In this episode, co-hosts Sara Dixon and Daniel Pewewardy explore category 9, a book about immigration through the lens of food. Joining them on the podcast is Nina Mukherjee Furstenau, a food journalist and author of the 2014 Kansas Notable Book Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America's Heartland. A first-generation immigrant who moved to Pittsburg, Kansas from India as a young child in the 1960s, Ms. Furstenau shares her in experience of growing up as an immigrant in the heart of the American Midwest, how she stays connected to her culture through food and how we can learn about people through the foods we share.
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DANIEL, VOICEOVER: Hello and welcome back to Read. Return. Repeat. : A ReadICT Podcast. I'm Daniel Pewewardy.
SARA, VOICEOVER: And I'm Sara Dxon. And today in an episode titled A Plate of Culture, we're going to take a closer look at category 9, a book about immigration.
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: Our guest today, Nina Mukerjee Furstenau, moved to the United States with her family as a young child and she is the author of the Kansas Notable Book Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America's Heartland and Green Chilis and Other Impostors, which was released last year. She was a Fulbright Global research scholar and has won the M.F.K. Fisher book award grand prize for culture culinary writing from Les Dames d'Escoffier and more.
SARA, VOICEOVER: Her book, Biting Through the Skin, is about how her family ended up in Pittsburg, Kansas of all places in the '60s. This was before many stores had an international food aisle and you couldn't just find curry on the shelf. Her book weaves food and culture together with stories of growing up Indian American in rural Kansas. And plus there are recipes!
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: Can't wait.
SARA: All right! Hi, everyone and hi to Nina. Thank you so much for joining us today on Read. Return. Repeat. We're so excited to have you.
NINA MUKERJEE FURSTENAU: Thank you for having me. I'm very excited to be here.
DANIEL: It's nice to meet you.
SARA: Nina, tell us -- you are primarily a food writer. Can you tell us and our listeners a little bit more about your work and what inspired you to follow this culinary path?
NINA: Sure. You know, it's funny that you asked that because I don't know very many people who -- maybe there are now but at least early on, writers who started out to be food writers specifically. A lot of us have kind of evolved into it because of various reasons and I think I fall into that category. I was raised in Kansas, something I just, you know, am very happy and proud about. But at the time, it was a place that was a wonderful childhood but there were very few people like from my family's background around me. So I think I early on got really interested in cultures and... and differences in cultures and also where cultures are alike. And I often saw that over the food traditions or between the food traditions. So I guess I started out really wanting to write about boundaries of cultures and how they meet and how people maybe cross them and where they find connection. And somehow that just always seemed to lead me to food because food is such a wonderful lens to see that and it's also... opens up a lot of other stories as well. So I guess I came to it organically that way. I was trained as a journalist and I covered all kinds of things but I always was drawn to cultural stories and then it just sort of, you know, just led me to food. And I have really been enamored with that topic ever since.
SARA: There's a lot of ground to cover with food, I feel like.
NINA: No kidding.
SARA: A lot to play with.
DANIEL: Yeah, it's really like an interesting common ground that a lot of people, like everyone likes rice.
SARA: Everybody likes bread! I love your chapter on bread.
DANIEL: You grew up in -- you said you grew up in Kansas and specifically Pittsburg, Kansas in the 1960s. What was it like growing up as a Bengali immigrant in the American Midwest?
NINA: Well, you know, it was wonderful to tell you the truth but it was just a different era, you know, if you think about all the issues we have with immigration have kind of evolved with our nation as we've kind of also grown up as a nation. But at the time my father came to Kansas -- or actually first came to Chicago -- it was in 1957, he was among the first of the professional Indians that came to this country. When my mom and brother and I after they married -- my parents married -- we all get got to Pittsburg in 1963. And I think I'm pretty sure there's about 12,000 Indian people in the U.S. at that time across the whole nation and most of them were not in the Midwest. So I didn't... I guess, you know, growing up in the Midwest meant that I had I was a Kansas girl. You know, I rode my bicycle, I roller skated, I was fascinated with mimosa trees and cottonwoods. And you know, I had... I went to 4-H, I loved my schooling, you know, all my friends so I was a Kansas girl. But behind our front door especially in my mom's kitchen, that's when I saw my family's homeland which was very different than my homeland. My homeland is Kansas. But theirs is not and so my connections to my family heritage came alive to me through the senses and that's all around food. So it was aroma, it was texture, it was temperature. All of those things triggered India for me.
And in my case, it made me learn so much about India that I kind of indirectly... so if you think about it, you know, we're all children in the Midwest -- most of probably you too as well as I -- and so we learn early on, you know, about pullets and maybe what we eat at Fourth of July is sweet corn because that's maybe when -- you know what they used to say, that's when sweet corn was knee-high -- you know, so that's all those food triggers. We know what we eat at the holidays because it ties to our agricultural cycle or climate in some way. Well, I knew those stories because I grew up around that. But I didn't grow up around those same kind of cycles in India so I had no idea what they were except when my father would say maybe it was a rainy day or a cool day and he would ask for a particular dish called kitcheree and it's a rice lentil dish that you... you know, you can either use ghee or butter and it's very comforting, it's kind of stick to your ribs. And he would always ask for that on a rainy day and that made me suddenly kind of indirectly understand what it might be like during a monsoon in India. You know, so I wouldn't have known that unless mom made that dish at that particular, that kind of weather to give my dad some sort of connection with comfort. And so you learn a lot about all kinds of things just by knowing, you know, the comfort foods and the cycle of foods in your home place. So I guess growing up in the Midwest to me was two worlds. It really was. It was what was outside our front door but then it was also what happened in the kitchen and how I learned about family story through food traditions.
