Missouri-based writer Nina Mukerjee Furstenau’s Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland is one of those books that defy classification: it’s a travelogue, memoir, food book, and cookbook. Furstenau has managed to meld the different genres into a beautiful and elegant tome that highlights at once the diversity of the United States, as well as the homogeny of the Midwest. For many, food is an important marker of family and memory, and for Furstenau, that rings true – she connects various recollections of her life – her travels to India, outings with her friends as a teen, her time in northern Africa with the Peace Corps, and her husband’s welcoming into her family – with the food that was around. The smells, the colors, the textures, Furstenau shows off her skills as a top-notch food writer by being able to invoke such strong reactions from the reader by writing of all the different kinds of meals and recipes she ran across.
Furstenau’s life in Kansas and Missouri may be surprising to many readers, who may register disbelief that there are Indian-Americans or Indian immigrants outside of the big cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. But Biting Through the Skin is often about defying expectations – one would also expect that a Westernized girl like Furstenau would slowly want to reject her heritage, but in fact, she fought valiantly to hold on to some of her cultural background. In one particularly poignant episode, an adolescent Nina decides to share her family’s ethnic cuisine with her teenaged friends, all of whom were raised on the Midwestern diet of Dairy Queen, McDonald’s and Hamburger Helper. Despite all of Furstenau’s hard work (not to mention all the cooking her mom had to do), the reception was lackluster, the girls too lazy to cross that cultural divide, instead viewed the unfamiliar food with suspision and derision. The disappointing dinner had an effect on the author who would never share her Indian cooking with her friends again.
She also shares her feelings of angst and alienation when at 16, she traveled to India to visit relatives, and felt out-of-place and out of sync with her relatives. The trip was doomed, Furstenau wrote, because as a teenager, she was too old to be fussed over and coddled as she was when she was a little girl, but she was too young to participate in conversations with the adults – so she was in a strange limbo that made her feel self-conscious. Again, the memories were linked with the meals prepared and how the food she ate at the time tasted.
But not all the stories are sad or anxious – many, in fact, show just how binding food can be. Her time with the Peace Corps is a wonderful example of how she was able to reach out to her colleagues as well as the women she was helping, with her recipes – and the local women responded in kind, showing off their own cooking. In northern Africa, where her access to utensils, tools, and ingredients were limited, Furstenau proved just how resourceful she can be, by replicating some of the recipes of her family at no expense to the flavors of the meals.
Alongside being an excellent food writer, Furstenau is also a very good travel writer. Her stories of India are wonderful, and warrant a book of their own. She can capture the mood, the smells, even the sounds of her surroundings with a keen sense of word choice – I love for example, her regular use of the word “slap” when in reference to the sound of bare feet on cold stone – it evokes a distinct and particular noise that echos in my ear whenever I come across it in her writing. And like every good travel writers, she connects the experiences with larger themes of globalization, humanity, and the differences in poverty and privilege. The most arresting image in Furstenau’s book has her as a little girl toss a banana out of a bus to a little boy who eats the fruit through the skin – and it was at that moment that she had an epiphany, realizing that the little boy was begging for food. This startling episode would ring back, especially when Furstenau alludes to the Midwestern cliché parents guilt their finicky kids with, “Clean your plate, there are kids in India who are starving.”
Biting Through the Skin is an achingly beautiful portrait not only of a young girl and her relationship to her family, her cultural heritage, and food, but the book also serves as a lovely paen to the joys of cooking, and how food not only nourishes our bodies, but our souls as well.
Click here to visit Nina Furstenau’s Missouri School of Journalism Web page.
Click here to pre-order Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland on amazon.com.