More than 100 area residents turned out for a special celebration of food and culture on Madison’s south side at the Badger Rock Neighborhood Center Sunday, Oct. 25, called “Celebrating Madison Through Our Senses.” In coordination with Centro Hispano, Sustain Dane, and the Center for Resilient Cities, the event hosted five teams of community cooks to share their passion for the cuisine of their ethnic heritage along with the stories of signature meals prepared in the warm embrace of friends and family.

“So many of us are from so many different places. It was dope!” said Devon Hamilton, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and his partner, Leland Pan, whipped up a steaming pot of black-eyed peas and cornbread, a favorite dish from childhood. Hamilton said the event stirred his excitement for both food and community engagement. “I love to eat and I love to cook and I love to just be in a place that makes people happy and I think that food does that,” he said. “Food is a universal language. And cook[ing] for people is a way to speak to them from your heart.”
Organized to bring together the many different cultures of this thriving community, the project called Our Madison Through My Senses aims to give voice to the shared values of neighbors who don’t regularly communicate through words. The exchange of smells, tastes, and textures instead provide an opportunity for understanding that defies the cultural buriers that so often stand in the way. And by sharing these recipes in a cookbook, the creators of this event hope to build relationships that will last well into the future.

“The idea of the cookbook was designed because we felt that people wanted to share stories and to share their lives with one another,” said Sonya Sankaran, program specialist at the Center for Resilient Cities. “The cookbook is a way to bring people together to tell their stories, to validate their stories. But it’s also a historical document of this part of the city at this moment in time — who lives here and what they’re doing and how they correlate to each other, to be celebrated for who they are what their identity is.”

Each of the five dishes were shared as part of a neighborhood feast of delicious flavors. In a friendly competition, the entries were judged by a panel of local experts who selected the dish they enjoyed most. But without playing favorites everyone enjoyed the chance to sample the rich assortment of culinary talent and technique.

“Madison has a great collection of eclectic cultures and peoples,” said judge Adam Haen of the Feed Kitchen. “It’s great that they can all get together in an event like this. You’ve got South America. You’ve got Bangladesh. You’ve got soul food! It’s just awesome to see all the different influences.”
Though one cook was declared the winner, everyone who participated received a small prize and the satisfaction of pride for their accomplishments.

“People were so excited about the different kinds of foods and the representation of the community,” Sankaran said. “You could tell they were sharing the chef’s joy at the end when they got their prizes. There was a lot of sharing of emotion.”

Each of the recipes will be compiled along with other neighborhood delicacies in a collection called Our Madison Through Our Sense Community Cook Book. Once a plan for publishing and distribution is devised, copies will be available at various area locations.