SARA: I love that. I mean food, is definitely what brings us together, I feel like -- or is one of the things, is a common thread. And so I love how you've just framed your whole, you know, immigrant experience through food. And obviously you just talked about how food is such a big part of your identity. What other things make you feel connected to your Bengali culture?
NINA: Yeah, you know, as I was just saying, it was kind of two worlds for me. My parents did have occasional meetings with people from India maybe monthly or quarterly at events in bigger cities near us like Kansas City or Tulsa and so I did see other Indians, but my daily life was pretty much midwestern. But you know, if you went inside my house, you might... you know, if you opened a closet door you might see some lovely embroidered fabrics or my mother's saris hanging in a closet. And those... those were definitely... those tactile experiences were definitely India to me. And so I early on associated India with color and beautiful fabrics and... and tasty food so it was all sensory to me. And I don't know that that... there's a few tangible things like... like the fabrics I just mentioned but a lot of it was intangible.
DANIEL: I think that's really interesting how you were able to connect with your... like the items around your home play into the culture too because like I had that growing up, like my parents were from Oklahoma and like things reminded of like... like we have like this like Oklahoma State porcelain cowboy guy that's like... so I didn't grow up there but I have an association with that through that.
NINA: Absolutely. That's what I think is really interesting though is I wrote about my family story but I feel like everybody's family story, it's just... it's similar. I mean, you reveal different backgrounds through your each individual family. I described it one time as being little pockets of culture. And everybody's family is a pocket of culture within this big American landscape. And so if you just open that door a little farther and kind of let those aromas come out, you learn so much because everybody's family has a different story behind it, different heritages, different... different favorite foods, different people who would have made those foods, maybe different stories about why those foods were important. And I just... I just love that. To me, that's... that's what makes the world come alive.
SARA: I think we just found the title of our episode. "Pocket of culture."
DANIEL: Yeah, I like that a lot, yeah.
In Biting Through the Skin, you discuss returning to India and feeling a sense of alienation from your cousins. But then compared to the experience of being different from the kids in your hometown. Immigrants and especially first generation children of immigrants often have to deal with the dichotomy of originating from one culture and adopting another. How are we able to balance this?
NINA: Well, I think the balance was pretty decidedly in America. I pretty much grew up as a midwestern kid. And that was for various reasons but I think there's a lot of loss involved with something like that. It... it is maybe the era also of immigration at that time. People tended to feel like they had to make a choice: if they were going to be Americans or if they were going to hold their home culture. And at least from my parents at that time, they thought it would be better for my brother and I to assimilate. And I think that we benefited a lot from that but we also did lose something with that. And because I've been lucky, I've been able to reconnect with my Indian heritage. I always connected with it. Because they spoke Bengali at home, I... they didn't necessarily insist we speak Bengali so I lost the fluidity of the language. But you know, kids are pretty motivated to know what their parents are saying so I kept the understanding of the language pretty well.
And you know, so it wasn't that I lost everything but I don't think I have that culture... I didn't have that cultural fluency of somebody who was raised there or even spent significant amount of time there and also in the U.S. I was pretty much always in the U.S., just occasional visits back to India until I became an adult and was able through this wonderful Fulbright program get, I was able to go for three seasons and live there. And I think now I feel like I have a blend of both fairly strong in me because I experienced it firsthand. I was like boots on the ground, saw the rhythm of how things worked, actually connected with people there that a little bit more solidly I guess than, you know, remote kinds of occasional connections. And that was just such a precious gift. I just... you know, it was amazing to be able to do that for me.
SARA: I think some of those are the stories that really stuck with me is your... your stories of going over as a child and seeing it through your child's like eyes and then getting to meet your family and extended family and so -- from your book, those are the parts I think that other than the food really... no, I think all of it, all of it stuck.
NINA: I like you. You're like the best reader.
SARA: Great, I'll put on my resume.
DANIEL: So as you were talking about like the assimilation isn't as like with immigrant cultures currently with like assimilation isn't at the forefront as it was when you were growing up, how do you feel about like today's immigrant cultures being able to like celebrate their own culture more than you were able to?
NINA: It's a very good question, you know, and I... it's hard for me to put myself in those shoes since I didn't live that or haven't lived that. But you know, even then there was a lot more communities -- Asian communities, Indian communities -- on the coast than there were in a small town, smallish town in the Midwest. That was kind of unusual. Most Indians went to cities. So I really was like... I felt like a little bit like an island, you know, of a small family experience. But I think Indians for... for a long time have had communities of their own culture depending on what state they're from in India and so forth in the cities in America. And I think now a lot of immigrants can, their kids can grow up with that surrounding them if they... if they choose that. And they... you know, there's just more people from Asia in in the U.S. I don't know exactly but the last time I looked I think in the 2019 timeframe there was... let's see, I want to say almost 3 million people from India in the U.S. So compare that to 12,000 when I first came so it's a lot different environment.
And I have to also say a lot more Americans know more about Asia now than they used to. It's just my personal experience. I may be completely wrong and certainly in certain communities I would be wrong. But a lot of people just didn't have too much history, knowledge of India or the arts there and that and all the, you know, rich culture other than those images they would get of people who were hungry. That's all they knew. So you know, I think there's just more education generally when you get more people from certain cultures around you. You just start to learn more about those cultures. And that's got to be a little bit reassuring to people. They don't have anything to compare to like I would but it still has to be reassuring to people who are from other places that people in this country just know about the world more in general. And I hope that means, you know, people become more receptive to... to that. You know, that's what I... I just I feel like I really had... really had an excellent place to grow up because I never felt that isolation. It was just a way culture was, you know? And now that I'm an adult looking back, I can see oh, you know, I can see where maybe I didn't... I knew that people didn't understand India at all and that's how caused me to maybe not talk about it very much. And you know, kids just act differently. They don't know how to deal with some of these big issues so for me it made me more quiet about it.
