Mardi Gras cultural dinner brings taste of New Orleans to Duquesne’s campus

Emma Polen | Editor-in-Chief | Travisia Wyatt pours icing over her homemade New Orleans style king cake at a Mardi Gras cultural dinner hosted by the Honors College. Cinnamon is the key ingredient in Wyatt's cake baking.

Emma Polen | Editor-in-Chief 

For sophomore Travisia Wyatt, Mardi Gras in Louisiana consists of king cake, homemade chicken gumbo or jambalaya and an entire week off from school. This Mardi Gras, Wyatt brought her traditions to share with her fellow students at Duquesne.

Wyatt, originally from Shreveport, La., misses the week-long break from school the most about Louisiana Mardi Gras. Even though her home is over five hours away from New Orleans, her town knows how to throw a party, with parades and celebratory Krewes, or leaders of the Mardi Gras festivities traditionally wearing over-the-top masks and costumes, who host festivities leading up to the big day.

“Nobody celebrates it like us,” Wyatt said about her home state. She partnered with the Honors College to bring a taste of Louisiana to campus.

The food at the Mardi Gras dinner came from Muddy Waters Oyster Bar in East Liberty. The tasting menu consisted of jambalaya, seafood gumbo and mac and cheese. Muddy Waters Pittsburgh manager Ben Rosenthal said that among the fan-favorites, po’boys and oysters are always their most popular plates, but this day especially.

“We were very busy today,” he said.

To finish off the traditional Mardi Gras spread, Wyatt brought New Orleans-style king cake she made fresh in the Vickroy kitchen. There was no baby in the king cakes, but Wyatt made them with a special New Orleans recipe with only a few ingredients: yellow cake mix, cinnamon and homemade icing poured on top before serving.

According to Wyatt, who said she knows a lot about New Orleans and its many traditions, the bread-like king cake that is typically served in Pittsburgh and other areas of the U.S. further north comes down from the Canadian French Mardi Gras tradition, while the cinnamon roll cake she made for the cultural dinner represented the French recipe coming from French colonizers that made its way to southern parts of the U.S.

Wyatt’s homemade king cake was a hit at the Duquesne event, and her four trays were nearly gone by the end of the dinner. Students walking by Wyatt pointed to their cake and were proud to say it was their second or third piece. The popularity of Wyatt’s king cakes was not a surprise for the Louisiana native, who said it’s not uncommon to be able to buy king cakes in any major supermarket where she’s from. Walmarts and Targets carry the southern cinnamon variety of king cakes alongside their normal groceries around the time of the festivities.

Garden&Gun, a southern lifestyle magazine, estimated that 750,000 king cakes are sold around the time of Mardi Gras, and over half of those sales are accounted for by Rouses, a Louisiana-based grocery chain. The time surrounding the festivities is referred to as “cake season” around New Orleans.

For Wyatt, the cultural dinner with the Honors College was a chance to educate people about Mardi Gras and how it’s celebrated all over Louisiana, she said, a place with a lot of culture and history.

“It’s definitely a big celebration that requires a lot of time to prepare for, but it’s worth it,” Wyatt said. “It’s very nice to just be surrounded by happiness and be able to enjoy the same foods as everybody else. And having that same enjoyment really brings people closer together.”

Aside from preparing the king cakes with friends, Wyatt also put her time into decorating the Towers MPR for the dinner as well as a brief presentation about traditional Louisiana Mardi Gras.

Kathleen Roberts, the director of the Honors College, promotes the cultural dinners as a chance to honor students’ heritage through food, crafts and dance. She encouraged this opportunity for students to make connections, not only to new cultural food, but to each other.

“We’re really focused on learning new things and being curious,” Roberts said. “We’re doing things outside the classroom where those really … relationship-building moments happen.”

Reminiscing about Mardi Gras in Louisiana, Wyatt recalled the laughter, conversation, eating and celebrating that all contributed to the festivities.

“Having such a big group of people come here and actually celebrate Mardi Gras with me was very nice,” she said.