Biting through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America's Heartlandby Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
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At once a traveler’s tale, a memoir, and a mouthwatering cookbook, Biting through the Skin offers a first-generation immigrant’s perspective on growing up in America’s heartland. Author Nina Mukerjee Furstenau’s parents brought her from Bengal in northern India to the small town of Pittsburg, Kansas, in 1964, decades before you could find long-grain rice or plain yogurt in American grocery stores. Embracing American culture, the Mukerjee family ate hamburgers and softserve ice cream, took a visiting guru out on the lake in their motorboat, and joined the Shriners. Her parents transferred the cultural, spiritual, and family values they had brought with them to their children only behind the closed doors of their home, through the rituals of cooking, serving, and eating Bengali food and making a proper cup of tea.
As a girl and a young woman, Nina traveled to her ancestral India as well as to college and to Peace Corps service in Tunisia. Through her journeys and her marriage to an American man whose grandparents hailed from Germany and Sweden, she learned that her family was not alone in being a small pocket of culture sheltered from the larger world. Biting through the Skin shows how we maintain our differences as well as how we come together through what and how we cook and eat. In mourning the partial loss of her heritage, the author finds that, ultimately, heritage always finds other ways of coming to meet us. In effect, it can be reduced to a 4 x 6-inch recipe card, something that can fit into a shirt pocket. It’s on just such tiny details of life that belonging rests.
In this book, the author shares her shirt-pocket recipes and a great deal more, inviting readers to join her on her journey toward herself and toward a vital sense of food as culture and the mortar of community.
“Biting through the Skin is a delicious book in all ways—rich, evocative, lyrical prose that exactly suits the savory and sweet story of examining identity through the lens of food. Furstenau's sensibility is wise, witty, and generous, and her story of finding one’s self and family through tastes is inspiring. Biting through the Skin tells a powerful archetypical story of American identity, of being a stranger in a strange land (even in one’s home), and of navigating a dual self that in Furstenau’s rendering is both comfortingly familiar, yet startlingly fresh. Biting through the Skin is wonderfully captivating.”—Maureen Stanton, author, Killer Stuff and Tons of Money
“In this story of assimilation, Nina Mukerjee Furstenau embraces the culinary thread that weaves one culture into another, transcending both geography and time. Her recipes are a testimonial to the fact that your heritage never deserts you. Be sure your household is stocked with curry ingredients before embarking on this journey; a serious craving awaits you.”—Patricia Erd, spice merchant and owner, The Spice House, est. 1957
"Nina Furstenau has written a memoir of longing and belonging, and her search for identity as an Indian American in the rural Midwest is both eminently universal and achingly particular. Biting through the Skin is tender, funny, wise, and beautiful—a celebration of the language of food and an exploration of the ties that bind."—Todd Kliman, author, The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine
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Biting through the Skin
An Indian Kitchen in America's Heartland
By NINA MUKERJEE FURSTENAU
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESSCopyright © 2013 Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
All rights reserved.
There is something to be done at this season. Something to be done. I tap my pencil on the island counter and look outside my kitchen window at rolling Missouri farmland, brittle-brown and orange as it always is at this time of year. The festival of Bijoya Dashami means good wishes need to be passed on to family elders and friends; I know it. But because this festival day occurs on the tenth day after the first new moon of autumn, a day highlighted on the cycle of the Bengali calendar but not on mine with the cute photos of dogs, the dates change within the season each year. I am never quite sure when the calls to the elders should be made, and there is no one to remind me here in the county of Howard, in the state of Missouri, in the United States.
