Food and Heritage

Nina Furstenau uses recipes to discover her cultural inheritance

Nina Furstenau.Nina Furstenau.

“Biting Through the Skin,” a book by Nina Furstenau, instructor in Science and Agricultural Journalism, is a journey to find a lost heritage. Plus, recipes from the author’s northern Indian family are sprinkled throughout the pages.

Furstenau’s parents brought her from Bengal in northern India to Pittsburg, Kan., in 1964, decades before the American palette accepted long-grain rice or yogurt. Embracing American culture, the Mukerjee family ate hamburgers and soft serve ice cream, took rides on their motorboat, joined the Shriners, and played cowboys and Indians. Her only connection to her Indian cultural, spiritual and ancestral heritage came through the family’s rituals of cooking, serving and eating Bengali food, and making a proper cup of tea.

At times, trying to bridge the cultures of Kansas and Bengal was awkward. As an adolescent, Furstenau shared her family’s ethnic cuisine with her teenaged friends, but the reception was lackluster. The food and the culture that went with it were too different from the familiar foods of Dairy Queen and McDonald’s. The disappointing dinner had an effect on the author, who would never share Indian cooking with friends again until much later.

A trip to India when Furstenau was 16 didn’t help. As a teenager, she was neither child nor adult, neither fully Indian in her mannerisms nor Kansan – a strange limbo. Mealtime and how the food tasted were the only memories that bridged the cultures.

Food became an important tool later in her life as a Peace Corps volunteer in northern Africa – when sharing recipes and meals bridged gaps between cultures.

Now a CAFNR faculty member, Furstenau decided to use this process on a larger scale.  Starting with a stack of 4×6 Indian recipe cards handed down by her mother, she began a journey into the food and food-related culture of her forebears to better learn who she is.

BTTS cover WEBQ. Your book has been described as a traveler’s tale, a memoir, and a mouthwatering cookbook. Why write this kind of book?

My interest in food story came about when I realized I took the same four or five basic Indian recipes with me when I left home for the Peace Corps in 1984 that my mother did when she left India for Thailand and her new married life in 1960. My childhood of brownies, softball, 10-speed bikes and roller skating produced the same comfort foods as hers did from Northern India. The heritage I could carry with me and share turned out to fit on 4×6 inch recipe cards I could fit in my shirt pocket. Women in my family passed on cultural reasons for particular foods made a particular way with spices roasted or powdered or whole for particular reasons. For me growing up in Kansas with no other cultural clues around me, this was the only way I could link directly to my family’s homeland. But all families pass their heritage along in this same fashion. We are all part of small pockets of culture within the larger American landscape. This resonated within me and I felt this would resonate with readers, whether first generation or fifth generation American.

Q. What insight did you develop in writing this book that is universal to everyone interested in their identity, place and cultural heritage?

I learned that food holds story. It can tell us who we are and what we are willing to share of that might well define our lives. This is not a unique insight, of course, but one I came to personally as I wrote “Biting Through the Skin.” I find recipes themselves to be like roadmaps to the history, settlement story, and agrarian base of a people, to the trees that fruited and the people who harvested a world away. I did not share my particular food story well as a child growing up in Kansas. And my hometown, focused on its own story of assimilation had no particular interest in differences. I think I wrote “Biting Through the Skin” because I was ready to examine and share that part of myself.

Q. Do you now feel differently about yourself, now that your journey in writing this book is finished?

Writing this type of narrative makes you examine your memories, pull them out and hold them up and turn them this way and that. I found that each memory prodded more and soon stories I thought I had forgotten were unfolding in conversations with family members. I feel I got to know my family and my role within it a bit better because of writing the book.

Q. What project do you want to tackle next?

I have two ideas I am currently working on. One book is a novel about three women who come together to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Dramatic events occur that change all of their lives. Food and my Peace Corps experiences feed the story line, pun intended. I am also intrigued by the notion of tracing back my family’s food story to Bengal, to extricate the fusion of Indian foods on the subcontinent itself into the age-old recipes from that particular region. Of course, I’d like to tie that story to the agriculture, settlement and religious history of the region. In other words, I’d like to sink my teeth into the project and would definitely include often overlooked or just plain hard to find recipes unique to Bengal.

(“Biting Through the Skin” is published by the University of Iowa Press).

Read reviews of “Biting Through the Skin” here and here.  See her Paul Pepper interview here.