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Biting through the Skin

An Indian Kitchen in America's Heartland

Nina Mukerjee Furstenau

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-9

Contents

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pp. ix-x

Author’s Note

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pp. xi-xii

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Prologue

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pp. xiii-xviii

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, ...

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1. Transformation

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pp. 1-14

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; ...

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2. Two Brides

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pp. 15-21

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. ...

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3. Little India

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pp. 22-30

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. ...

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4. Journey

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pp. 31-41

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, ...

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5. Table Grace

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pp. 42-48

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 tactile feel of food on the fingers, too, was part of the experience. ...

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6. Small Things Satisfied

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pp. 49-52

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. ...

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7. Indian Breads

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pp. 53-58

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. ...

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8. Grand Lake Menu for a Guru

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pp. 59-67

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. ...

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9. An Indian Kitchen in Kansas

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pp. 68-76

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. ...

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10. Attic Fans and Flying Typewriters

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pp. 77-81

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. ...

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11. Mother Tongue

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pp. 82-91

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. ...

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12. On the Road with Amiya and Rani

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pp. 92-99

In 1974, the year I was twelve, my grandparents came to Kansas. Even before 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 appearing around town. ...

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13. All Our Tupperware Is Stained with Turmeric

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pp. 100-104

About three miles from our house, I sighted my horizons with an outstretched 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. ...

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14. Strength of a Nation

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pp. 105-113

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. ...

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15. Street Foods

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pp. 114-120

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. ...

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16. Six Recipe Cards, a Wing and a Prayer, Circa 1984

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pp. 121-133

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, ...

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17. Bishshwayya

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pp. 134-145

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 sun hat, I set off. ...

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18. A (Not So) Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Didu’s House

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pp. 146-152

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. ...

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19. Pop Culture India

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pp. 153-164

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. ...

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Acknowledgments

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pp. 165-166

My heartfelt thanks to my family, Terry, Nathan, and Anna Furstenau, and my parents, Sipra and Sachin Mukerjee, who make everything possible. ...

Recipe Index

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pp. 167-168


E-ISBN-13: 9781609382087
E-ISBN-10: 1609382080
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609381851
Print-ISBN-10: 1609381858

Page Count: 188
Illustrations: 6 illustrations
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: paper
Series Editor Byline: John Smith, Will Wordsworth

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • Furstenau, Nina Mukerjee, 1962- -- Childhood and youth.
  • Bengali Americans -- Biography.
  • Bengali Americans -- Food.
  • Bengali Americans -- Social life and customs.
  • Cooking, Indic.
  • Food habits -- Kansas.
  • Food habits -- India -- Bengal.
  • Kansas -- Biography.
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