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Vox Voice Podcast: Episode 17 - Nina Mukerjee Furstenau

Nina Mukerjee Furstenau talks cuisine, culture and the ways food brings people together

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Nina Mukerjee Furstenau talks with Vox staff in the studio

Nina Mukerjee Furstenau shares her experiences with Vox staff for a Vox Voice podcast episode. Mukerjee Furstenau taught at the Missouri School of Journalism and was the director of the Science and Agricultural Journalism program from 2010 to 2018.

On this episode of Vox Voice, reporter MJ Montgomery sat down with Nina Mukerjee Furstenau. Nina is a journalist and food writer who has written multiple books about food and culture. Nina has been drawn to food as a way to understand culture and communities. She traces dishes and ingredients through food-ways to uncover the history of the food and the people who made it.

Her family came from northeastern India, and she was raised in Kansas. She attended MU for journalism and later returned to MU to teach for 10 years and to serve as director of Food Systems Communication for the University of Missouri's Science and Agricultural Journalism program. In 2018, Nina went to India as a Fulbright Scholar, where she spent nine months researching her latest book, "Green Chili and Other Imposters." Nina's books often combine recipes with anthropology and memoir with history. Her books have been covered by publications such as The New York Times, the Kansas City Star, and the Star Tribune

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Vox Voice Episode 17: Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
Nina Mukerjee Furstenau has fed her passions for cooking and culture with academic endeavors. With a family from northeastern India and a journalism degree from the University of Missouri, Furstenau has written multiple books about food, culture and the many ways those things intersect. On this episode of Vox Voice, Furstenau talks through the journey of writing her books, her journalistic experiences and the act of bringing different cultures together via food.

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Episode Transcript

Grace Cooper, 0:00: Food is a bridge between people, places and cultures, ingredients and recipes have been traded throughout the world creating different cuisines all around the globe. Columbia itself is a foodie hotspot with restaurants and bars offering an array of options. Our guest today, Nina Mukerjee Furstenau, is a food writer who's passionate about the ways in which food impacts culture, people and the world around them. Her family came from northeastern India, and after being raised in Kansas, she attended the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She was a Fulbright scholar and got to spend nine months in India experiencing the food and culture there. Nina has since taught at the University of Missouri for 10 years and written multiple books about food and its culture. I'm your host Grace Cooper and today boxes MM sits down with NMF to talk about her experience as a food writer and her time in journalism. Welcome to Vox Voice.

Nina Mukerjee Furstenau, 0:47: So this is from Chapter 1, "10 Men in a Train Car to Say Nothing of the Cheese" (Editor's note: From "Green Chili and Other Imposters"). "I'm sitting on gritty concrete steps staring into the eyes of a goat. A surprisingly slow blink is my reward. Granted it is a stately if placid-gazed brown and white Anglo-Nubian, a British breed of goat that originated in the 19 century after crossbreeding with the lop-eared Indian ones, and it lies resplendently across the train station steps."

MJ Montgomery, 1:17: Can you tell me about where you're from and how you came to Columbia?

NMF, 1:21: I am from Pittsburg, Kansas. I came to Columbia for the journalism school in 1980.

MM, 1:26: What intrigued you about food writing?

NMF, 1:28: So I think for the most part, I'm attracted to food writing kind of by accident. I think that my main interest is cultures and boundaries of cultures, and food just seems to fit that so well that I end up writing about food often. To me food leads to all kinds of things, other stories, other themes, especially food and identity, food history, there's just so much to be teased out there that I think the world needs to hear, because there's so many ways we are separated, these days. Food is one of those topics and activities of preparing it, eating it, even the people, including the people who produce it, where we are bound together and bound to our land and what it provides. And so it's a very accessible lens for which I'm grateful because I think that sometimes when other when topics are sensitive, it's it's much easier to maybe understand another person's viewpoint, if you're eating wonderful food over an aroma and a table and a convivial place. So food offers that.

MM, 2:32: How has your family had an impact on your love and interest in food?

NMF, 2:36: The foods that my mother made, the aromas and the textures and the stories behind why she was making certain foods at certain times really connected me to India. And really, if I thought think about it now and at the time, there was just no other connections to India around me, so food became really important. And I value the time that we were in the kitchen together. And I you know, don't know that I was all that helpful in the kitchen, but I really enjoyed the flavors. And to this day, they are my comfort foods.

MM, 3:07: Can you tell me about your journey of writing your first book? The emotional process and security it gave you after it was published.

