The first time I walked into A la Campagna antique store on E. Broadway, I wanted to live there. It was the very kind of store my mother Alice would have loved exploring. Antiquing was her escape for as far back as I can remember and that part of her is resident in me. The beauty of the space took me out of the world of the American heartland to ancient Buddhist temples in Thailand when it was Siam, Italian olive groves as ancient as time, and the zinc bars of Cairo in the years between the wars that appear in author Michael Ondaatje’s novel, “The English Patient.”
That was where I first met Nina Mukerjee Furstenau, one of the three women from Fayette, MO who owned the store. The store is no longer in existence, but our friendship did not end when the women decided it was time to move on and set out on new adventures. Nina wanted to find a way to combine her love of writing and food and found a way to do just that teaching journalism at the University of Missouri Science and Agricultural Journalism program and the Missouri School of Journalism.
But Nina never does just one thing. In addition to teaching, she wrote a wonderful bi-weekly food column in the Columbia Daily Tribune for a while. She also published periodic articles in food magazines, offered food writing workshops in the Pacific Northwest, and authored an internationally acclaimed food memoir. Her 2013 book, “Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland,” is described as “a traveler’s tale, a memoir and a mouthwatering cookbook” in which she offers “a first-generation immigrant’s perspective on growing up in America’s heartland.” It was the recipient of the MFK Fisher Book Award, Grand Prize winner/Culinary, Culture Writing—Les Dames d’Escoffier International Award. And trust me, that award is no small potatoes in the world of food writing!
Nina was born in Thailand to Indian parents while her father was working there as an engineer. Before long, her family relocated to Pittsburg, Kansas where she grew up like a typical American girl. The difference was that in her mother’s kitchen, the Tupperware was stained from curries made with Indian spices—turmeric, cumin, curry powder, and chili peppers. Later while on assignment in Tunisia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, she experienced her “ah-ha food moment” in in the kitchens of the local women with whom she worked. Those shared experiences along with her own childhood reinforced her sense that she was on a journey toward herself, one that would someday lead to a sense of food as culture and community.
Once again drawn to travel abroad and fascinated with food story—its history and connection to land as well as people and the flavors of a region—Nina returned to international work after been granted a 2018-19 U.S. Fulbright-Nehru Global Scholar grant to India to research her upcoming book, “Green Chili & Other Imposters.” Currently Nina is also the American Foodstory book series editor for the University of Iowa Press.
While in India researching her food book this past year, Nina also visited women’s textile cooperatives—something she’d done while serving with the Peace Corps in Tunisia. What has developed is an effort to work with women weavers in Indian villages and support their work through Arta Weavers. The Arta Weavers produce intricately designed scarves, handbags, and handmade paper sheets that tell the story of a community and the mothers and daughters who painstakingly hand craft their art. As the women pass techniques on to the next generation, the hope is that their cultural traditions, communities and families will remain vibrant.
On November 13, 2019, Arta Weavers and Skylark Bookshop invite you to a Reception and Sale at Skylark Bookshop located at 22 S. 9th Street, Columbia. Visit with Nina Mukerjee Furstenau about her books and her textile project in India and nibble tasty tidbits. Purchases of Arta textiles help support women, families and a school for girls who would otherwise not be able to go to school. What could be better?