SARA: Letting that sink in just yeah because I feel like that was really insightful.
DANIEL: I do want to say like I think a lot of people think they know about India but like researching this, I was like, there's so many different regions and cultures and dialects and languages. It's like you kind of see it with like Native American identity too where people think it's a mono – not like, I want to say monotheistic, I know that's not the right word but like –
NINA: A monolithic, like one –
DANIEL: A monolithic culture. But it's not really, it's like a whole bunch of cultures and as I was researching this episode, I was like reminded of that and how they're all different regions. And the... the even the like food's completely different.
NINA: They're very different, yeah. And it's all very tasty in different ways. You can really, if you were interested in it, you certainly could feast for many days going, just doing the different cuisines of India, very much so.
SARA: That sounds like a wonderful vacation.
DANIEL: I need to branch away from the tikka masala which is the national dish of England.
NINA: That's a good one to start with. Absolutely is.
SARA: So I mean today it's common to see, you know, international food aisles at the grocery store. You have access to specific marketplaces. You know, we have just here in Wichita: Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern markets. But this was not the case when you were growing up in Pittsburg. Can you talk to us a little bit about that? Like what can we learn from these places and their people through these now wide... I'm just really fumbling through this. But what can we learn about these people and their places?
NINA: Well, I think that's a wonderful question. That's one of those questions I just love.
SARA: Once I finally got it out?
NINA: Yeah, and you did get it out quite well, I have to say, Sara.
SARA: Oh, thank you.
NINA: It's just... you know, it's... it's a lovely question because, you know, the answer to that depends on each individual and their amount of curiosity about the world around them, you know? So I was a, you know, teacher. I was an educator for a long time so I love questions like that because it makes you sort of think about... you know, if you look at your plate -- and in Pittsburg, oh my goodness. If you look at the classic plate in Pittsburg, Kansas at one of our famous chicken restaurants, you will see wonderful kind of southern fried chicken, you will see German potato salad -- this vinegary kind -- you'll see slaw which also vinegar based and you'll see spaghetti. Now, that's probably one of those unusual combinations but it really reflects who settled southeast Kansas, right? The people from the Balkans, the Italians that came for the mining -- the strip pit mining -- and you know what's really fascinating to me, what I love about that? Is they all ate at the same restaurants. There wasn't an Italian restaurant here and a, you know, German, Balkan, you know, heritage restaurant here. They ate at the same restaurants, their food was touching on the plate. If you look at the plate, we were integrated on the plate. We were very much one culture on the plate. And I'd just like to, you know, have people recognize that.
And when they look down at your... anywhere you are in this country, there's things from all over the world on that plate and you don't even realize it because it's so common now. But something as simple as black pepper which was carted out of India in the 1500s and late 1400s by the shipload to go west, is from Asia. I mean, we wouldn't have had that in this country and yet that's a basic. So if you look at... at any plate anywhere and you just have a little curiosity, you're going to find trails all over the world. And it's fascinating to me. I can't help but think that way. I get excited about those kinds of things. I'm also really fascinated by, you know, who handled that food? How did it get packaged, how did it get shipped originally? Maybe now it's all high-tech and, you know, cardboard boxes or something but it came by ship at one point or maybe... maybe it was overland, the spice route and then by ship. You know, how did it... how did it get to the west and vice versa, how did things that came from the new world go east? And it's just fascinating to see those trails but also what caused them to happen? Sometimes it's conflict and not great reasons, sometimes it's education and, you know, work experiences that make people crisscross the globe but it's always got an interesting story and it almost... any time I've... I've never found a time when it hasn't reflected big movements in history. And so I find it endlessly interesting. I can probably -- did I get off topic on your question?
SARA: I liked listening to it so I don't have any problems with that.
DANIEL: Yeah, I think it's really fascinating how like... like things exist like outside, how like globalism and colonialism has changed cultures like I just think that's super fascinating.
NINA: And it's... it's interesting because not everybody realizes how it affects something they do daily like eating. You know, it's just amazing. I think you started out, Sara, saying you know these foods that are currently you can find a lot of interesting spices and ingredients from all over the world in our grocery store.
SARA: Go to Kroger and get a curry powder, you know? No big deal.
NINA: Yeah. It's really, really nice and... and convenient you can test many things without having to really go afar. I know when my parents got to Pittsburg in 1963, something like yogurt was not in the grocery store. That was exotic. And you know, Indians cook with a lot of yogurt, that's just part of our cooking process. She didn't have... you couldn't find cinnamon sticks in the grocery. You would... we would go to the Ben Franklin in the one of the craft aisles where they would have bag of cinnamon sticks. People would buy for those oranges you'd get at Christmas time and stick the cinnamon stick in there. So spices weren't, you know, real exotic. I don't call it exotic, but that's -- I'll put quotes around that word. So we've come a long way. And I think that having access to all of these foods, you know, if you have the curiosity, it might spark interest in how those foods were used in the cultures they came from or even where they come came from to begin with. You might have some interest in that. And... and how we got it here and... and how it is changed by the cultures it's in. Because that's what's also fascinating, these foods as they move like the tomato when it got to Italy or that same tomato when I got to India, totally different cuisines because of the ingenuity of the people who use this "foreign" quote-unquote ingredient from South America and made it their own.
