10 hands-on culinary experiences

If you’re a foodie seeking unique experiences, you don’t have to travel far to find something more hands-on than just a delicious meal or typical cooking class.
Photo by Ray + Kelly Photography

If you’re a foodie seeking unique experiences, you don’t have to travel far to find something more hands-on than just a delicious meal or typical cooking class. These adventurous opportunities are for anyone wanting a new culinary perspective. Whether you’re helping harvest at a local farm or foraging for wild mushrooms, these experiences will leave you with fascinating insight, a full belly and great stories to share.

American Wine Project Volunteer Bottling
At American Wine Project in Mineral Point, it’s volunteers who help bring bottles of unique Midwestern wines to eager consumers. “I love making wine and I know others are fascinated by the process, so it’s a chance to share the craft with my community,” says winemaker Erin Rasmussen, founder of American Wine Project. Volunteers working alongside Rasmussen help wash bottles and get them filled, corked and ready for sale. Those who work four- to eight-hour shifts (often on weekends) are provided with a couple bottles of wine and lunch — Rasmussen sometimes also shares an interesting bottle to sample. For Rasmussen, this volunteer program is not just about getting extra help, as she is the only one who works in the winery’s cellar. It’s also about building connections and community around local wines made from grapes grown within a three-hour radius of the winery. Learn about upcoming volunteer opportunities by subscribing to the newsletter or following along on social media. 802 Ridge St., Mineral Point, 608-987-0505, americanwineproject.com

Community Supported Agriculture Worker Shares

people working in the farm

Photo courtesy of Kristen Kordet

Many vegetable farms across the Madison area offer programs that exchange weekly labor for a box of fresh produce. At Troy Farm on Madison’s north side, volunteers help harvest and wash produce as well as sell at the market stands. In return, they earn a $600 farm-stand credit. At Blue Moon Community Farm in Stoughton, owner Kristen Kordet offers a traditional weekly worker share program as well as volunteer workdays for those unable to make a weekly commitment. From late May through mid-August, she invites community members to join her every Thursday for a morning of work in exchange for a box of produce. For Kordet, the worker share and volunteer days provide more than just a source of labor. “It really gives a new perspective to the work,” she says. “When you have people who haven’t chosen this as their profession … they bring a different kind of energy. It’s really satisfying to work alongside those kinds of folks.” In addition to Troy Farm and Blue Moon Community Farm, many other Community Supported Agriculture operations offer worker shares. Blue Moon Community Farm, 3856 Schneider Drive, Stoughton, 608-446-6962, bluemooncommunityfarm.com; Troy Farm, 502 Troy Drive, Madison, 608-240-0409, rootedwi.org

Dining in the Dark

people grouped around a table with blindfolds

Archive Photo/Amandalynn Jones

Closed eyes and an open mind will help you fully take in a Dining in the Dark experience. Denise Jess, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired, hopes diners leave with a greater understanding of both the barriers faced by and opportunities available to those with vision loss or impairment. For nearly 10 years, Dining in the Dark dinners have served as educational and fundraising events, where guests are highly encouraged to be blindfolded throughout a meal and are challenged to rethink the importance of vision in the food experience. They learn techniques to locate silverware or manage beverages, and each course is described by the chef. In addition to giving guests a moment to pause and relate to the dining experiences of those with vision loss, Jess loves seeing diners slow down and become more present. “People aren’t seeing the food, so they’re really experiencing and taking in the smells and the textures and the temperatures and, I think, having a much more integrated experience with the food.” Find out about future events on the council’s website. 754 Williamson St., 608-255-1166, wcblind.org

Harvest Moon Dinner
Enos Farms does not host your typical farm dinner — instead, it offers an opportunity to hike the beautiful yet rugged Spring Green farm. The elements ­— and sometimes the mosquitoes — are just as much a part of the dinner experience as the five meticulously crafted courses. Harvest Moon Dinners are held in September on the full moon, and diners lucky enough to grab a ticket should prepare for the unexpected. “We don’t really tell them anything,” says co-owner Erin Crooks Lynch. “They don’t know the menu. Unless they’ve come before, they don’t know the hike.” Each course and beverage pairing is served at a different location, with maybe a steep hike in between or sightings of lambs happily eating apples from a nearby tree. The experience culminates in a bonfire where guests can watch the full moon rise over the valley. This setting helps to further celebrate the intensely local fare, including pork from the rotationally grazed pigs or Wisconsin-grown sunflower oil used in lieu of olive oil. With more than 98% of the dinner’s ingredients sourced from Enos Farms or neighboring producers, the dinner is a true celebration of local food and land. E4782 Kennedy Road, Spring Green, enosfarms.com