NMF, 3:14: So the emotional process of writing my first book was — and the book was "Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America's Heartland" — it was it was a bit of an emotional process, surprisingly, because it's not a traumatic memoir. It's not a story of trauma in any way. It's what I would call a landscape memoir. It's sort of giving you scenes of how the situation was and what led to development of the character, which in that case was me. But it, it was emotional, because I think a lot of people go through this what is private, and what is public. And so I had to decide which family stories to tell. And because I wasn't in the habit of talking about family stories to people outside the family, it was a little bit of a struggle to get that written. I look back at that now. And I see that it was just something I needed to process myself as a writer, but it led to a feeling of satisfaction when I got that finished, mainly because it led to so many stories with family members that I had not expected, people who didn't really speak to me about the past. But if I would ask questions, for instance, if I asked my dad, you know, "What was your childhood like?" He probably wouldn't say much. But if I said, "What did your mother make for breakfast on Saturday, on Saturdays?" Often, he would have a whole story about what she would make, how she would make it, who which vendor, you know, the vegetable sellers or the you know, if she would make the chipatis at home. and it was really astonishing how much I got to see of his world just by asking questions about specific foods or times of eating.

Green Chili and Other Imposters

As a Fulbright Scholar, Nina Mukerjee Furstenau traveled to India for nine months to research her latest book, "Green Chili and Other Imposters."

MM, 4:59: What was the biggest thing you learned about yourself during this experience of writing your first book?

NMF, 5:04: The biggest thing I probably learned about myself is that I can be very persistent. And even though that book took a while to write, I was able to stick with it, I was interested enough in making myself go forward with it, that it was a creative process, but it was also a process of being persistent. And I think that maybe what I learned was that a lot of the creative arts are that is we have a lot of talented people around us all the time. And I think what makes a difference is the ones that stick with something and see it to its end.

MM, 5:33: How did writing your first book impact the rest of your career?

NMF, 5:37: It really opened a lot of doors, because I think if you are able to articulate and bring a project to fruition, it attracts people who are interested in that those topics as well. And so it led to a lot of speaking engagements as well as probably led to this Fulbright I most recently did. Because it it, it's a body of work now, it's not just something in my heart. And I think that, while something is in your heart it's, to me, just as valuable as something tangible, for the outside world it makes a difference.

MM, 6:11: How has your experience as a journalist helped you in your food writing?

NMF, 6:15: I think when you're a journalist, you're used to entering communities that are not your own, you are coming in as an outsider to ask questions and understand something and then you write about it, or produce film or radio about it, or other avenues. And I think that ability to kind of think about what the situation is, and understand the why of the story, I think that's always the most important question. There's always who, what, when, where and why. But why is is really critical, because it it, it kind of leads to an understanding of how foods get to be the way they are and why we like them or dislike them, or why we eat certain things and not other things. And I think training is a journalist gets you to question a little deeper than you might ordinarily.

MM, 7:13: You went with the Fulbright scholars to India for one of your books for a little while. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

NMF, 7:19: I went in 2018 to 19 as a global scholar, and I was a research scholar, I was there to research my most recent book, "Green Chili and Other Imposters." And it opened a lot of doors for me as far as meeting people and opening up spaces that I might, as an outsider, not have been able to access. So I got to interview chefs and home cooks and be in home kitchens, as well as high end restaurant kitchens and follow the food trail to its source. And so I was able to go, you know, back to the farm families that milk the cows and make the cheese and then ship it into the city. Having those connections to do that really is, is a result of Fulbright. And as a person who was raised in the US with family, a family home heritage being from another country, it was fantastic to be able to actually go to that country with boots on the ground, you know, and, and live there as a person, like a regular person, not just a traveler, where you have an apartment and you have a market down the street where you know, the you know, you nod and say hello to people who are selling the fruits or the vegetables, or the man who sells rice knows that, you know, you need a little coaching on which rice goes with which recipes and he'll take the time to tell you about it. So it was lovely. It was just wonderful.

MM, 8:43: How does food bridge gaps and cultures?

NMF, 8:46: It's pretty clear to me when you look at any plate of food that many cultures are already there touching side by side and the spices that are there are in the grains that are harvested in another country and then brought to this one, or vegetables that were native to Asia but now are so common here or citrus, which is definitely the case or you know all of those foods, they are completely entwined on our plates already. And so if you take the time to understand those journeys, those food-ways, it just makes a world a much closer place. And maybe you start to appreciate the the countries that those foods were developed in. It's my way of sort of leading to peace in a way because I think there's so many differences in the world, that there's one area that we all sort of agree in and that's our senses. You know what tastes good, what smells good, what our memories of our family are carried by the foods we eat. That's common across the world. It doesn't matter what culture you're in. So when I say food-ways I'm also talking about that. And it's it's a pretty big area to write within because it means it takes in almost every part of life.

MM, 10:00: How does the kitchen bring people together?

