompanied by an official sandwich.
It wasn’t designed to be eaten, of course. But the official sandwiches had a busy lifespan, nonetheless, being “switched from table to table as the winds of favor blew and the women in the place changed from one party of men to another,” the paper wrote. At one point, one official sandwich fell apart.
“Somewhere in the shuffle one of the sandwiches lost its bologna,” the Item wrote, “but up to the time your correspondent left was not retired from active service. Whether or not that fact impaired its usefulness is a legal way has not been learned.”
The Item’s reporter tried to order a regular meal, but the waiter told him, “We’re out of everything in that line tonight.” The official sandwich was the only thing available.
The journalist then summoned a police officer and asked for his take on the situation. Policeman William Brown described the place as “a cabaret restaurant,” drank a glass of whiskey and confided in the reporter that it was difficult it was to make an honest living on $75 a month.
Later, the officer broke up a scuffle. Sailors, groups of men and single women came in and out. Drinks were made, and official sandwiches were served. The hungry reporter eventually gave up on getting food and ordered delivery.
“Your correspondent never got the ‘official’ sandwich at his table. The young woman who plays the banjo accepted an invitation for a chat, but drank grape juice. She was at a loss to explain the sign reading ‘Restaurant,’ painted on the door panels of the place.
“She guessed the place must have changed its ‘policy.'”
The official sandwich presumably ceased to exist just a few years later when the sandwich loophole was closed. In October 1916, the Daily States reported, in a case involving the Blue Ribbon saloon and dance hall in what’s now the Central Business District, Criminal District Court Judge Frank Chretein “ruled that although a place adjoining a saloon may have a license to conduct (a) restaurant, it cannot be dignified with such a name when only sandwiches are sold.”
That wasn’t the end of the Gay-Shattuck Act, of course, nor the end of attempts to work around it. Early on the morning of March 8, 1918, according to the States, business owner John Anstet was arrested by New Orleans police.
“At the time of the arrest, it is charged, three men and three women were seated at a table in the restaurant adjoining the saloon,” the paper wrote. “They had several bottles of beer before them. In a saucer was some mashed potatoes, which, the police say, showed evidence of being quite aged.”
Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com