And so that's the title of my most recent book is Green Chili and Other Impostors because these foods kind of become so much a part of things that you don't know they were foreign to begin with and thought of as outside kind of the cuisine. And so they're sort of Impostors and... and I'm also kind of tongue-in-cheek talking about myself because when I go back to Asia, I look like I sort of belong there but I'm definitely a midwestern person. So it's... you know, it's a little bit of a... it's interesting to me how things get made your own. You know, like when is it foreign and when does it stop being foreign? And if we know what that point is, can we apply it at will, you know? Because it's... it seems to just sort of take over a culture with time. But at some point, somebody makes the leap to making this their own and I just find that an interesting point, that boundary.
DANIEL: That's yeah, that's really interesting. I've been trying to say that the fried flour taco is Wichita's, like, our food. Like other places have originated but I was like, I've been around a lot of places, no one else has fried flour tacos. And it's because like we have like the grain belt or whatever that's like, okay, instead of like a corn, it's... it's like they take a flour tortilla they make a taco and then they fry it.
DANIEL: And it's like, yeah it is kind of –
SARA: Like a taquito?
DANIEL: No because they normally have toothpicks in it to kind of seal it. It's kind of like a… it's a not completely sealed empanada is what I would say.
NINA: I'm going to have to taste one of those so I have to come to Wichita.
SARA: I guess I don't, I haven't even had one.
DANIEL: Yeah, it's like a thing. It's not at the authentic Mexican restaurants though, it's at the like Tex-Mex like the... like those kind of places. But it's like a thing that distinctly I feel like I've only found in Wichita and like one other, other place like in Oklahoma.
NINA: That just sounds like it ought to be a state fair food because it's a deep fried --
DANIEL: Yeah, that's the thing, it's like it's not... I mean, it's not authentic taco but it's authentic to Kansas. And I've always had this argument with people.
DANIEL: They're like, it's not a real taco. It's like, no, but it's a Kansas taco.
NINA: Yeah. Yeah, love it.
Well, we're gonna take a quick break and when we get back, we're going to actually talk a little bit more about Green Chilis and Other Impostors and a few other things so we'll be right back.
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SARA: All right, welcome back to Read. Return. Repeat. We are talking with Nina Mukerjee Furstenau.
NINA: Yeah, my husband and I went in as a couple and I think we were drawn... we were, you know, right out of college. I think we were drawn to the adventure of it. I also because of how I grew up, I've always been fascinated with different cultures and, you know, how... how we meet them and how we learn about them. So I was ready and he certainly was. So we applied. At that time -- I don't know if it's still the same -- you get assigned a country or you... you know, they... they tell you where you'll be going. So we didn't know it was going to be north Africa. And when we went, I... my job was -- let me back up. They placed him as a agricultural extension worker in a town in the middle of the country. So it was very close to the Sahara desert and very old medinas and, you know, lovely flat-topped white houses with blue doors, that kind of... type of scenery. And also really rough kind of scrub brushy countryside because it was going into the Sahara. So it wasn't quite Sahara yet and it was olive trees and that kind of thing. So he was out in the country most of the time. And I was assigned or I requested to work with the women of... that worked with widowed farmers.
And so I spent my time trying to figure out ways to get income generation to these ladies. A lot of them were rug weavers and so we had a project to get certificates for rug weaving to these ladies. Because if they had the certificate, they could get paid more at the market. So that was my big project. So a lot of my time was spent working on, you know, technical things like how many bricks do we need to build this facility and nothing very exciting. But... but in the kitchens when I would work with these ladies to make traditional foods from north Africa, we -- that's where all my memories really are and I'm hoping that's where their memories of me are because that's where we had all of our exchanges about who we were as people, as women, as daughters, as wives and kind of... you know, I learned so much about what they felt about families and just by how they cooked. You know, it's like women exchange a lot of wisdom in those in that space, that space where you're actually... you're working but it's not... it's leisurely in some ways even though you have a big job ahead of you. And it was just precious, you know? It was just a precious time. And I think that's where my love really was born for this type of work because what I saw was these ladies were kind of about two kilometers outside of the main town. Their families had moved to this area because there were no longer jobs out in the rural areas and so they came there for work. And a lot of times their husbands didn't find the work so the women were doing weaving and household things and cooking and just trying to make ends meet.
So I saw from their stature -- I'm not terribly tall, I'm about 5'3", a little bit less. And the men were about my height and the women were shorter. But just two kilometers in town where most of the people or many of the people were professionals, you know: doctors, teachers, engineers. They had incomes that were good, they had access to many more nutrients in their food and a lot more protein. The men were over six foot tall. You know, you could just see the difference. And they were both populations were eating similar foods in a way. They were the traditional what I call heritage recipes: couscous with a spicy tomato sauce, some vegetables, maybe some chickpeas, things like that were the same. But in the area where I lived and worked, there would be very, very rarely any meat and very rarely any protein other than maybe a chickpea or two thrown into the pot. And it just made a huge difference also because I think the quality of what was the staple foods of the grains, the best of it was exported and so the least of it was what the people at the subsistence level of the culture were eating. And so micronutrient deficiency means statures are shorter. Sometimes there's other deficiencies. And you could just see it. These foods that sustained cultures for millennia no longer were sustaining these people. And it's because of something that's shifted in the soils, it's something that's shifted in the food system.
And that is how I became really fascinated with that aspects of food writing. I love the cultural aspect but I'm really interested in human nutrition and heritage foods and what happens when they start to change. If they change because we just want novelty and we want something interesting because we're going to combine in the case of the example a minute ago of tacos and something in the Midwest like a fried flour tortilla, that... that's different. But if it's changing because the food system is changing and we're not getting the micronutrients that we used to get, then it really shows up in certain populations that don't have the money to add to that, to add to that diet. So I think that interest was born at that time in the Peace Corps but my interest in cultural boundaries and how they meet and are crossed over food definitely happened in those kitchens with those ladies. And I know that that's what has led me to what I have been doing ever since.
