- Associated Press - Saturday, September 16, 2017

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A contentious battle over the price of bread was waged in New Orleans in 1917. Bakers pleaded with consumers to accept an increase, and they ended the longstanding practice of taking returns of stale bread. The local Housewives League launched an investigation into whether there was price gouging. Hearings were held. There was a push for standardized sizes. And eventually the 5-cent loaf became a 10-cent loaf.

The change was difficult for blue-collar families to accept in the city, and it was devastating for poor ones. Bread was not an option on the dinner table at the time. As the New Orleans Item wrote on Aug. 22, 1917, “Cheap bread doesn’t create human happiness, perhaps, but it contributes to it. It is one of the signs by which it is known.”

Lawson Garic thought he could offer not only a better price, but also a better product. The New Orleans native had been long retired from the bakery business, but in the winter of 1917 he announced his plans to return.

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Garic had gotten his start as an apprentice baker near the old Treme Market in the mid-19th century, near the present-day site of Municipal Auditorium. His career was interrupted in 1882 when he and his brother Oscar were sentenced to prison after they were convicted of manslaughter in the killing of a sheriff’s deputy named Pat O’Brien. The Garics were pardoned by Gov. Sam McEnery in 1884 and released.

The following year, Lawson Garic and his brothers went into business, opening Garic’s Bakery at what’s now 929 Decatur St., across the street from the French Market. The bakery, which made various breads, cakes and even hardtack, seems to have thrived, selling to people shopping at the market but also supplying French bread for Charity Hospital and some of the city’s best-known French restaurants.

But Lawson Garic got out of bread game around the turn of the century for the potentially more lucrative real estate business. In the fall of 1917, he was ready for a comeback.

“I am an expert baker,” Garic wrote in a letter to Public Safety Commissioner Sam Stone that December. “In 1885 I founded the Garic bakery opposite French Market and sold bread from the oven. But the process of making bread has changed, and in this change the health of the public is becoming injured. The steam oven, in my opinion, is responsible. The present process of forced fermentation leaves the bread unfit for human consumption.

“Bad bread is causing appendicitis among our people, and the doctors have not denied this charge to me. It is causing defective eyesight in children and even blindness in many cases. Bread as now baked should not be eaten for at least 12 hours after it comes from the oven. If the public will accept my advice they will find that it will be more nutritious after it dries out and the fermentation ceases.”

Garic’s plan was to open a new business at either the old Fabacher’s building at 137 Royal St. or an undisclosed site closer to Canal Street, with five to eight bread ovens as well as a soup kitchen. And he had a name for it: the “poor man’s bakery.”

For reasons that are unclear, the plan seems to have fallen through. An extensive search turned up no evidence that Garic ever opened a new bakery at Royal and Iberville streets. Less than three years after he floated his idea of a poor man’s bakery, he died at the age of 68.

It would be presumptuous to assert that Garic had a direct role in the invention or naming of the po-boy sandwich, which first appeared in print in New Orleans in a 1929 story about a criminal trial in Pointe a la Hache. But in his 1917 bakery proposal he uses strikingly similar language — this from a baker who was known for his French bread, no less.

It’s more evidence that “poor” had been used to describe affordable food in the local lexicon long before the 1929 streetcar workers strike during which lore holds the po-boy sandwich was created. And in the case of Lawson Garic’s plan, anyway, “poor man’s bakery” referred not to relatively affluent unionized streetcar employees but to laborers who were at risk of being priced out of the market for bread.

Garic’s Bakery, the French Quarter business that Lawson Garic had turned over to his brothers around the turn of the century when he decided to sell real estate, continued to operate for decades after his death. The building still stands today.

And while it’s not clear that Garic had any role in the naming of the po-boy, the business that bore the name of the man behind the poor man’s bakery concept is wedged right in the middle of New Orleans sandwich royalty — on one side, a couple of doors down, is the Central Grocery, by many accounts the birthplace of the muffaletta. And in the French Market just a block away sits the spot where Bennie and Clovis Martin once operated their original lunch stand, the spot where they claimed decades later to have sold the first po-boys to striking streetcar workers in 1929.


Information from: The Times-Picayune, https://www.nola.com

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