A Common Denominator

Nina Mukerjee Furstenau joins Media for Change with a mission: to educate through our shared food experience

by Isabella Vaccaro

Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
PHOTO by Anastasia Pottinger

When Nina Mukerjee Furstenau was six years old, she tossed her own banana to a hungry little boy on the streets of India during one of her family’s pilgrimages to their roots. Today, that moment serves as a symbol and the catalyst of the work she has done for the last few decades. An award-winning author, journalist and editor, among other titles, Furstenau now joins Media for Change with a mission: to inform people about the world’s food heritage and what it means for our future through the art of storytelling.

As an Indian immigrant growing up in Kansas, food connected Furstenau to her Bengali identity—and was even the engine for her first book. But, Furstenau wasn’t always a food writer. In fact, it took her a few career changes before she settled back into her first passion. In 1984, she joined the U.S. Peace Corps, and one of her projects was creating a program for women in Tunisia to receive rug weaving certificates, earning them more money when they sold to rug merchants.

“I’ve always been interested in story,” said Furstenau. “To me, that pattern-making, that passing the skill down from mother to daughter to mother to daughter to mother to daughter over centuries, was community story.”

Though her project wasn’t necessarily food-related, Furstenau considers the Peace Corps a defining time in the trajectory of her career. Engulfed in a world of women and working on a project for widows of farmers that needed a leg up, Furstenau said the moments she spent helping in the kitchen, taking in these women’s stories, are the memories she holds dearest.

“I could see these women making the same foods that they had made for generations in that part of the world—heritage recipes—much loved, made with care, but something was different in the food system, because the nutrients weren’t the same,” Furstenau said.

In the area she lived, she noticed men sometimes shared her stature—5’3”—and the women were even shorter, everyone eating the affordable and age-old staples of the culture’s food system. Yet, in the nearby town, where people held higher-paying jobs and could buy more varied foods and more protein, men loomed beyond six feet tall. In the two-kilometer difference between the outskirts where she lived and town, this stunting gave Furstenau her first taste of a changing food system.

Upon her return home from the Peace Corps, armed with experiences and personal anecdotes of the people she served, Furstenau and her husband started a publishing company with a partner. A journalist first and foremost, and after the expansive experience of being in the Peace Corps, Furstenau fell in love with the idea of producing an entire magazine from nothing.

Furstenau wrote, edited and designed the content of the magazine, sold the ads and even took the proofs to the press. Soon the company expanded and began publishing more magazines targeted at industries such as soil and groundwater cleanup, road building, cranes and more. “I loved the energy of starting a company like that—I loved working around creative people.”

After developing and launching five magazines and two international trade shows, the Furstenau’s sold to a larger firm, bookending another formative experience, this time in editing and entrepreneurialism. Yet, the memories of the boy with the banana and Furstenau’s first-hand brush with food history and justice in Tunisia continued to brew. After returning back to graduate school to pursue a degree in creative writing, food writing finally took center stage in her life as Furstenau completed her memoir, Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland, which won the MFK Fisher Book Award, and the Les Dames d’Escoffier Grand Prize in Culinary/Cultural literature, among other recognitions, and then a second book, Savor Missouri: River Hills Food and Wine. It was during this time, as part of her tenure as Director of Food Systems Communication in the University of Missouri Science and Agricultural Journalism program, Furstenau also completed a low-literacy cookbook, Tasty! Mozambique, aimed at alleviating mental and physical stunting in the families of small holder female farmers in Mozambique, funded by USAID and the McKnight Foundation.

Furstenau has since initiated FoodStory, a new book series with the University of Iowa Press, with the aim of highlighting the importance and impact of food history, food identity, and more across cultures. She was awarded a 2018-19 Fulbright Global Scholar grant in West Bengal, India, to research her upcoming book, Green Chili & Other Impostors (Aleph Book Co. and University of Iowa Press 2021).

For Furstenau, understanding how factors like “production, taste, human nutrition, social custom, identity and religion” play into how we feed ourselves and how we will continue to feed ourselves is critical work.

Furstenau saw it in that small town in Tunisia. “Something in the agricultural system changed,” she said, “and the foods that were left for the population at that economic level to buy lacked many of the micronutrients that used to sustain them.”

Media for Change, Furstenau says, is the perfect platform to educate on these issues and begin a conversation about food equity around the world, especially with the impact of COVID-19 and climate shifts that the planet is undergoing. Storytelling has always been Furstenau’s preferred method of communication, and the best method, in her opinion, to convey big ideas.

“Humans have always transferred information through story,” said Furstenau. “Food is so central to everyone’s lives. By talking about food story, we are really communicating at the most basic of levels. One that crosses boundaries of many kinds.”