An appetite for Cajun cuisine has been building for years at the University of Southern Maine. Relief finally arrived, courtesy of WMPG.
The campus-based radio station served up a feast of New Orleans-style food at its Fat Tuesday Mardi Gras Party on February 21. By noon, the second floor of the Abromson Center in Portland was packed with revelers.
“It’s a fun atmosphere. We’ve decorated up Abromson, we’re giving away beads, and warming up this February day,” said WMPG Program Director Jessica Lockhart. “We’re not in New Orleans, but we’re doing our best.”
Mardi Gras began centuries ago as a Christian celebration. It falls on the last day before the holy period of Lent, which is characterized by fasting and sacrifice. A big party allowed people to indulge in food and fun before focusing on their religious obligations. The tradition took off in New Orleans, where it evolved to include elements of the local Cajun and Creole cultures.
WMPG launched its version of Mardi Gras in 1994. The idea arose from a desire among disc jockeys to share their love of New Orleans jazz and roots music. The current team of DJs continues that mission. Some of the songs they played for this year’s lunch crowd included “Just Kissed My Baby” by The Meters and “It’s Raining” by Irma Thomas.
With the addition of food to accompany the music, the party became an annual staple of campus life until it was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. A complete cancellation in 2021 was followed by a scaled-down soirée in 2022. This year, festivities returned to full force with an open invitation to all visitors for the first time since 2020.
“It feels great,” said Dean of Students Rodney Mondor. “It’s nice to reconnect with the community. That’s part of what USM is all about.”
The greater Portland hospitality industry made a robust showing. The entire perimeter of the room was lined with tables, each one overspread with trays of Cajun food prepared by a different restaurant. Bayside American Café and Ruski’s Tavern offered different types of gumbo, while Po’ Boys & Pickles served up red beans and rice.
One dish stood out from the rest for its key ingredient. Crawl Foods is best known for its line of granola bars, made with crickets for extra protein. In keeping with the Mardi Gras theme, the company came up with a new recipe for cricket and sausage jambalaya.
“The hesitant response is very common. Usually, we’re just, like, ‘Hey, come on. Try something new today,’” said Crawl Event Coordinator Eliana Brown. “After they’ve had it, most of the time, they’re, like, ‘Wow, this is really good.’”
All of the food was free. Instead of paying cash, visitors were asked only to cast a ballot for their favorite dish to determine a winner in the Cajun Cookin’ Contest. Top honors went to USM’s food services provider, Sodexo, for its étouffée macaroni and cheese with garlic shrimp.
“It’s got some spice to it, so it’s actually really nice. It’s not as dull as northern Maine food,” said sophomore Criminology major Jace Smith. His hometown of Lee is located in Penobscot County, about 190 miles northeast of Portland.
At Smith’s side was Daniel Honey, a senior and fellow Criminology major. His experience with Southern cooking was far more extensive as a native of Alabama. Both the food and overall atmosphere met with his approval.
“I love it,” Honey said. “I like a little bit of Southern culture coming up here. I have to say, the food is pretty good. It’s almost like New Orleans, it’s kind of authentic.”
The enthusiastic response from people like Honey reassured the WMPG staff that there’s a future for the Mardi Gras party after its recent hiatus. Plans are already in the works for next year’s party.