In the Indian state of Bengal, my family's homeland, Durga Puja marks days of celebration when the goddess Durga, deliverer of dangers including those of selfishness, jealousy, prejudice, hatred, anger, and ego, visits each year, and the day she departs, Bijoya Dashami, is for inclusion, for eating well with others, for the blowing of conch shells and the scent of food. Each autumn, when the weighted air of the summer monsoon rains lifts, three separate goddess festivals occur: Durga first, then Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity, feminine beauty and grace, and then Kali, fearsome destroyer. These three pujas are celebrated by various food-related activities: for Durga, Bengalis start by fasting one day, eating simple vegetarian dishes like tasty and comforting aloo dam and luchi the second day, and then switching to succulent meat curries on the third day. Day four is the day for sweets to be given and received, among them my favorite sandesh and the seemingly fancier rosogolla, bobbing in syrup. Elders are offered pronam, or respects, men give each other three hugs—right side, left side, then right again—and children receive blessings. Hopeful thoughts turn to peace and prosperity. On the final night, the carefully crafted figures of Durga, sometimes made of clay, sometimes of wood or other materials, almost always painted and dressed artistically, which have been set about on pandals during the puja, are sent on their way in the rite of bhashan by being immersed in nearby waterways. The community reconnects with friends and loved ones in public and expansive celebration. It is the perfect time for it: the autumn in Bengal is for rejoicing. The monsoon is finished, the hills become a mixture of gold and green, and rice ripens in the fields ready for harvest.
But mine is an American tale.
It was impossible for my parents, with such joyful and poignant memories, to re-create these times in America's heartland. And so it was small details that were weighty in Kansas, where I grew up. My mother fussed about correctly preparing the foods, how many dishes would be served, what clothes I would wear. There were no grand celebrations to attend that would have tempered this focus and made it preliminary and ultimately unimportant to the event. Holy festivals were done behind closed doors in my childhood; they were private affairs where our attic fan blew away cooking aromas before guests arrived. Perhaps because I had never seen an autumn in India or felt the air lift and lighten after the monsoon season, the idea of rejoicing didn't occur to me.
This autumn another festival season comes in serial celebrations: days of celebrating Durga, then Lakshmi at the autumn full moon, then Kali fourteen days later on the new moon, one after another. The pujas bring another chance for me to connect to this vast and rich history of my family. I mark my calendar on the days that the Indian Association in a nearby larger town is hosting events in honor of the goddesses. Then I note that a service club I belong to is having its annual ham and bean dinner to raise funds for scholarships on one of the puja days. I am really needed as a dishwasher. Not to worry, there are two other Indian events. But an interview for Savor Missouri, a regional food and wine book I am completing, simply must be on one of those other days, and the interview is in a town four hours away, necessitating an overnight stay. Durga, deliverer of dangers, and Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity, feminine beauty and grace, are yet again set aside. Fearsome Kali, whom you really don't want to rouse, frowns.
Dishwashing duties in the kitchen of Fayette Middle School supercede Durga? Kali, for goodness' sake? Generations of my Bengali family, of Mukerjees, of Banerjis, and others, in a long, friendly grouping smile sadly and quizzically at me from Indian antiquity. That's it? I picture them saying. And I swear I see my maternal great-grandmother, Renuka, cross her arms and tap her foot. And the old man just over there, Rup Chand, my father's grandfather, lifts his palms up in amazement and then sits down heavily, shaking his head.
It gets worse. The day of the festival, I stand on a rubber mat in the cafeteria kitchen of Fayette Middle School and I realize not one person in this group of friends knows I am missing such an important Indian event. When I turn quickly in my tennis shoes, a sharp squeaking emanates across the kitchen, but the twenty or so other women hard at work stirring beans or making corn bread do not notice. My wet rubber gloves are yellow, and the stainless steel spray nozzle runs amok only occasionally when I fumble. My denim apron has damp splotches where the superheated water bounced off a bowl and caught me in the stomach. If I had been at the puja, I would have been in a sari, probably my pale celery-green silk with the delicate ivory border embroidered with gold, and my feet would have been bare. The silk would have flowed around my legs and made a rustling noise as I sat cross-legged in the temple hall. I have known these ham and bean ladies seventeen years, yet I have kept India, and a good half of who I am, a secret.
Inside my small pocket of culture, I squelch water beneath my feet in a middle school kitchen while yearning to visit a temple. It has taken my lifetime to reach this impasse.
