Literacy Kitchen mixes culture and cuisine


Culture and cuisine … with a side of literacy. That’s what you’ll find at the Willy Street Co-op at a new initiative called the Literacy Kitchen Summer Series.

“The idea is that people can learn a bit about Literacy Network by meeting one of our learners who has a particular passion for cooking from their own culture,” says Literacy Network Executive Director Jeff Burkhart.

Literacy Kitchen is a chance to eat delicious food and to learn about another culture while listening to the interesting life experiences from a Literacy Network learner. The series will kick off this Thursday, Aug. 13, 6 p.m., in the Willy Street Co-op Community Room on Madison’s near east side. Tamales will be featured at the first session called “Comida Mexicana” that will be sponsored by the Willy Street Co-op. Fermin Gaytan Flores, an immigrant from Mexico and a Literacy Network learner, will talk about how he makes them.

“He’s also going to talk about his own journey in Madison and how he met his tutor through Literacy Network and how she was, basically, his first friend in Madison,” Burkhart tells Madison365. “She helped introduce him to all kinds of stuff – art museums, the Overture Center. She helped him to get his first job and helped him when he was struggling to get paid by his first employer.”

Literacy Network helped Fermin Gaytan Flores to feel less isolated in Madison.
Literacy Network helped Fermin Gaytan Flores to feel less isolated in Madison.

Gaytan Flores, originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, has now been in Madison for 15 years. “He just loves to cook and he’s a great cook, too! He’ll pretty much have everything prepared,” says Burkhart, “kinda like a Rachael Ray Show.”

Literacy Kitchen is also an outreach opportunity for Literacy Network, a non-profit organization in Madison founded in 1974. It’s a unique chance to explain what they do to the broader community. Literacy Network teaches reading, writing, and speaking skills to Dane County adults and families so they can achieve financial independence, good health, and greater involvement in community life. They work with teachers, tutors, volunteers, and donors to improve adult literacy in Dane County. Burkhart estimates that about 60 percent of the people who come to Literacy Network are Latino.

The series will continue on Aug. 27 when a Tibetan woman named Jolma who was born and raised on the Tibetan plateau. “She’s lived in Madison for 15 years and her story is very similar to Fermin’s. She came to Madison not really knowing English very well. She had a tutor with Literacy Network and that tutor really helped her over a period of about 6 years,” Burkhart says. “With the help of her tutor she got a graphic design degree from Madison College and is now a User Experience Design Consultant. She’s a huge success story.”

Jolma will be cooking Tibetan cuisine and talking about her interesting life journey at Literacy Kitchen Aug. 27.
Jolma will be cooking Tibetan cuisine and talking about her interesting life journey at Literacy Kitchen Aug. 27.

Growing up in the mountains of Rebkong, a cultural hub, Jolma learned the art of making comfort food and the essence of what it takes to make juicy yak meat dumplings.

Jolma is working on a book called “Beyond Her Kitchen,” a quote from her beloved late grandmother, Sonam, who said that, “In order for a woman to see the world, she has to get beyond her kitchen.”

This conviction led to Jolma’s own personal journey from Asia to Europe and then to America, where she learned a brand-new language, new culture, and built a successful career in an English-speaking society.

“Her Literacy Kitchen story will be all about her family in Tibet and how she was able to learn about the world as she left Tibet but also honoring her family and her Tibetan traditions,” Burkhart says. “

Beyond the first two sessions, A future Literacy Kitchen event is being planned for Sept. 10.

“Literacy Kitchen is really about helping people understand the challenges that people come with when they arrive in Madison,” Burkhart says. “It’s also about gaining an appreciation for other cultures and for giving presenters a chance to meet community members and share their gifts.”

To register for Literacy Kitchen, stop by the Willy East Customer Service desk, 1221 Williamson St., or by calling (608) 251-6776.
To learn more about Literacy Network, click here.