Amy Hassinger

Writer. Teacher. Manuscript Consultant.

Nina Mukerjee Fursteneau's BITING THROUGH THE SKIN

One of the things that I love about literature is the way it is constantly drawing connections. This is what metaphor does, of course—connects two unlikely things in a flash of insight—but this is also what just plain good writing does. It illuminates the web of connections that underlies the world and even the universe, so that we might see our world as more whole and meaningful than we often experience it.

Drawing connections is what I’ve tried to do with this podcast—connections between writers and readers, between Midwesterners and their cultures and landscapes. It’s also exactly what Nina Mukerjee Furstenau is doing in her book Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland. Part memoir, part cookbook, Biting Through the Skin draws connections between the foods we eat, the cultures we hail from and are born into, and the communities we create.

I’m going to read a few paragraphs from the book’s opening pages, to give you a taste, as it were. Here it is, from Nina Mukerjee Furstenau’s Biting Through the Skin:

I am always combusting something.
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, pooling heart, the ocean. The planet’s fluidity mimics the watery element in my mouth that intimately creates taste. Sound itself reveals secrets and animates air. I stand in twilight, the wind blowing over the Missouri farm where my husband and I now live. Soft, turbulent, whispery and still by turns, the wind moans between trees down the drive, snaps near my ear as an owl skims past just out of sight, mimics breath. In and out, my earth expands and contracts with all the breathers everywhere: a rhythmic pulsing that vibrates the world. . . .
In my search for an indivisible future that works, I keep spiraling back to a connection between myself, the earth, and India. Ancient cultures have never abandoned this interconnectedness and now, at midlife, it keeps rising up to meet me, something writer and activist for ecology and culture Helena Norberg-Hodge once noted. I began by thinking that growing up Indian in Kansas was mine alone. I now see that all families are small pockets of culture that hand their rituals, personalities, and gifts, heritage and love down to the next generation through food rituals. Food holds memory. It holds story. It can represent who we are. . . .
If you are lucky, you see connections even in aromatic spices. Such tiny, brown bits of larger things are indeed Whitman’s “journey-work of the stars.” A recipe is the journey-work, the template, of culture and family, as well as tangible evidence of what we’re willing to share of both. I read a recipe and see great expanses of land, cultivars of grain and vegetable, stunning lengths of history, and I imagine someone who feeds me, the dance behind the routine of cooking, the pop of memory, and the sizzle of love. Making that leap, trusting that the people of my home state of Kansas, and later Missouri, could see the gift presented with each meal, was a long time coming. Food was my tether to heritage; it revealed my world and transformed me into someone willing to share that story with others.

Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland, by Nina Mukerjee Furstenau, was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2013, and is available wherever books are sold.

And that marks the final episode of this podcast. I’ve learned so much over the past year, and have so enjoyed discovering and highlighting the work of so many wonderful Midwestern authors. There are so many more out there to be read and savored and shared! But it’s time for me to move on to other projects. So, let me close by saying, one last time . . .

Thanks for listening to The Literary Life. Please write with any comments or questions, you can find me at www.amyhassinger.com. Until we meet again, keep reading, keep writing, and keep leading The Literary Life.