Acclaimed author to top off discussion series with look at food, gender, and identity
It transcends cultural, gender, political, and geographical divides. Through it, we connect with others and realize our global interdependence. Every person’s story — their identity, experiences, and perspectives — intertwines at this one common intersection.
Nina Mukerjee Furstenau’s personal experiences with the intersection of identity and food drove her to become an author, food journalist, and research contributor. For years, she has chased down and documented social insight gathered through conversations surrounding food heritage and food logistics.
Furstenau will discuss her writing and pursuits as they pertain to Virginia Tech’s international research on identity, gender, and food at the Women and Gender in International Development (WGD) Discussion Series and other public discussions events around Blacksburg during the second week of April.
“Food and identity always called to me because of how I grew up,” Furstenau said. “There were few immigrants in Pittsburg, Kansas. So I learned the cultural nuances of my heritage through my mom’s cooking.”
She points out that the smell, texture, and even seasonality of any culture’s food gets ingrained in each person as they grow up around a particular cuisine.
“But I had different food stories available to me,” Furstenau said. “There was such a divide between the food story outside our front door — the Midwestern roast beef and mac and cheese — and the food story inside my house — India’s richly spiced, vegetable-forward dishes like curried lentil stew.”
At first, Furstenau did not readily share her food story. She recalls as a first-generation immigrant that she felt compelled to keep her unique perspective to herself. That changed, though, when she joined the Peace Corps and served with the organization in Tunisia from 1984-86.
“The Peace Corps triggered something for me,” she said. “I realized how much I connected with people there in their kitchens. I learned so much about their lives while cooking with them. It gave me a window into their whole world.”
Inspired by the experiences she had with the Peace Corps, she began sharing her own food story more openly. By doing so, she soon realized the two disparate culinary cultures she was embedded in as a child “didn’t have to be parallel universes.” She chose to see herself as a connector — guiding people to see and celebrate the human connection that food stories expose.
This revelation paved the way for her first book in 2013, “Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland.” In it, she exposes the reality of being a first-generation immigrant for whom food could be a cultural divider or bonding agent depending on the way it’s presented and received. The book won the M.F.K. Fisher Grand Prize for Excellence in Culinary Writing.
In 2016, Furstenau joined a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Feed the Future project in Mozambique. Most researchers on the team were tasked with exploring ways local farmers could enrich their nutrient-depleted soil and improve nutrition outcomes for the population. Furstenau was tasked with making this field research accessible to the farmers who needed the information in a low-literacy format. She developed an image-based recipe book called “Tasty! Mozambique.” The recipes were developed with a group of seven female farmers from the country’s central region and addressed childhood physical and mental stunting due to low-protein diets. While curating protein-rich dishes in an accessible way, the book also celebrates the stories of the Mozambican women with whom Furstenau spoke.
Meet the author
From Tuesday, April 11, to Thursday, April 13, Furstenau will take part in several public discussions in Blacksburg on her work surrounding food, access, and identity.
The pinnacle of her visit will be a presentation and panel discussion during the Women and Gender in International Development Discussion Series. This discussion, “Food, Gender, and Identity in a Global Context,” will take place April 13 from 12:30-2 p.m. in the Newman Library Multipurpose Room. Furstenau will provide an overview of her involvement in the Feed the Future Project through which she wrote “Tasty! Mozambique.” Then, the panel will discuss connections between Furstenau's work and the work Virginia Tech researchers have accomplished regarding food and gender.
Joining Furstenau will be panelists Maria Elisa Christie, director of WGD in the Center for International Research, Education, and Development; Kim Niewolny, associate professor of community education and development at the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education; Ozzie Abaye, professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences; and Anna Zeide, associate professor in the Department of History.
Each panelist’s portfolio comprises research and experiences that correspond to the research and experiences Furstenau will be discussing. For example, Zeide is the director of food studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and Nieworlny is the director for the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“I invited a wide variety of panelists to show how food is critical for many different reasons and from many perspectives and disciplines,” Christie said. “This diverse panel underscores how food and gender research are multidisciplinary topics.”
Furstenau will also be participating in a panel discussion about The Common Ingredient (TCI) on April 11. TCI is a cross-country, collaborative community dedicated to supporting local food pantries while sharing recipes, food stories, and information about community education programs or activities aimed at reducing and eliminating food insecurity. The Common Ingredient panel discussion is organized by Anne Deaton, a founding member of TCI in Missouri and the chapter in Virginia. This discussion will take place at 7 p.m. at the Blacksburg branch of the Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library.
Joining Furstenau and Deaton, other panelists for the TCI discussion include John Galbraith, a Virginia Tech professor and founding member of the Glean Team; Isabelle Largen, assistant director for food access initiatives at Virginia Tech; and Meredith Miear, Auburn Middle School librarian.
Furstenau will be participating in a special learning circle conversation from 3-4:30 p.m. April 12 in Graduate Life Center Meeting Room B. The conversation with Furstenau will explore food through themes of history, culture, and community.
Furstenau’s visit to Blacksburg is co-sponsored by the Food Studies Program of the Academy of Transdisciplinary Studies; the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation; the Women and Minority Artists and Scholars Lecture Series; the Department of Geography; Women’s and Gender Studies; College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Diversity mini-grant; and the School of Visual Arts.
If you are an individual with a disability and desire an accommodation for the discussion series event, please contact Maria Elisa Christie. If you are seeking accommodation for the TCI panel discussion, please email email@example.com. If you are seeking accommodation for the graduate student learning circle discussion, please contact Kasey Owen.