In the 1960s, my hometown of Pittsburg, Kansas, rich in its own story of assimilation, had no particular interest in differences. There I was playing softball, riding my ten-speed, and going to the Dairy Queen, eyes bright, fingers sticky, all the while losing my identity. Securely hidden behind our front door, however, India could be found in the aroma in the air, the taste of cardamom, the brush of my mother's silk sari, and the cadence of my father's speech. In pre–long-grain rice America, eating was cause for inquiry, and so we kept our traditional foods private. If a friend came over, soda and chips were provided. If a meal was called for, then burgers it was. My lunch at school may have consisted of peanut butter and jelly or grilled cheese or tuna, just like Beth's or LuAnn's or Kathy's, but not dinner, and it was during five o'clock meals around a shellacked wooden table in Kansas that I found passion.
India held court around Mom's table. The impact of warm spice aromas, the taste of bitter gourd and cooling yogurt, signaled a cultural boundary I could cross even with my American upbringing. Flavor and taste were my inheritance. Though I lost the dress, the ease of language, and the rituals of India, the foods of the subcontinent were ever there. Simple cauliflower and potato bhaji; thin jhol curries, redolent of cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves, eaten with a bit of aromatic rice; warm luchis rolled up around a little sugar, all so satisfying. Like many American immigrants, I held my home culture close to the vest, near the heart. I did not share well then. Not sharing was a recipe for sorting people who did or did not want to know; a recipe for private versus public foods; for a vastly different world outside our front door. In many ways, my family wanted to be ordinary in Kansas, yet maintaining our heritage meant we were not even close. Half my world became secret. Necessitating this secrecy was a grand move.
In the early days of a 1964 Chicago summer, a small moment occurred. My family, surrounded by boxes and bags packed with all manner of possessions, trundled themselves off to Kansas from the Windy City, the second such move in a year. I don't know if there were kitchen utensils involved, nor am I sure of particular furnishings that were carted into the trailer, but within the clothing boxes saris were carefully folded so as not to form odd creases, probably with the silks separated from the cottons. I feel certain that two red children's coats with pointy hoods trimmed in white fluff were pressed down into cardboard by my mother, and I know that a sled emerged Kansas-side, so it must have made the cut.
After wending through Illinois, my father merged onto I-69 South in Kansas. My parents did not snack in the car, that New World lack of respect for expensive cars not imaginable to them. They stopped, as they almost always did in later years, at the Pleasanton hamburger joint north of town near the railroad tracks for chocolate-vanilla ice-cream twists. A full hour and a half south of Kansas City, they came upon the valley of Fort Scott. The land, flat for miles, dipped slightly and broadly there, visible only with a squint and a tilt of the head, and there was a surprising amount of vegetation, deciduous and leafy, along fencerows and in woody copses.
It was a long drive and they may not have seen the valley. My mother, busy comforting my brother, Sandeep, and me, and my father, preoccupied by the two-lane road, would not have noticed anything dramatic. The valley became more perceptible to us over time as we lived in southeast Kansas, especially after a tornado season or two when twisters were noted for sailing over low spots in the land.
Whatever they saw is specifically lost to those moments in the car. They were six months fresh from India. Chicago, their first home in the United States, had proven too cold, too large and impersonal, though full of pockets of Indian immigrants around the city: groups that socialized, raised children with common ideals, and conducted religious festivals together. They traded that comfort for a small Kansas town with almost no American minorities and absolutely no other Indians until years later. My mother was twenty-two and my father thirty-five. As we came into Pittsburg, Kansas, a town of twenty thousand people nearly a thousand miles south and west of the better-known Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, there was a cemetery neatly plotted on the right.
India was at war with China along its Himalayan border when my parents left Asia in 1963. More of India's resources were poured into defense. My father felt stifled there, like there were barriers to rising professionals, not support. He watched men in his village ride their bicycles to work, ties flapping against white button-up shirts. A bike seemed a paltry reward for hard work to a young man who had heard about the Chevrolets, Fords, Plymouths, and Buicks in the United States. More could be achieved —television and word of mouth told him so.