DANIEL: Yeah, that's... yeah, that's so... you never think about like the quality of food versus because of that, relating to like size and stature and things.
SARA: Well, and just the fact that it's degraded over time, I think that that's...
NINA: Yeah, we have such wonderful agricultural soils in this part of the country and the world. But you know, many places -- and I've worked in a few of them -- soils are really depleting. And if you overuse soils -- and you know, fertilizers of course help but even using so much fertilizer is... it's a difference between a soil that's alive with natural micronutrients, that's the kind of soil you really want to grow food in. And we've kind of lost a lot of that around the world. So I did a couple of projects in Ghana and Mozambique and that's what we folks focused on and it... it was for human nutrition using heritage recipes. When you have plants grown in soils that are depleted, what... what happens, you know? So how do you get the protein back up, how do you get micronutrients back in the food? So I could go... I get a little bit wonky when I do this topic.
DANIEL: The deep science of nutrition!
NINA: I'll stop, I promise.
SARA: it's really, it's fascinating But I guess we don't want our podcast to be like a thousand hours long.
DANIEL: All I know about Tunisia is from like seeing it in Star Wars is like where I was first introduced to it.
NINA: It has such fascinating things that were captured in that film so yeah.
DANIEL: Your book was selected as a Kansas Notable Book in 2014. Congratulations on that.
NINA: Thank you.
DANIEL: What was your... what was your reaction to getting awarded the title?
NINA: I was thrilled, I was just thrilled. You know, when I was in six, seven, eight years old, I was writing what was... you know, if you read it now, it'd be pretty bad poetry. But the... I was selected to be in the Young Kansas Writers magazine at the time and we got little awards and got published. So when I got the Kansas Notable Book, I was thrilled. First of all, to be recognized by my home state is just really an honor. But part of the award was we came to the Capitol, we got to see the beautiful Capitol building, we were invited to the governor's mansion. We, the next day during the festival, the book festival, they had the winners of the young writers around the state of Kansas came and it just came full circle to me because there I was as an adult receiving the notable book and then the young Kansas writers were there getting their awards. And just to be part of that cycle meant a lot to me and I think it's a wonderful program that Kansas does, I really do. It's, as a young person who was interested in writing, I'm sure that is also one of those things that enabled me to... to even think it could happen.
SARA: I think that the State Library also takes great care to make sure a lot of our public libraries around the state have access to all of the titles that get awarded the Kansas Notable Book.
SARA: Yeah, and we're really fortunate to have a great Kansas State Library.
DANIEL: Yeah, use the services a lot.
NINA: It's a great program.
DANIEL: So your latest book came out last year. It's called Green Chili and Other Impostors. Can you tell our listeners a little about the book?
NINA: Sure. So I mentioned before a little bit how foods moved around the world for various reasons and I was especially looking at how foods moved under colonialism in India and how certain foods coming into India were actually not originally from India but are thought of as essential to the cuisine now like green chilis, but other foods like tomatoes and potatoes and various things that you might know if you're... if you know about how foods came, moved around the world after the Columbus hit South America or got to South America. So Vasco da Gama came to India in 1498 and within three years of his landing, green chili started sprouting up all around where he came in to the country. And it was a wonderful way for, if you were poor, to get vitamin C in your diet. It also added novelty and excitement to your meals if you were having bland foods or foods that were always the same. It also, this plant grows in about any climate and about any soil, it just grows very easily. So the Portuguese weren't too worried about allowing green chili seeds to get into India because Indians were not going to be big buyers of the spices the Portuguese were reselling in Europe. They were already growing the spices so they didn't care. And so the chilis went everywhere. And took longer for it to go up north where my family's from. And it's still to this day the food's a lot hotter around where he hit came into India in the southwest coast, the Malabar coast. But the... the chilis, when it... if you think about how they moved west, if you think about the countries that have a little spicier foods, it was only because those ships allowed chilis to leave and get out of the ports. They were not interested, commerce people were not interested in having chilis go everywhere in Europe because that meant people might not buy those spices that they were selling for quite a bit. So if you look at the path of the spice ships, most of the countries that are not do not have spicy food, it's because they were selling these other spices to them and they did not want green chilis to get off the ships. And so it it's really interesting if you want to look at it historically where those spices are and why.
And you can see it with lemons. Lemons came from Asia to... to the west so you can see certain islands that are full of citrus groves. Well, that's where the ships stopped and they didn't want... the sailors needed that vitamin C. So it was... they planted those plantations so they could have kind of a health... health stop on the way of their long voyages. So it's just fascinating to me to see the world history in terms of trails because it reveals a lot about what we do now and how we... our cuisines have developed.
DANIEL: I've been reading a lot about pirates lately and it's... you find out how important spices were back then, like... like people lived and died over sugar. So that's that really interesting thing that like we don't think about, we take it for granted so it's really cool to read and hear about it. I didn't know that about the green chilis at all, that's really cool.
SARA: Yeah, I'm really -- I haven't read this one but I'm really looking forward.
DANIEL: I'm on the list for it.
NINA: Oh, good. Well, I hope you guys enjoy it. It was a it was just a thrill to write because it connected all those kinds of broader stories to how it impacted my own experience of the foods my mother made so it kind of connects to Biting Through the Skin a little bit because it's like one generation back from that book.