Midwest Wild Harvest Festival
Whether you are a seasoned forager or an enthusiastic newbie, this celebration of wild food is something to look forward to. Every September, around 200 foraging fans gather in Prairie du Chien for a weekend filled with hands-on learning, educational demonstrations and nationally recognized speakers. This year’s Midwest Wild Harvest Festival will be held Sept. 9-11 and will feature a guest presentation by Alexis Nikole Nelson, known on social media as “Black Forager.” If you’re looking to build your wild food skills, classes cover mushroom hunting, cooking with wild edible plants and more. “The Midwest Wild Harvest Festival is both educational and social,” says event director Melissa Price. “The camaraderie is what brings many people back year after year.” This sense of community is built through festival favorites like the wild food banquet and wild food contest, which everyone is welcome to enter — that is, if you think you can top past winning entries which have included acorn burgers and bison soup. 11815 Munz Lane, Prairie du Chien, wildharvestfestival.org

You-Pick at Door Creek Orchard
A day at a you-pick farm can be experienced at a leisurely pace or could leave you sore and dripping with sweat — it’s a true choose-your-own-adventure activity. From Labor Day until the beginning of October, Door Creek Orchard in Cottage Grove will let you venture through groves of trees bearing apples you can pick yourself. Guests can pick Concord grapes when they are ripe. Following a fruitful harvest, a hike along the hilly nature trail and a visit to the flock of rare Black Welsh Mountain sheep, a refreshment might be necessary. On Thursdays throughout the fall, Door Creek presses fresh cider. “The apples used change weekly with what is ripe at the time; we strive to create a balanced, complex blend each week,” says manager Liz Griffith. No matter how much cider you drink or fruit you harvest, a trip to Door Creek Orchard is not complete without the weekend special of deconstructed caramel apples with hot caramel sauce and a choice of whipped cream, nuts and sea salt toppings. 3252 Vilas Road, Cottage Grove, 608-838-4762, doorcreekorchard.com

Grub for Good: These charitable organizations and events offer novel ways for foodies to give back.

four people holding vegetables

Courtesy of Madison Area Food Pantry

Grilling for Peace
During the last pre-pandemic Grilling for Peace, more than 1,000 pounds of meat was cooked on 68 Weber grills positioned in a giant peace sign on a frozen Lake Wingra. This February fundraiser for Savory Sunday attracts hundreds of Madisonians, regardless of the weather, to raise funds and cook over a set of hot coals. “There’s a lot of love put into cooking for people,” event co-founder and organizer Mauren Barry says about the love that has helped turn what she initially thought was a crazy idea into a well-attended event. @GrillingForPeace

Ronald McDonald House
Friends, family and colleagues can gather in the kitchen of Madison’s Ronald McDonald House to prepare a home-cooked meal for residents returning after long days at the hospital. Volunteers can also come during the day to cook casseroles or cookies, providing a little comfort to those staying at the house while their children undergo treatment at area hospitals. “The minute they walk in and they start smelling that dinner is ready … there’s almost a sigh of relief,” says Director of Development Deborah Still. “They know they’re going to be taken care of.” 2716 Marshall Court, rmhcmadison.org

Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens
“Nothing bonds people quite like working in the soil together,” says Katie Schmitt, co-chair of the marketing committee at Madison Area Food Pantry Gardens — especially when they come together to plant, tend and harvest food to help feed their neighbors. Last year, 1,300 volunteers grew more than 113,000 pounds of fresh produce across the 11-garden network throughout the Madison area. These fruits and vegetables were distributed at 23 local food pantries. foodpantrygardens.org

You don’t have to be an experienced barista to serve fancy espresso drinks at Agrace’s Doc Rock Café in Fitchburg. All you need is an eagerness to create a welcoming environment for those nearing the end of life and their community of supporters. At the cafe and kitchen, volunteers embrace the important role food and drink play in bringing comfort. They create individualized experiences for patients, whether that means cooking a favorite meal or a nostalgic box of macaroni and cheese. “Food is one of those experiences that deeply touches people and can really connect them with memories and feelings,” says Caitlin Paterson, the employee and volunteer engagement administrator. “Our volunteers can directly create that experience for them.” 5395 E. Cheryl Parkway, Fitchburg, 608-276-4660, agrace.org

Marissa DeGroot is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.

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