NMF, 10:03: Well, I think the stories women tell or men, when they're cooking, there's something intimate about those stories. You know, eating is a very intimate thing, you're taking something into your body. So when you're talking to people or creating flavor together in a kitchen, you're doing that at of the expectation that somebody is going to enjoy that food. And that motivation is, it's love. And so it's not, it's not something that, I mean, I suppose if you're angry, you can cook, and I think it shows up in the food. So it's, I do you think when you're around a table or in a kitchen, preparing foods for that table, it just brings people together in a way that maybe doesn't happen and other avenues of life?

MM, 10:52: When we spoke earlier, you told me about about food-ways. Could you explain to me what a food-way is?

NMF, 10:59: So I think there's probably several different definitions, but food-ways are the trails that food have taken through history to end up on your plate today. So that can be not only just the farmers that maybe grew that particular plant, but maybe where it originated, and how it got to this part of the world, and why many times that's linked to all sorts of things that you might not always have realized, before it was pointed out to you.

MM, 11:28: How do foods get to different places?

NMF, 11:31: So foods, of course, everyone can understand that foods travel via trade and ship and railroad, but foods primarily travel because people like the way they taste. And so world history changes because of what humans want to eat. And if you think about that, sometimes it changed in very wondrous ways, and sometimes it changed in really horrific ways.

If you think about the history of sugar, that's caused all kinds of terrible things to happen, but we wanted the sweetness of sugar. People went to great lengths to plant it and harvested, and by people maybe who weren't really willing to do that work, just so we could have a dessert, or sprinkle sugar on other foods. But you know, other times, when the taste of citrus was first, you know, tasted by someone from the West, they came to India, and they tasted oranges, and lemons, and it must have been wondrous. And you know, it came to Europe, if you think about all the citrus in Italy, but also other islands around the world where sailors stopped and planted citrus so they could have little stations where they wouldn't, you know, get scurvy because they could get a little vitamin C while they were traveling. It spread around the world because of that need. It was a health reason, but also because of taste.

And so I guess there's a lot of reasons food spreads. But I would say the primary one is because we want to eat something, and it sounds good. And so we figure out ways to get that to happen. Usually, in history when a food originated someplace foreign to you, you might have a little hesitation eating it, but, you know, we adapt, we ended up you know, we ended up liking tomatoes. After we got a little time to see that they were OK. We ended up liking potatoes; they weren't anything anyone in Europe ever had had before. They came from the New World, and vice versa there were foods going both ways. And I think that's a fun history just to know. You wouldn't suspect some of the stories sometimes.

MM, 13:44: What are your thoughts about food-ways in different parts of Missouri?

NMF, 13:47: So you know, I can tell you just from my family. My husband's family is from central Missouri, a little bit south of Columbia, Missouri, and they have a very strong food and gathering tradition. And I know a lot of them like foods that maybe many of the listeners will have had — so you know the roast or briskets (are) really important sometimes, fried chicken, definitely foods like potato salads and wonderful cakes and pies that I can really think about and be happy thinking about for a long time.

They also like foods that are not my favorites, and they are very distinct in this region of the country that things like jello salads that I always kind of wonder, why do we have these? But they're you know, always really interesting bright colors, and a very definitely a Midwestern happening, you know, things like deviled egg. And, you know, the the country foods of a region can tell you a lot about its agricultural story. So when we have sweet corn, when our family gets together in June and July, it's because that's when, you know, the corn is knee high, right? And we can, and we can harvest it, or actually it's passing the high, but it ties you to the land, because it'll tell you what's available. We, you know, we might have the brisket because we — most of the family has farms and raised cattle. So we, you know, we have access to really good meat. In other families that might be, you know, there might be other traditions, and if you think about it, it's sometimes or often, I would say, tied to the land and what it supports.

The food-ways in Missouri is kind of as you think about traditional Thanksgiving dinners. That's Midwestern food to me. But if you consider for a minute, there was a lot of time — and many times some families, even today, really like oyster stuffing. And that's not a Midwestern ingredient. But how did that happen? You know? So I would just challenge you follow that food trail. Find out how oysters got sometimes into our stuffings. And part of it, it's the history of canning, and when, food companies started canning, things that were considered more exotic or harder to get, and how those then got shipped to the Midwest. And you get all kinds of interesting food-ways because of the processes behind food and preservation. So I don't know if that really answered your question, but I think there's a lot to that question. So it might be might be at least a start.

MM, 16:29: Where do you see, like, African food-ways or Native American food-ways in Missouri?