SARA: We decided to focus on Biting Through the Skin since this category is about an immigration story so... but yeah, I really am looking forward to it. We talked about the... the colonialism and how that kind of affected it but in a lot of other communities that have also been affected by that European colonialism, there's a movement to kind of return back to the roots and recreate recipes. I guess would that be considered a heritage recipe?
NINA: I think... you know, I think more of the young and interesting chefs coming up that are combining foods in new ways is the way foods are going. In lot of a lot of times you'll see like in Nashville there's a chef that combines Indian food like the tikka masala that Daniel mentioned, with poutine, you know? So it's like southern food or even, you know, in some ways that's Canadian. But foods that are more associated with U.S. history and then puts an Indian spin on it. So I see that a lot. Heritage foods, yes, I think that authentic foods like that and who is able to cook them, if they need to be from that culture? You know, I tend to think if you... if you acknowledge where these foods are coming from and how they... how they show a culture... foods have always been innovative. I mean, there's never been a time, you can't really say cuisine is... is held fast in under a glass. Because whenever a cuisine developed it was because those foods would grow in that area and then the people of that community would make tasty things from it. So it by definition is something that changed with what was grown around it. And so I don't know that you can freeze it. But I do value heritage foods and flavors a lot and I feel like they're kind of a world heritage. And it's a world heritage loss if we don't in some way preserve those foods, but I don't know that I mean that it's... it needs to be preserved where you can't ever adjust the foods or make something new and interesting from it. I think that it's a living thing, cuisine is a living, changing body of work by a lot of people and so I feel like it's... it'd be a shame to lose the food history behind it but I like the development of new ideas around cuisine so that's my favorite thing about it.
DANIEL: I think that's really like there's a balance, right? Because you want like the historicity of the food to remember how it was. Like corn is a good example, there's like heritage corn growers that are trying to like... because corn, you know, as a cash crop has like become very distant from what it used to be and so... which is a balance because it's like food should be allowed to be dynamic and you can change things and so I think that's really cool that you acknowledge that and that's neat.
So every day we hear stories of groups of people all over the world who are forced to leave their homes due to circumstances outside their control. What role do you think food can have in making people feel at home in an unfamiliar environment?
NINA: I think it's a really powerful way to make people feel comfortable. It's just, it kind of works at a subconscious level. You know that phrase we have, we say, you know, at your gut level? That's a gut level of culture. And you know, foods are very sensory and they tie us across boundaries of all kinds so geographical, political, gender but also between -- we talked about just a minute ago -- between now and that other place, the past, you know? Because our senses work the same whether you live now or you lived 200 years ago. So if you can write to that, you connect people. So something that powerful, if you are uprooted for any reason or just, you know, changed your home because of migration or for any reason, having that taste of home makes you feel very grounded and welcome. And I think it's super, super important that we try and create that for people who've gone through so much if... if we're talking about situations that I think of in the news right now.
Other people move for jobs or, you know, education but it's still it's still a very powerful thing to be able to create the taste of home. We're all so connected to it. You know that there's this folklore that if you're leaving for any period of time, you should eat all the foods from that are grown right around your hometown as much of it as you can to store your... you know, store up to keep you healthy until you get back and that's because those foods of home are supposed to be what sustains you. So if you ever have to leave and maybe you don't know if you can get back, having that taste of home just signals you subconsciously that you're safe. You know, you've got a place to be that's going to sustain you and I just think it's a powerful thing.
SARA: I really could talk about food like all day. Food's my favorite thing. [CHUCKLES]
Okay, so question of the hour. Do you have like a favorite food? I know that's like asking –
NINA: That's a horrific question.
SARA: I know!
NINA: But I have to say I kind of do. If I had to pick, you know, a food. You know, I am as I've been saying all... all this discussion, I'm a child of the Midwest but my comfort food is lentils that my mother used to make. The dal can be made all kinds of ways and it's very tasty. And I would say kind of paired with that because I, you know, probably would never be able to say this wasn't a comfort food is a dish called keema and it was minced lamb and traditionally it was made with peas which is, you know, not an Indian vegetable but anyway. It was... think about it minced meat with these little peas in it and you eat it with rice. Well, my comfort version of that was little tiny cubes of potatoes. So my mother would sometimes indulge me by making it that way. But if you think about what that plate was, that was that was a real mix of cultures right there and definitely a food of colonial India because the foods came from all over to make that plate.
SARA: And now are any of those, your preferred dal recipe, is it in your book?
NINA: It is actually. That book, Biting Through the Skin, has all my mother's recipes that she created in Kansas or most of them. And they are... they're easy to make because, you know, she had to by necessity make it from things that she could find. So it, they are really tasty. They're my... my childhood foods and I have to say I'm very biased so I hope you try them and give them a shot and see what you think.
SARA: Okay. Well, I'm gonna try it then.
DANIEL: One final question. What can we learn from our immigrant neighbors in our community and beyond?
NINA: Well, that's a big question because you know...
