Nina Furstenau, a science and agricultural journalism adjunct instructor, published her culinary memoir “Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland” through the University of Iowa Press in September.
Furstenau said she started writing the book five or six years ago. It is her first book, despite it being published after her other, “Savor Missouri: River Hills Food and Wine.”
“It took a little while to evolve,” Furstenau said. “I was sifting through memories, talking to family members I didn’t always see very often and choosing what parts of those memories would help move the narrative forward. I see most families as pockets of culture within the larger American landscape, so I’m hoping the story is universal, and believe it is.”
Furstenau said she developed an interest in food because of her family’s immigration from northern India to Kansas.
She said food told her the story of her heritage, given that she grew up far away from where her family originated.
“I think food was important to me because it carried with it my family’s story,” Furstenau said. “And I think that’s what makes it important to a lot of people, whether they know it on the surface of things or not.”
Furstenau said she recognized the connection between food and culture during her interactions with her friends in Tunisia during her involvement with the Peace Corps.
Furstenau went into the Peace Corps at age 22. She said when she was leaving home she wrote out five recipe cards which she would later discover were the same recipes her mother took with her when she left India for the first time at age 18.
“When I was overseas in the Peace Corps, I was in Tunisia with my husband in 1984,” Furstenau said. “I began to share my food stories with the people of Tunisia, and the ladies I met shared their recipes and food with me. I think that was the first time I realized how powerful that connection can be, and most of my memories of that time come from the time I spent with these women in the kitchens of their homes.”
Senior Kate Hrdina, who took three of Furstenau’s classes, said she values Furstenau’s storytelling skills and believes they render her classes valuable.
“(In class), we were talking about how, when we talk to people, there’s always a story underneath,” Hrdina said. “(Furstenau) is great at finding that story, as well as teaching and encouraging us to dig deeper for it. She teaches mostly feature writing, so I think it’s something very necessary, to find something extra about the scene.”
Furstenau said her intent in writing “Biting Through the Skin” was to portray an under-the-radar aspect of immigration. She said she believes she implemented it successfully, and she is proud of doing so.
“(My book) is talking about a time and an era, and an area of the country that’s little-represented when you talk about immigrants who come to this country,” Furstenau said. “Most of the time, people from India go to cities; they don’t go to the Midwest in a small town.”
Furstenau said she hopes she can change perceptions about the Midwest.
“I’m hoping my book will be illuminating to people who aren’t from this area to understand the Midwest in a particular way, maybe differently than they had before,” Furstenau said.
Hrdina said she is eagerly anticipating reading “Biting Through the Skin” after her previous experience reading “Savor Missouri.”
“I’m looking forward to how she incorporates her Indian culture into America and how she puts that as a memoir because I think she’d do a really good job with that,” Hrdina said. “What intrigues me most about her writing is her knack for showing the details of a scene. Nina could probably take a five-minute scene in real life and stretch it out into an entire novel if she wanted, and make it worth every single word you read. She can pick out everything that makes a situation and bring it to life.”
Furstenau said she recently started working on a third book, which will be a novel.
“Biting Through the Skin” is available at local bookstores, as well as online at Amazon.com.