NMF, 16:33: I think many of the foods that we think of as our own have a deeper backstory than we may realize. A lot of times when African Americans came to this country, they brought things that they were really used to eating and enjoyed eating and because of their circumstances and the scarcity of what the things they can eat. They made, through ingenuity, made those foods delicious. So things like brisket, things like some forms of barbecue, some types of gumbo, there's all kinds of dishes that actually have origins in the African American food waste from Africa. The greens that we eat often are — it's interesting because there wasn't corn in Africa, so when grits were first made, they were made with rice grits. The grit was a little bit of rice that was wasted rice from when they polish the rice kernels. And so the slaves at that time could get those little bits of rice, and they would make grits out of it, so they made it out of rice. Later, as people started using corn for that, it became corn grits, and that then later went to Europe as polenta. And it just it's an interesting thing to think that rice was not familiar here until the people from West Africa came to our colonies, and prior to our colonies to help us know how to grow it. So it's in a lot of the foods that we eat.

Native American food is the same way, it's amazing the types of foods that we have that come out of their heritage. So things like, in gumbo and other types of gumbo they use sassafras to thicken it. And the African version perhaps would use more like the French roux to thicken it. They contributed a lot of the ways that we cook. They were experts at growing corn, beans and squash and those foods, obviously, are are a large part of the American diet. Corn was made into breads, it was made in flapjacks. It was, a lot of things that infiltrate what we eat came out of their tradition. And some of the things that developed in our large food companies actually came from their habits. So for instance, when they had to travel long distances, they would make something called pemmican, so they could have food as they traveled. That later sort of morphed, and it's now like our energy bars. They may have been the first to actually make potatoes into chips. They certainly popped corn. It's just a lot of things that we don't give them, Native Americans, credit for, we actually should because. We learned a lot from them.

MM, 19:15: Switching gears a little bit, what was the most unique part of your 10 years of teaching at Mizzou?

NMF, 19:21: Oh, I think the students every single one of them, I just loved them. And every — the unique part is maybe opening some minds to the idea how rich and wide and full of variety food writing can be. Because it if you look at most headlines in media, almost always many, many times you can trace back the kernel of the of the story to a food. For instance, there was you know if we talk about salmon and how large it is and how we're wary about that because it's farm raised and not natural. Well, that's because we eat salmon. That's why we're really worried about it. If you talk about the tanks in the tank line in Ukraine that was stopped for a while, the story behind that was the logistics were slowed down or stopped in cases of getting food to the soldiers. And so the war was actually halted for a few days or maybe a little longer. So the stories often will trace back to food. And it was really, really fun to see students take my class because they wanted to do the sensory writing and the taste and flavor aspects and learn how much more there is to the food umbrella.

MM, 20:27: Can you describe your time in the Peace Corps?

NMF, 20:30: In Peace Corps, I was in North Africa, so I was in Tunisia with my husband. And we were stationed outside of a town called Kairouan, which is the fourth holiest city in Islam. I was not familiar with not only that religion very much, but that area of the world at all when we went, so it was a real cultural shift. And it was probably the reason I write about food was probably born there, because I had a job working with widows of farmers. And we did work, and I got a grant, I worked with contractors to get the training center built, and I feel like I accomplished what I hope to. But really where my memories are all centered is in when I was with women, and we were preparing food for meals. And it was often Tunisian food that they were preparing, and I was learning. But they also were really interested in my home cultures food, and so I would make Indian food almost for the first time for people outside my family. And those experiences really stayed with me, and I don't, I think the power of that is that interaction we spoke about earlier, it's intimate in many ways. And you get to know someone so much faster, when you're working with them over preparing something for others to enjoy. And also just sustenance, it is it's a noble cause. It brings people together. And I do think it creates memories that you might not have access to otherwise.

MM, 21:58: And you talked a little bit about how it brought you into food writing, but do you have any other big personal changes that that experience brought upon you?

NMF, 22:07, I think that was a big one for me. You know, it just, you know, there's times in your life where maybe everything is so concentrated, you're not actually realizing it at the time, but it really is changing the course of your life. And I would say Peace Corps was that for me.

MM, 22:23: Can you tell me what it's been like to travel different parts of the world?

NMF, 22:27: I think most people have had the experience of traveling outside their comfort zone at some point. And sometimes it makes you uncomfortable, but many times it's exhilarating. And also it's just sort of amazing how many things we all have in common around the world. We may have different settings, we may have different vistas, we may have different tabletops, but in the end, it's how much we're alike. I like traveling to not only feel that again and again, but also because it, we do come out of such beautiful places. And there's so much beauty in the world almost, I've never been in a place that hasn't had beauty. And if you slow down enough to see it, and share something tasty over a table with someone while you're watching that happen. it's hard to beat.

MM, 23:19: And what is your favorite destination you've spent time in?

NMF, 23:23: That's a really tough question. I think that that's unfair because there's so many places that I, it's like asking someone what's their favorite child, so I think I'm gonna have to abstain.

MM, 23:33: OK, OK. All right. OK, and that is the last question I had. Thank you for your time.

NMF, 23:38: Thank you, I appreciate it.

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