My parents arrived in North America to find agitation here, too. The United States was facing rising troubles in Vietnam, and Martin Luther King had delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in response to civil rights issues in August. The US postal service had issued zip codes for the first time to implement some order, lava lamps and touch-tone phones had been launched, and a loaf of bread was twenty-two cents. When my parents purchased a television, a cheery Dick Van Dyke was on weekly. Just thirty days after arriving in Chicago, Mom walked into the lobby of the hotel where my parents stayed before finding their first home on US soil and noticed a gathering crowd. The Chicago passersby and hotel workers jostled for a view around a television set as the news broke: Kennedy shot in Dallas, November 22. Eyes wide, Mom breathed slowly and watched the crowd react—stunned disbelief and worry.
My parents cared about these things. Their lives, encased in the little car headed south toward southeast Kansas a few months later, echoed on another scale the seismic changes of country. My father's father was an accountant in Hazaribagh, a small town (even with a population of over one hundred thousand people, fourteen tigers, twenty-five panthers, and four hundred sambar deer in residence in the nearby national park, it did not get "city" status in India) in what is now the state of Jharkhand, India, and came from generations of Mukerjees there. My mother came from the Banerji line, most recently of Ranchi, a larger town a couple of hours away over rough roads. My parents came from good families and inherited status, and they left all that behind for the promise of a life built on what they did with their own hands—a bigger world than what India offered in the early 1960s. My dad was one of many Indian men who left the country that decade in droves, the Asian brain drain. There was no urgency in their lives, no knifepoint of decision other than that of youth, pressing intelligence, and drive. The foods, family connections, and familiar ease of their own cultural and spiritual life trailed my parents like diminishing waves, and they may not have known for years what was in their wake. They had a vested interest now in this new land and in the belief that they had made the right choice.
Perhaps it was disconcerting for my parents to hear the bickering of politicians and the unhappiness of a culture in flux when they had just given up so much to come to the United States, but I think it also energized them. Here they could participate, have opinions, weigh in. The same could be said in India, but this was the New World. The old one was stagnant. My father watched the nightly news at 5:30 P.M. with the express purpose of having an opinion to discuss with his coworkers at McNally Engineering Company the next day. Being informed equaled nationhood.
But nothing in my life of play and preschool passed judgment. I was simply there, coming back to myself again and again. The food of India was my tether to heritage. My mother kneaded whole wheat flat bread, roti, on our kitchen counter and mixed rice with yogurt for my breakfast. Flour dusted her hands as she pulled the dough into small balls from the larger lump, as she palmed those balls into smoothness before using the rolling pin to make the required thin rounds, ready for the hot, flat cast-iron pan on the stove. Lunch was often dal and a vegetable. She mashed the simple meals and I pumped my chubby fists and swallowed. She dusted her fingers free of wheat flour into cotton kitchen towels, gathered her fingers to her thumb and helped me. And since I carried my world with me, my surroundings had no influence except to offer up an alphabet block or a blue ball. To offer up a familiar texture of ceiling as I went down for a nap. There was no comfort or theology outside myself. If I was surprised to find myself in the basement of a southeast Kansas preschool at Pittsburg State College, it was by the capriciousness of the outside human world, not my own within.
Long before I began reclaiming the food story of my grandmothers, I bent forward, fingertips outstretched, and snared a Tootsie Roll off the asphalt at the Pittsburg, Kansas, homecoming parade. Because I was young, not yet three feet tall, I was at the front of the parade crowd. Rising up from the candy grab, I could see the 4-H club and their horses coming. The wind flipped the brims of the riders' cowboy hats, the girls raising their hands to keep them in place, the boys just tipping down their chins. The glistening coats of the horses rippled in the sun. Their legs looked enormous and their hooves made hollow clopping noises on the pavement, muffled once the Pittsburg High School Marching Dragons started up behind them. Eyeing the horses, the pom-pom girls holding the band banner marched in place trying to create a larger gap. A little backwash of clarinets and flutes crowded the trombones and trumpets. The drummers in the back rows started to step higher. The precision of the lines warped until the director walking alongside signaled the row leaders. It could have been a pileup with a less skilled band.
