Where Have The Great Bakers Gone?
The Future Of New Orleans French Bread
This weekend, the third running of the Po-Boy Festival will cram Oak Street with people all weekend long. It, and the organization the produces it, set out a few years ago with amission: the save the poor boy sandwich. They thought it may have been on the way out.
The numbers in Menu’s restaurant index clearly show that we have more poor boy shops around town than we ever did. And the popularity of the Po-Boy Festival–heavily attended by younger eaters–seems also to relieve any concerns about the endangerment of the sandwich.
French bread, though–that’s another matter.
Much has been said about the demise of New Orleans French bread in recent years. There is no question that it isn’t what it used to be.
New Orleans French bread is unique. You won’t see anything like it anywhere else in the world. Certainly not in France. There the loaves may look much the same in shape, size, and color, but the texture is much denser and the flavor quite different.
Two aspects of New Orleans French bread are distinctive. The first is its lightness. The interior often has large gaps and bubbles, and the crumb in general is quite airy. The other hallmark is the thinness and brittleness of the crust. A good loaf of fresh French bread–especially when it’s just been heated in the oven–has a crust so brittle that it litters the table with its crumbs.
That quality keeps restaurant servers busy with their crumbers, scooping off all the detritus. I wave them off. I don’t like the sound those things make. I put those crumbs there and they don’t bother me. In fact, I like to pick them up and pop them into my mouth. No other kind of bread has such a wonderfully good, wafer-thin crust.
What makes French Bread different is the special yeast bakers use. It’s not widely available to home bakers, and it accounts for the huge bubbles in the dough and light texture. The ovens are also distinctive. Water pipes run through them, releasing a spray that keeps the humidity high. The result the the shattering crust.
French bread began to change in the 1970s. The classic shape–thin at the ends, wider and thicker in the center–fell out of vogue, in favor of the longer poor boy loaf. It was more or less the same bread, except that the poor boy is the same width all the way through, the better to accommodate making sandwiches. Now, the old shape is almost impossible to find. Leidenheimer’s says they still make it, but where is it sold?
Next came the nearly simultaneous retirement of the last generation of old-guard bakers. These guys were largely from the World War II generation, and they’d likely picked up the craft from their fathers or uncles. But their Baby Boom kids wanted no part of baking–all thet showing up for work at two in the morning, following exactly a prescribed ritual of making and baking dough. Worse, nobody was coming up from any other part of local society to take their places.
But the late 1980s, the consistency of New Orleans French bread was greatly compromised. I remember asking David Gooch at Galatoire’s where he got his bread. He said it was almost all from one baker. I could hardly believe this, so different was the bread from day to day.
Next came the consolidation of the bakeries, mostly under Leidenheimer. The most famous name–Reising’s Sunrise–was brought into the Leidenheimer family. The same thing happened more recently with Angelo Gendusa, the maker of “soup sticks”–the ten-inch French loaves served at Antoine’s and other restaurants. You would have thought that this would have solved the consistency problem, but if anything it seems to continue to get worse.
And a lot of smaller bakeries just closed–notably Heebe’s and DiSalvo’s on the West Bank. Some soldiered on, fortunately–Alois Binder, who makes the last example of what French bread was like thirty years ago–still bakes his great loaves, but not in enough volume that it’s easy to find. John Gendusa Bakery, which invented the poor boy loaf in the 1920s, is also still around.
The major producer of traditional New Orleans-style French bread here–Leidenheimer’s–is baking and selling French bread to maximum capacities. But it’s not as consistent as it once was, and certain variations on the French bread theme have disappeared. Leidenheimer’s French bread is still an excellent product most of the time. My only problem with it is that I have a long memory for what it used to be.
The only bright spot on the scene is provided by Vietnamese bakers. Trained two generations ago by the French in Vietnam, they make terrific French bread at their restaurants and bakeries. Chez Pierre in Kenner, Dong Phuong in New Orleans East, and the Hi-Do Bakery in Terrytown are particularly good. So the end is not near for New Orleans French bread.
Thank goodness. What would we do without it?