On The Half-Shell
For the first time in recorded history this magazine has a cover story about oysters at the same time that the city faces a runoff in a mayoral election. Such a cosmic convergence suggests some sort of story about a New Orleans mayor and oysters. Fortunately there is one.
In 1936 when the eloquent President Franklin Roosevelt was in town, he was escorted by the ineloquent mayor of New Orleans, Robert Maestri. The mayor, the President and their entourage, which included governor Richard Leche, toured the town to survey federally funded projects. That night the politicians relaxed. As the story goes, Maestri’s handlers urged the mayor, who was a rough-hewn machine politician, to speak to the president as little as possible so that his street dialect patois would not clash with Roosevelt’s high society diction. The mayor contained himself dutifully throughout the day, but lost it when he gushed over the house classic Oysters Rockefeller. Turning to the president, he asked a question that has become a classic bit of local political lore: “How do ya’ like dem ersters?”
We’ll get to the President’s response, but first we should note that that moment has been enshrined at Antoines. The dinner was in a long narrow room. If you are facing the Hermes bar it was through the door to the left. On the wall above the table is a photograph of the gathering, The President is sitting in the middle; the governor, mayor and whoever are standing to the sides.
As for other presidential encounters with gulf oysters, Harry Truman was from Missouri where oysters are few, though as president he spent much time in Key West where he could have had oysters from the eastern end of the gulf. And given oysters rumored properties as an aphrodisiac, some presidents might have had sacks of oysters sneaked though the back door.
My guess is that the presidents-to-be who had the most access to gulf oysters were the ones who spent the most time in Louisiana. Zachary Taylor lived on a plantation in Louisiana for a while, so he could have had oysters in his dressing, and when Andrew Jackson celebrated the battle of New Orleans, his victory meal reportedly included oyster gumbo.
When President George W. Bush came to town in 2002, he dined in the Proteus room at Antoine’s where his meal included Oysters Rockefeller. Bush’s meal prompted a gleeful response from the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, a marketing group for the local mollusks which made a claim that might have otherwise escaped presidential biographers. According to the task force, Bush is a “longtime aficionado of Gulf oysters.”
Did Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller ever have Oysters Rockefeller? That is lost to history. Also not known is Roosevelt’s reply to Maestri’s query. We would assume, however that he liked dem ersters real good.