For those of you that think the po-boy is the signature sandwich to come out of New Orleans, think again. New Orleanians – and tourists by the truckload - have been scarfing down muffulettas since the Central Grocery on Decatur Street in the French Quarter slapped the first one together in 1906.
Maria Lupo Tusa, daughter of the Central Grocery’s founder, Signor Lupo Salvatore, claims that her father started making the sandwiches to feed the Sicilian truck farmers who worked the produce stalls of the French Market. “They would order some salami, some ham, a piece of cheese, a little olive salad, and either long braided Italian bread or round muffuletta bread. In typical Sicilian fashion they ate everything separately,” while sitting on crates or barrels and precariously balancing their tiny trays on their knees. Sympathetic to their quandary, Salvatore suggested that he cut the bread and put all the ingredients on it like a sandwich. Distinctly un-Sicilian, the workers nevertheless loved it, and a legend was born.
Today, muffulettas can be found all over New Orleans from delis and restaurants to bars and pool halls and corner grocery stores. I’m pretty sure you can even pick one up at the airport – packed to go – on your way in and out of town, along with jars of olive salad.
As printed by Central Grocery, “A muffuletta consists of imported salami, ham & cheese, Mortadella and ‘Our Special Olive Salad’ on Italian bread.” As with the po-boy, much of the magic relies on the bread, which you’ll never be able to replicate in your home kitchen. So seek out the freshest loaf of crusty Italian bread you can find. The meats and cheeses, you’re on your own. Just buy quality stuff to ensure the best results.
The key ingredient and soul of the sandwich is undoubtedly the olive salad, which provides its insanely delicious flavor and eye candy appeal. It’s chunky and loaded with green and black olives, cauliflower, celery, carrots, hot and sweet peppers, capers, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, spices and all sorts of secret juju. You can mail order Central Grocery’s olive salad here, Boscoli Family’s brand – which is great – here or you can make Emeril’s version yourself. His ingredient list is crazy long, but it’s pretty magical stuff that gets better with age and lasts for two months. Just don’t heat up the sandwich like he does – that’s neither traditional nor recommended.
But we highly recommend – insist actually - that you take a stab at making a muffuletta. But be forewarned - it could be highly habit forming.