Again, it goes back to that one answer I gave a few minutes ago. It's like individual curiosity. If you've got the curiosity, it's really limitless what you can learn from a neighbor, you know? And they can be from a different culture, they can be from Kansas but you never know what's in their back story. And it's... it's interesting, when I taught at the University of Missouri around my table would be all these students. They all looked like you, Daniel and Sara, and everybody looked like they were pretty... I mean fairly midwestern, nothing looked very surprising. But I asked them for their comfort food stories and one person had a comfort food story about her Italian mother's particular dish. Another young woman talked about her grandmother's Danish cookies she used to make. And then one lady -- actually was a young man -- talked about when her mother -- his mother, sorry -- would get a paycheck, he and his five siblings would sit along the curb and they... she would buy them Captain Crunch cereal and they would eat it straight out of the box. So it was diversity of all kinds economic as well as cultural diversity behind all these faces that looked homogenous. They really did. So I feel like that what you can learn from people that are new to your community or even long-time people in your community is... is so vast and if... if you're an elder in in your family, share those stories of how... what the foods were, how they came to the plate, who produced them, who made them because it's a real gift to give the next generation. Most of those stories are never told yet they're the ones that are easiest for older members of our families to remember and talk about fondly. And they love talking about it. And I can say when I was doing Biting Through the Skin, it was one of the best benefits of doing that book is I got people in my family who didn't really talk about their childhoods to tell me all kinds of things about how they, you know, had meals with their brothers or how their mother was a particular way when she was in the kitchen. It was fascinating to me and it's a real, real great conversation starter. Next time you have a family holiday, ask someone about that.
SARA: Yes, it's fun to listen to the stories. Ours never revolved around food. Well, maybe I guess my grandmother made fried chicken a lot which is not something that I eat right now. But you know, just sitting around and listening to those old stories of music and getting together and going on trips and it's just... it's really fun to listen to our older generation.
SARA: Well, that's really all we have for you today, Nina. Thank you so much for talking with us.
NINA: Oh, I appreciate it very much Sara and Daniel. You guys are great and I think a lot of the library system that puts a program like this on. Thank you for having me.
DANIEL: Yeah, thank you so much.
SARA: Yeah, it was really a pleasure just learning from you and I think you blew my mind about five times and I could talk about food all day, I'll say it again. So final thoughts?
DANIEL: No, I actually just want to go get Indian food now. I'm just, I'm like thinking about it. I was gonna get ramen today but I think I might switch it up and go to an Indian restaurant.
NINA: You go for it. It'll make you feel good.
SARA: Well, thank you for taking time out of your afternoon to talk to us.
NINA: Thanks for having me. Take care, you guys.
DANIEL: Thank you.
VOICE: Are you wanting to learn a new language but don't have the time or money for formal classes? With your Wichita Public Library card, you can learn for free on your own schedule with Mango Languages. With over 50 languages to choose from, your journey to fluency can begin with the click of a button. Available on your desktop and as a mobile app, you can choose where and when to learn. To start your language learning journey, visit wichitalibrary.org, click on Research and Learn, and select Learn a Language.
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: Before we wrap up today's episode, let's listen to three reading recommendations from our Wichita Public Library staff.
SUZANNE, VOICEOVER: Hi, I'm Suzanne Laycock and I work as a library assistant in Youth Services at the Wichita Public Library. My book recommendation for ReadICT category number 9, an immigration story, is A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves by Jason DeParle. This nonfiction selection was in the making for three decades. DeParle met and lived with the Comodas family in the Philippines while researching poverty and health issues in the 1980s. What began for him as an investigation into poverty ends up becoming a sweeping tale across decades, continents, and generations about the forces behind contemporary human migration.
I think readers will find this book very moving in how it contrasts the intimate personal description of one family with the historic and current global economic forces shaping human movement between poor countries to wealthier ones. DeParle crafts a hopeful story out of the years of suffering and sacrifice the Comodases endure because it's impossible for readers to forget that this family's experiences and feelings are what others have undergone all over the world.
Most of us in the United States have an almost innate understanding that we would not be here if it weren't for at least one family member enduring, surviving, sacrificing, and ultimately thriving in the same way the Comodases do. As this book lays out, that hope is part of the human spirit all over the world. I encourage you to try A Good Provider is One Who Leaves for a moving exploration about human migration in the 21st century. For more reading recommendations, please visit wichitalibrary.org/readict.
MYHOA, VOICEOVER: Hello, my name is Myhoa Van and I'm in the Interlibrary Loan department at the Wichita Public Library. My book recommendation for the ReadICT category 9, an immigration story, is The Leavers by Lisa Ko. This story takes place in both China and New York as two stories unfold and intertwine with one another. Deming lived in China for the first five years of his life and emigrated to live with his mother in New York. After the disappearance of his mother, Deming was placed in foster care and adopted by a couple upstate. He is encouraged to assimilate to his new suburban life and given the name Daniel Wilkinson. There are very few people of color and many alienated Daniel because he didn't look like them. Over the years, he built a gambling addiction to cope mentally. Polly lives in China where she works as a teacher after staying in a detention camp for 14 months and deported back from America. She lives through regrets from her past and accepts her mundane life but constantly dreams of a life that is so much more. She is free-spirited and doesn't like being tied down. Both characters struggle with adversity as they face memories of the past and frustration of a life that is unfulfilling.
Feeling like misfits, Daniel and Polly confide in one another as they find their sense of self and belonging, the feelings of guilt and fear they convey as they both work through their trauma and find peace in their life. The author writes about sensitive mental challenges that are generally not addressed when discussing immigration. It is a side that is overshadowed when there are other hardships at hand. This usually isn't my type of read but the feelings from the book can be resonated with, especially when trying not to lose oneself when choosing between cultural differences. This book won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. It was also a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2018 PEN/Hemingway Award. For more reading recommendations, please visit wichitalibrary.org/readict.
ERIN, VOICEOVER: Hi, my name is Erin Downey Howerton and I'm the Youth Services Manager at the Wichita Public Library. Today I'm going to talk about an immigration story, category 9 of ReadICT. My recommendation is The Arrival by Shaun Tan. It's a graphic novel without any decipherable words, rendered in sepia tones, sometimes reminiscent of old photographs in a family album.
