Rabalais’ Political History: Mayor Maestri’s Lunch With Franklin Roosevelt

While this week marks the 300th anniversary of the founding of New Orleans, it is also the annual commemoration of a less heralded event in the city’s history that humorously embodies its unique flavors, particularly in politics and fine cuisine.

On April 29, 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made his first official visit to the Big Easy. En route to a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico, Roosevelt was in town to meet with state officials and to dedicate the new Bonnet Carré spillway built by his New Deal programs.

The presidential visit was largely a diplomatic gesture as well, meant to signify a new working relationship between the state and the White House after years of conflict between Roosevelt and late Gov. Huey Long.

According to documents at the FDR Presidential Library, Roosevelt and his entourage (including mistress Missy LeHand) arrived in New Orleans via train at 1:30 p.m. The president then rode in an open-air vehicle through the city with sitting Gov. Richard Leche and then-New Orleans Mayor Bob Maestri before taking in a pre-scheduled lunch at Antoine’s, the famed French Quarter restaurant.

In his book Louisiana Hayride, Harnett Kane recounts the day in detail. On the ride over to the restaurant, FDR and the governor had conversed, but Maestri sat silent, having been instructed not to speak to the president. Organizers had thought that the the mayor, who had only a third grade education and a thick “Yat” accent, would embarrass them in front of the president.

Over their lunch of Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s, however, Maestri broke his silence, turned to the president and asked, “How do ya like dem ersters, chief?”

Roosevelt supposedly went on to tell the mayor about how much he enjoyed the food and how he wished that he could have similar dishes served at the White House on a regular basis.

Maestri followed up by asking, “So ya liked ‘em?”

The resident responded with more effusive praise for his meal.

When a friend later asked the mayor for his impression of Roosevelt, Maestri candidly observed, “Aw, he’s full of bull.”

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