Biting through the Skin
An Indian Kitchen in America's Heartland
Publication Year: 2013
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.
Published by: University of Iowa Press
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Title Page, Copyright
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Biting through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland is a memoir that takes place primarily during what Virginia Woolf called “that great Ca-thedral space which was childhood.” In this journey in food, I have privileged ...
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I learned this from Joan Ruvinsky, a meditation teacher. If you throw wood into a fire, it burns; put food into your stomach, it does the same. For years, I did not notice that I was a version of larger elements. Blood runs through veins like rivers, through capillaries like lesser tributaries, some unseen under the skin, just as the earth’s circulatory system trundles along into its vast, pool-...
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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 ...
2. Two Brides
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My part of the Mukerjee-Banerji narrative begins with spices. Women have always wielded ginger in my family: ginger as well as many other tiny pieces of larger things. I was too young to ask which spices my mother used in Kansas and my grandmother used during my first trips to India, but my nose selected what it needed. When you get down to it, what tied food traditions across centuries of births and deaths, two continents, and three primary languages in my family were aromatic bits and pieces....
3. Little India
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This having-a-cook idea was added to the list of all tantalizing Indian things I could just remember but which were out of my reach by the age of eight: sidewalks full of people who looked like me, billboards full of movie stars with chocolate-brown eyes, ceiling fans, tea served on marble verandas. None of these were part of Kansas life. In the course of a regular day, I rarely even saw other Indians. Once in a while I glimpsed a few at my parents’ parties or on one of our occasional shopping trips to Kansas ...
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We went by car, plane, taxi, and train. We used every mode of transportation except those by sea to get my family of four from Kansas to Bengal. By the end of it, my parents were closing their eyes to ward off the monotony, but on that train to Bihar at the age of eight, I felt life rock and clack into my very bones and take shape as one great sweeping It was an epic trip, the result of my hope to visit my grandparents and secret wish to get to the bottom of religion, and of my parents’ own desire to ...
5. Table Grace
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My parents relished eating in the Indian way at times, taking care to use only the ends of their fingers. Nothing is as clean as the human body, no utensil washed indifferently, certainly. The tac-tile feel of food on the fingers, too, was part of the experience. There was a proper way to do this in my family: the fingertips were drawn together with the thumb to form a pincer of sorts. Food was never allowed to creep above the first knuckle, and bits of food were all consumed from the inside of the ...
6. Small Things Satisfied
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Back from India, the four of us dropped back into routine. I found myself helping Mom with chops in the kitchen. Mom’s cream and orange-trimmed curtains fluttered around a slice of backyard and I could see the honeysuckle bush nestled against my bedroom window. As always in the late afternoon, the tips of the branches gleamed gold and verdant I hurried with my part of the chops, not really helping all that much, and left the kitchen. The humid press of clothing suctioning onto my skin after ...
7. Indian Breads
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When it was nearly five o’clock, I slipped back inside and heard a rolling pin slapping against the countertop as Mom shaped roti into exact rounds. She did not make these every day, so the rhythmic sounds of bread making were intoxicating. As M. F. K. Fisher says in The Art of Eating: “[Breadmaking is] . . . like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells . . . there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a ...
8. Grand Lake Menu for a Guru
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I was eleven when the theology I had so wished for came to our house garbed in the saffron robes of a holy man. Mahananda Swami, a slightly built, bearded guru, emerged in front of 1403 S. Homer from a tan Buick LeSabre. Swami pulled himself out of the rear seat by gripping the seat back and sliding forward to get leverage. People in white saris or kurtas gathered around his door to help. Mr. Towner next door slowed his steps behind his mower to watch, his weedless lawn barely needing its shave. Otherwise no one seemed ...
9. An Indian Kitchen in Kansas
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Though issues of theology, even before Swami’s visit, always teased at the edges of my mind, by second grade, I was often in a world of fantasy. I knew what reality was, sure, but I preferred daydreams: pleasant ones about flying a one-girl aircraft I called a hover around the neighborhood. I’d kick the dirt and scuff the grass on the way home, but my My childhood home was a ranch-style yellow clapboard with a band of light red brick about three feet high across the front. It sat about five blocks from ...
10. Attic Fans and Flying Typewriters
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This is what changed the food I ate for dinner: a boy slid a window up in language arts class and threw out a typewriter. It was during the fourth quarter of my seventh-grade year. The row of six-by-three-foot wood-framed windows that lined the outside walls of our school had iron pulls along the bottom and a latch lock halfway up on the cross trim. It was easy to flip the latch and push these windows up, unlike the hermetically sealed windows in the new school, which was built in time for me to graduate. The ...