In this story, Tan shows us a family that is in danger of some sort – the danger is represented by long shadows cast on the walls of their city that resemble scaly dragon tails. The father is packing for a trip, and readers will quickly realize that he is leaving his wife and daughter behind on a long voyage. He is going ahead to secure a better future for them, but the worlds he encounters are strange. Tan's use of written characters – not quite Latin, nor Cyrillic, or any other writing we might be familiar with – it helps to reinforce the idea that this long journey has culminated in a land that is just as strange to us as it is to the father, our main character.
Repetitive imagery of rebirth and liberation in the shapes of eggs and birds set the tone in this new country, where the father has to show his strange new papers to the authorities, try to make friends, eat all new foods, and get a job. All of these things are hampered, of course, by the mysterious language that he hasn't yet mastered and the unfamiliar surroundings. Young readers are always fond of the new country's neat little pets – odd little creatures with funny tails, giant eyes, gills, and other characteristics that we wouldn't recognize. Perhaps my favorite part of this book are the conversations that the father has with other immigrants in the new country, where they describe the dangers they've escaped and the new lives they've forged in hopes of a better tomorrow.
I've always found The Arrival to be a story with big impact due to its unconventional form, the choice to exclude understandable language, and the way that it plunges you into new surroundings to decipher your way forward just like the father does. And, of course, the anticipation that the family might one day get to join him in this land of renewal and new hope. Shaun Tan is an Australian author and illustrator and drew from his own family's immigration experience to create this narrative. His father came to Australia from Malaysia in the 1960s to study architecture, and Tan also studied other people's immigration stories to create this work. In doing so, he "was reminded that migration is a fundamental part of human history, both in the distant and recent past."
SARA, VOICEOVER: Wow, what a great interview.
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: Yeah, I didn't think an interview could make me hungry.
SARA, VOICEOVER: Absolutely. A list of books discussed in today's episode can be found in the accompanying show notes.
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: To request any of the books heard about in today's episode, visit wichitalibrary.org or call us at (316) 261-8500.
SARA, VOICEOVER: As we end today's episode, we'll leave you with a short story titled "Simple Gifts," a submission to our local short story program, from youth services librarian Sara McNeil who you might remember as the season one host of this very podcast.
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: This is one of the many short stories and poems you can get from one of our short story dispensers located at Reverie Roasters coffee shop, Evergreen community library, and the Eisenhower airport. If you have a short story under 8,000 characters to submit, you can visit wichitalibrary.org/shortstory to submit it.
SARA MCNEIL: Simple Gifts for Ruby.
Ruby walked up the long hill with her dog. It was a perfect summer night to sleep-out under the stars. She touched the long Blue Stem grass in her grandfather's pasture. Tonight, she was going to camp-out, just her and Bear. She felt a cool breeze shift and saw dark clouds on the horizon. Quickly she gathered a large bunch of grass and began to weave. As if by magic, she had woven a tarp for shelter. She tied the tarp between two trees in the middle on a hill. She quickly gathered rocks to divert water from getting her and Bear wet. Rain began to fall, drop by drop, and then it grew darker and quiet until...
"May I please sssshare your ssshelter?" hissed a voice in the dark. Ruby was so scared that she did not open her eyes. "Who are you?" asked Ruby softy. "I am Bull-Sssnake. I promise not to bite you. If you agree I will ssshow you a path to a fresh ssspring of water. Pretty Pleasssse?" repeated the voice. "Alright" said Ruby meekly, "If you promise." The rain began to fall faster now.
Ruby heard another sound, but this time it was a different cry for help. "Who is there?" she asked. "It is me, Deer Mouse. I can't seem to find my hole. Can I squeeze-in beside you, please? If you allow me some space I will find you fresh berries in the morning for breakfast." squeaked Mouse. Mouse turned and squealed, "Eeep! A snake!" "It's ok, Mouse. Snake has promised not to bite us while he is here. You will be fine. Isn't that so, Snake?" asked Ruby. "Certainly ssso." said Snake. The rain was coming down sideways now.
"Chirp, chirp, chirp" came an unfamiliar voice. "Who is there?" asked Ruby. "It is me, Brown Bat. "Please may I rest under your shelter?" The rain is so thick now, I can't find my way home. I will clear away any mosquitoes that will bother you near the spring so you may eat your breakfast in peace." "Yes, you may" said Ruby. They all sat together, Bat, Mouse, Snake, Bear, and Ruby, under the tarp until all were fast asleep.
Ruby awoke in the morning to find that all of her visitors had gone. All that is but Bear her dog. Sure enough, Snake had kept his promise and laid down a path to the pool of spring water. There, by the bank was a pile of berries left by Mouse. And all Ruby could hear was the gentle sway of the breeze, rustling leaves in the trees. Not one mosquito in sight! "Many thanks" she said silently to her new friends. She ate her berries, drank the cool water, and laughed to herself. She couldn't wait to tell Grandpa about her camp-out under the stars!
SARA, VOICEOVER: Thank you to Nina for talking with us today and thanks to the staff for offering those great recommendations for category 9, an immigration story. And thank you all for listening.
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: To participate in the ReadICT reading challenge, please visit wichitalibrary.org/readict. Stay connected with other ReadICT participants on the ReadICT challenge Facebook page, find out what's trending near you, post book reviews, look for local and virtual events, and share book humor with like-minded folks. To join the group, search #ReadICT challenge on Facebook and click join.
SARA, VOICEOVER: You can follow this podcast through the Anchor app or stream episodes on whatever platform you listen to podcasts. If you like what you heard today, be sure to subscribe and share with all your friends.
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: This has been a production of the Wichita Public Library and a big thanks goes out to our production crew and the podcast team.