By Robert St. John
Sometimes it’s the smallest things that make a huge difference.
When our second restaurant, Crescent City Grill, opened, we added a roast beef po-boy to the menu. I patterned it after the roast beef po-boys I had eaten all of my life in New Orleans. Actually, that’s not 100 percent accurate. I patterned it after the way I had been eating New Orleans roast beef po-boys all of my life.
The typical New Orleans roast beef po-boy will be made with sliced roast beef (and hopefully some of the little bits of roast-beef “debris” that remain in the bottom of the cooking pan), gravy made from the drippings of the roast beef, shredded lettuce or shredded cabbage, pickles, mayonnaise, mustard, possibly some type of mild, white cheese, all between a split piece of French bread.
I have been eating that sandwich for 50 years. Though as a child I left off the lettuce/cabbage, pickles and cheese. In my early 20s I added the cheese and lettuce. At 26, I opened the restaurant and served our roast beef po-boy the way I was eating them at the time.
About seven years ago, my son and I were having lunch in the Crescent City Grill. He ordered a roast beef po-boy but asked if he could add pickles. His favorite sandwich is turkey with mayo, mustard, and pickles, and since we don’t always have turkey, he opted for a roast beef po-boy in the same manner. “That’s the way they eat them in New Orleans,” I said.
We kept a small amount of pickles in the kitchen for our hamburgers, so we honored his request. When I took a bite of his po-boy I was amazed at how much better it tasted than our usual preparation without pickles. I instantly regretted what I had been missing all of those years. I talked to the managers and asked, “Why don’t we use pickles on our po-boys?”
“We don’t know,” they replied. “We assumed that you didn’t like pickles on po-boys.”
“I was wrong.”
In New Orleans they put pickles on almost all of their po-boys – roast beef, shrimp, oyster and even turkey. Why? Because pickles are a key component to po-boys. We started using pickles on all of our po-boys. It has made a huge difference.
The key is to use a basic, thinly sliced dill pickle. Nothing thick, nothing fancy, nothing with ridges, just a few plain dill pickle slices. It adds just the right amount of sour and acid to the flavor profile of the sandwich. What I had been eating was a dull one-dimensional sandwich. The pickles gave it depth and complexity.
However, fancy pickles do have a place in the larder. I am about to let you in on a not-too-well-kept secret. I hesitate to do so, because when I inform you of this product, and you try it once, there is a risk that store shelves will be empty and I will not be able to remain “stocked up” on “my” pickles.
Nevertheless, here it goes: The best pickle on the planet – bar none – is a Wickle. There, I said it. Take that information and do with it what you will. Though I warn you: Once you eat a Wickle, you’ll never go back to bland, lifeless, major-brand pickles, ever. Seriously, ever.
Wickles are purely Southern and made in Alabama. But I had to go to the redwood forest to discover them. I was in California last year and was in charge of cooking dinner for about 30 men, mostly Californians. Two of them gave me a ride to the grocery store to purchase supplies. As we were winding through the aisles, one of the men asked, “Have you ever had a Wickle?”
“A Wickle,” he said. “It’s the best pickle you will ever eat.” His wife, a native of New Orleans now transplanted to Southern California, buys them all of the time. We bought a couple of jars and brought them to the dinner. They lasted about five minutes. It was truly the most interesting pickle I had ever eaten. Almost everyone who ate a Wickle said the same thing.
The name, I assume, comes from a blending of the words “wicked” and “pickle,” though a more appropriate moniker would be awesickle. It is one awesome pickle.
A Wickle is, at the same time, sour, sweet and spicy. They are also cool and crisp – everything I want in a pickle. I guess they’re good for sandwiches and burgers, but I like eating them on their own.
So what have we learned today?
1.) Despite what they may eat on a daily basis, Californians love Southern food.
2.) First-graders aren’t too young to place on the food development team.
3.) Trust that New Orleanians know how to make a po-boy. Just eat it the way they prepare it.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.