In front of me, Shriner clowns in tall hats maneuvered their big-wheel tricycles so that by turning the handles hard, they kept from grazing toes at the edge of the parade. They lifted their knees, covered in ballooning yellow fabric, almost to their chins before pushing downward to the rhythm of squeaking pedals. Other children darted out, quick and sure, and nabbed wrapped candy thrown on the pavement. My father would later become a Shriner, and though he never rode the asphalt on a trike, he did many things to raise funds for Shriner burn hospitals around the country. He emerged from Harzaribagh in Bihar, India, the son of Dwijen Nath Mukerjee, an accountant for the government of Kashmir and for the military in World War I, and Indu Banerji of Kolkata, to mix with Shriners in Kansas. Years later, my mother would rise in the ladies auxiliary of the Shrine, Daughters of the Nile, to be Queen of the Nile. For her crowning event, she had all the ladies wear Indian saris instead of evening gowns. She had me and my teenage friends model Indian selwar kamis in a runway walk on a stage that same evening. India emerged that night but many might have mistaken it for a variation on the Shriner use of symbols of Eastern desert kingdoms. It was thrilling and mysterious and all wrapped up in the clothing of one evening event. Mostly, though, unlike many immigrants in American cities who socialized mainly with others also displaced from homelands a world away, my parents made a conscious effort to be in this land. They tackled moving to a small Kansas town with verve and a sense of adventure.
My father had met Ed McNally in India when Ed was checking on the Indian branch of his Kansas engineering firm and foundry. McNally's company did coal systems engineering and plant design. By family account, Ed offered my father a spot in Kansas if he should ever be interested in living in a small town in the United States. At the time, Baba worked for a large international engineering firm based in Chicago. After one winter in Chicago, though, used to warmer climes as well as a dense and enveloping community of people involved in their lives, my parents chose to move.
Excerpted from Biting through the Skin by NINA MUKERJEE FURSTENAU. Copyright © 2013 Nina Mukerjee Furstenau. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Born in Thailand to Indian parents, Nina Mukerjee Furstenau grew up in Kansas, served in the Peace Corps in Tunisia, and founded a publishing company with her husband. Now a journalist and food writer based in Fayette, Missouri, she also teaches journalism at the University of Missouri.
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Biting through the Skin is so beautifully written that you won't want it to end. Get ready to have your mouth water the entire time you are reading it. The descriptions of food are incredible, but the charm with which childhood, family, and that perpetual human journey into one's deepest self are written about--that's the real heart of this memoir.
I should start by saying that I don't usually read memoir, and certainly not food memoir - but I was compelled to pick up this book and once I did, I had a hard time setting it down. The author drew me into her story with such rich, descriptions that I literally felt like I could see each scene as clearly as if I were watching a movie. The story is that of the author who grows up in middle America (Kansas) and how she learns about her family's Indian heritage largely through the food her mother prepares. You also get a unique perspective on India as she describes her trips back to see family. Having never been there myself, I really appreciated her attention to detail in how she described the land, the food, the people - paying attention to all five senses. Again, it was like I could see it as I read. In one of the most poignant scenes, we see a young Nina visiting India - I think she was 6 or 7. Against her mother's wishes, she throws a banana to a hungry child begging to her from outside the bus she's on. Nina watches the boy, who is too hungry to even peel the fruit, bite the banana right through the skin. The image is startling and touching all at once. The other thing I really liked about this book was how it cemented for me how much of our heritage is connected with food. Of course I think I knew that on an instinctive level, but reading about how Nina learned about her parents, grandparents, the land she was born in, and moved to, who she was and how she straddled two completely different cultures - it really made me think about my own food traditions and how they tell the story of my family. It was just all-around a very enjoyable read - and such a nice break from the same-old, same-old. Oh - I almost forgot the recipes! The book has the MOST DELICIOUS sounding recipes, that made my mouth water, despite the fact that I have never eaten many of the dishes she describes!! Now that I have her family recipes, though, I will definitely plan to attempt at least a few of them. So not only is it a great read, but you get bonus recipes as well. Love a little extra value in my books :)