PITTSFIELD, Maine — Just try it.
That was the message Sunday for visitors to Maine Central Institute’s International Food Festival. Coconut rice balls from the Marshall Islands, Chinese dumplings and Thai papaya salad were just a few of the culinary creations produced by MCI students who hail from all over the globe. The school’s Parks Gymnasium probably never smelled so good.
“Come try,” said Quan Tran, an MCI senior from Vietnam. “It’s very good.”
Maine Central Institute, a semiprivate school in Pittsfield, has international students from 20 countries this year who make up about one-quarter of the student body. The rest are Americans, and according to the foreign students, the Americans are curious about cultures converging around them.
“This is a chance to show our culture to America,” said Tran, who is a member of the school’s Diversity Club, who organized the festival Sunday for a second year. “A lot of people are interested in our food.”
Proud Vidhayasarana, a junior from Thailand, offered pumpkin balls in coconut cream, a sweet drink with soft, multicolored bits floating in it. The drink complemented well the papaya salad, which like many Thai dishes packed a spicy punch.
“We like it spicy,” said senior Am Makmettakul, who helped prepare the dishes. “It’s just what we grew up with.”
Elbe Barker of the Marshall Islands is a director of one of the MCI dorms and also the adviser to the Diversity Club. She said the International Food Festival was conceived by students who were eager to share their cultures and cuisines. It’s one of the many ways MCI students from different countries learn from one another.
“We’re glad more people came this time,” said Barker, noting a sharp increase in attendance over last year, including members of the public. “We hope it will be even bigger next year.”
Kathy Quirion and John Ostromecky traveled to MCI from Winslow. For a $4 per person cover charge, they were highly impressed with the varieties of food being offered.
“This is a nice change from a regular Sunday morning breakfast,” said Quirion. “It’s a lot of fun to learn about the kids here, and the food’s very good.”
Food wasn’t the only offering, though. The Vietnamese students, led by senior Gina Le, demonstrated a traditional bamboo dance. Le, dressed in a colorful, flowing silk dress, was the first to try. Six other students worked six bamboo poles in a repeating rhythm punctuated by slamming the poles together. Le danced through the pattern nimbly and with style, her bare feet never touching the bamboo. In Vietnam, dancers typically start at opposite ends, joining in the middle to symbolize coming together, she said.
Within minutes, lines of people were joining the dance. Their unpracticed feet tangled with the bamboo, sometimes resulting in a pileup of laughing bodies. This particular cultural tradition was too foreign for some of them to master but clearly enough fun to try. That, after all, was the point.