By Asha Tompkins, Arts and Culture Editor
A stream of people flow around the tables covered with aromatic pots of hearty food. Music from the heart of New Orleans drifts through the air. WMPG’s Cajun Cooking contest has visited the USM campus.
To celebrate Mardi Gras and put on a mid-winter party for the communities that support them, WMPG hosted their 24th annual cooking contest for local restaurants and chefs to showcase their homestyle dishes, allow visitors to perform a taste-test and then vote on their favorite meal.
Development Director of WMPG Dale Robin Goodman said that it’s a lot of work to put on, but it’s a lot of fun for them.
“It’s our thank you, really,” said Goodman. “It’s open to the public because we’re a community radio station, so most of our support comes from the community itself. It’s really fun.”
Goodman explained that the restaurants speak with visitors of the Cajun Cooking challenge, and they see them again in their restaurants because they are able to make a deeper connection with those people during the celebration.
“They love doing it because they get to meet a potential clientele that they may not usually get,” said Goodman. “We try to do good press on who participates and pay them back with a little bit of attention.”
There’s no charge for the restaurants to participate, besides what they spend on their food and employees.
“It started out right in the building where the Free Press and WMPG are located,” said Goodman. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve been doing it here [Woodbury Campus Center], and actually you can see we’ve kind of outgrown this room; but this is the best room to do it.”
She explained that regardless of the lack of space, the people are happy, the music is vibrant and the food is delicious.
“This music is very strongly the Acadian Cajun connection, or the Maine New Orleans connection,” said Goodman. “The Cajun Aces come and we’ve got other bands too. It’s strong for WMPG, since we have a lot of connection to the music and musicians in New Orleans.”
Goodman explained that visitors will end up meeting others who are interested in relating to the food culture that has grown in portland in the past 5-10 years.
“Right now, the interest in cajun food fits in,” Goodman said.
The chefs around the tables are happy to talk with people who are interested in trying their hand at cooking at home.
“They’ll tell you what that flavor is missing when you say ‘yours is so good and mine is lacking something, what do you put in it?’” said Goodman. “You hear a lot of that conversation as you go around.”
Goodman advises people to come so they can enjoy the fun of being food critics.
“We ask everyone to vote for their first favorite [food] and their second favorite, then we tally the votes and maybe your favorite will win,” Goodman said.
WMPG announced the winners of the contest. In third place was SMCC Culinary Arts Program, in second place was Bayside American Cafe and in first place, for the second year in a row, Chef Kori Reece from Lenny’s Pub in Westbrook.
A highlight for Goodman is that since she’s a people person, it’s a joy for her to see people that only come once a year to participate in the celebration.
“I love the music, so for me, of course — I’m a musician — hearing this live music is really great, it’s not what you hear everyday, everywhere. It’s different.”
Goodman encourages everyone to look for and join in the 25th annual WMPG Mardi Gras celebration next year.