Nina Mukerjee Furstenau is the author of Biting through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland, just published this month. University of Iowa Press editor Catherine Cocks asked her a few questions about the book and her experience growing up in Pittsburg, Kansas, in the 1960s and 1970s.
CC: In Biting through the Skin, you write that for a long time you didn’t share your Bengali foodways with others, in part because when you did try to share these foods with friends as a teenager, the friends did not appreciate “the gift presented with each meal,” as you put it. What made you decide to offer that gift again by writing this book?
NF: I think all families are small pockets of culture within the larger landscape and that we pass our heritage to the next generation through our food traditions, or lack of them. I felt that my story was universal in some ways and wanted to explore what it means to be raised apart from your family’s homeland with taste and aroma as your primary link. For me, raised in Kansas, there were no other cultural clues to northern India around me. Food, spice, and the reasons certain dishes were made at certain times became a talisman for my heritage. It became what I had to write.
CC: Why did your parents decide to move from Chicago, their first home in the United States, to Pittsburg, Kansas? How did living in a small town affect your experience of growing up both Indian and American?
NF: They moved because they were adventurous, because they didn’t like the harsh winters in Illinois, because they wanted a connection to the culture of the American Midwest in ways that Chicago did not give them. There, the Indian community was strong but links to U.S. culture less so for newcomers in such a large city. Being raised in a small town meant I was able to connect well to the culture of the Midwest around me, and less well to Bengal. My Kansas hometown, rich in its own story of assimilation, had no particular interest in differences, so I didn’t reveal mine. Like a lot of first-generation immigrants, I grew up slightly apart from both worlds.
Check back next Wednesday, September 18, for the conclusion of this interview!
Biting through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America's Heartland, by Nina Mukerjee Furstenau