11. Mother Tongue
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Bengali, my mother tongue, was something I took right out of the air only to give it away. My parents would speak, mumble, or laugh it out loud, unafraid of my stealth. Of course, my first efforts at speech were feeble, focused on food and comfort. No one worried. I then moved on to persuasion. “Chan cor, dada, chan cor,” I said, beseeching my brother to But it is said that what can be named with words is not real, merely a reflec-tion of truth or what is called God. Each word is a trail of crumbs, evidence. ...
12. On the Road with Amiya and Rani
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In 1974, the year I was twelve, my grandparents came to Kansas. Even be-fore my grandparents’ arrival, my friends realized I had a separate culture at home, but the presence of a sari-clad grandmother and a grandfather with an Indo-British accent made it undeniable, more so when they began My grandfather visited the local First Christian Church as a speaker about India. He appeared there very dapper, with a walking cane, tie, lightweight wool trousers belted high on his waist, a matching four-button vest, and suit ...
13. All Our Tupperware Is Stained with Turmeric
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About three miles from our house, I sighted my horizons with an out-stretched thumb and forefinger and squinted at undulating wheat. I had ridden my bike, passing edge-of-town neighborhoods, then clusters of scrubby trees, to reach a gravel road. I liked the idea I could be in Missouri soon if I kept going, and it was a good spot to be alone. I slid off the bike seat and walked to the edge of the field, sticking my palms out flat at my sides and twirling a bit with my head back. Tassels tickled my skin and my ...
14. Strength of a Nation
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Kansas life was encompassing and my connection to India waned. I liked our food but I had no other calling card. I had aged out of that grace period of youth when all I had to do was eat a sweet and grin at my parents’ Indian friends. Relatives, especially, expected more of me now. I began to note that this thing called nation was pervasive: it made songs I knew nothing of, prized collective memories of past sagas, created scenes a whole community of people remembered. Those communal memories ...
15. Street Foods
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Some stories evoke untroubled times, golden days that transport your mind, make you forget everything but the tenderness and exhilaration of those far-flung images. While attending the Bihar College of Engineering in Patna from 1948 to 1952, my father went once in a while for coffee with friends. The India Coffee House charged one-quarter of a rupee for coffee. It was a princely sum to the young college students, but my father got all he could from the treat, adding milk and ...
16. Six Recipe Cards, a Wingand a Prayer, Circa 1984
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As with my grandmother and mother before me, an astonishing network of mothers, aunts, and cousins, epic really in its proportions, reached out to me in Kansas when I was seventeen in 1979. It was because of Indian boys. Other than my brother and a son of a family friend who had lived in Pittsburg and then moved, no Indian males my age had lived nearby for most of my life. Heads were no doubt scratched, brows furrowed. Then, as if by magic, one day an Indian boy arrived at the bus stop on Fourth Street....
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The recipe cards I wrote that day felt like the sum of what I carried forward into my life from a previous distinct ethnicity. Six pieces of cardstock, small enough to fit in my pocket, were distilled from generations of my family. A month later, armed with my RECIDEX and a At twenty-two in North Africa, I delighted in giving and receiving hos-pitality. I had never shared my Indian dishes, as my mother had, outside of my one high school dinner for friends, and yet in the hot Sahara, around a ...
18. A (Not So) Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Didu’s House
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In 1985, between our two Peace Corps years, and thirteen years after my grandparents ventured to the Midwest, I took a midwestern farm boy to Bihar. My dadu came to the airport to pick us up in the cream-colored Ambassador. Terry was along on my family’s India adventure for the first time and would soon appear in photos on the rooftop at my aunt’s house in the middle of a sea of cousin-brothers and wives, his blond head gleaming. Jamai (son-in-law) turned up in photos all over Ranchi, his green eyes and ...
19. Pop Culture India
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It was morning in early summer. A recent rain had freshened the air and as I bent over a puddle reflecting sky it was disorienting, like peering into a vast underground, and I jerked back. Nature was enjoying herself. Around me, my Missouri garden unfolded like art. Its point, not a specific outcome but discovery in every moment, drew me into a feeling of suspension. There is a quality to the places I like: stretched, outside of time somehow. My grandmother’s kitchen had that feeling for me. Tiraputi’s grand cobbled ...
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My heartfelt thanks to my family, Terry, Nathan, and Anna Furstenau, and my parents, Sipra and Sachin Mukerjee, who make everything possible. I thank and appreciate my writing friends and mentors who helped shape my work and perception: Maureen Stanton, Marly Swick, Sandra Scofield, Gretchen Henderson, Ann Briedenbach, Jen Gravely, Laura McHugh, and ...
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Page Count: 188
Illustrations: 6 illustrations
Publication Year: 2013
Series Editor Byline: John Smith, Will Wordsworth