Earlier this year I was asked to do a review of Mexican writer Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. I was also drawn to the British cooking celebrity Nigella Lawson’s statement that “cooking is actually quite aggressive and controlling and sometimes, yes, there is an element of force-feeding going on.” I found this statement somewhat intriguing in light of the sordid and tragic revelations made about Ms Lawson in British tabloids. Was it earlier last year? Anyway, this review was never going to be easy, because, after all, what do I know about cooking. Or magic realism? You see, I’m no admirer of one of the proponents of this now-familiar literary device, and, yes, I have not read beyond Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Love in the Time of Cholera and Memories of My Melancholy Whores.
I remain in love with Chilean-born Isabel Allende, however, having been drawn into the romantic and inspiring universes that she created by drawing resolutely on South American history and landscapes. Feeding the imagination, it was all food for the soul. I covered works such as Daughter of Fortune, City of the Beasts and her autobiographical works; Paula, My Invented Country and, yes, even, Aphrodite. You see, I had become drawn to Ms Isabel mainly because of her direct relationship with the former Chilean President who was slain by the dictator who followed him, Generalissimo Augusto Pinochet. Yes, I said it. Slain. Anyway, while Allende has written widely about the country of her birth, the Nobel Laureate, Marquez, wrote mostly about his home country, Columbia.
I’ve barely covered the surface of both literary giants, so someday soon, I hope to return to them. Perhaps too, to Laura Esquivel, who writes mostly about her country, Mexico. And she combines the culinary arts of cooking with elements of romance, love, culture and history to create a rich, imaginary world which is not always easy to comprehend. Originally written and published in 1989, Like Water for Chocolate was published in 1993 by Doubleday and tells the story of Tita De la Garza, Nacha, Chencha, Mama Elena, Rosaura and Pedro Musquiz. This story’s narrative on the roles of both cooking and eating is significant when comparing it to the political and cultural events of early twentieth century Mexico.
Beginning with the book’s title, we learn that Like Water for Chocolate refers to Tita’s temperament when she is antagonised by her peers, particularly, Rosaura, her older sister, Pedro, her lover, and Elena, her mother. I compared Nigella Lawson’s recently publicised life with that of Tita. Both celebrity and character are oppressed and abused. Lawson by her estranged husband, Tita by her strange mother.
I have fond memories of Nigella Lawson‘s sexy, full figure in her BBC Food kitchen. I say this in the nicest possible way, because, whew, I think she is hot. Talk about the way to a man’s heart. Elsewhere, Lawson has been described as a “celebrity domestic goddess.” And the beauty of the woman in her kitchen is not lost on Pedro either. He revels in Tita’s mysterious and maternal prowess while she feeds his son. He cannot take his eyes off her physical beauty. He is reminded of the Greek Goddess, Ceres, and the “the goddess of plenty.” After his first mouthful of the sensuous dish, Quail in Rose Petal Sauce, he remarks that “it’s a dish for the gods!” Spirituality and metaphysical powers are alluded to when describing the talents of the chef and the dishes that she lays before her guests.
This visual interpretations were not lost on the director and producers of the film version of Like Water for Chocolate either. You have to see it to believe what I am saying. Of course, Esquivel had a hand in the scripting of this delectable movie. Returning to Lawson’s earlier statement, I see that this statement includes adverbs of aggression and control. Then there is the verb of force-feeding. It highlights the control that the chef and her assistants as artists and manufacturers can have over us as consumers. In Like Water for Chocolate, Tita’s recipes are closely aligned with the story narrative, showing how each traditional recipe introduces a chain of events which have a direct influence on characters’ lives, particularly that of Tita.
Responding to Pedro’s proposal of marriage to Tita, her mother relies on a dubious aspect of rural Mexican culture to reject the proposal and excuse her abuse of Tita by declaring “You know perfectly well that being the youngest daughter means you have to take care of me until the day I die.”
The story’s context, cultural, colonial and historical background is important in understanding this abuse. In the early twentieth century, Mexican culture is dominated by patriarchy which is inherited from indigenous cultures and Spanish colonialism. Tita’s mother is aware of this when she remarks that “Men aren’t that important in this life.” Mama Elena’s fiery character influences the rebels who attempt to invade her ranch. They are instilled with “a childlike fear of maternal authority” which challenges patriarchy and hints at the future liberation of the female characters. Elena and her daughter, Rosaura are not liberated, because they are not ready for transformation.
Contrastingly, Tita’s sister, Getrudis, is influenced by the Mexican revolution. “Political instability” keeps Mama Elena and her daughters isolated on the De la Garza family ranch. The revolution that Getrudis joins as a result of Tita’s cooking and emotional turmoil acts as a metaphor of their emancipation and empowerment as women. Because of their mother’s resistance towards transformation, she dies a bitter woman. Over and above Tita’s mysterious emotions and culinary powers, her internal exorcism of her mother’s ghost begins Tita’s journey towards freedom and love.
In the context of Esquivel’s novel, women’s rights are not yet fully recognised and institutionalised. In spite of Tita’s mother, men still have the last say when it comes to deciding family or cultural matters. Tita is aware of this when she exclaims to her kitchen friend, Chencha, “you know how men are” after Chencha suffers depression as a result of being raped by bandits.
Like Water for Chocolate is structured as a series of recipes over a period of twelve months during which time the influence of cooking and serving dishes to family members and guests on Tita’s life is shown. We see how cooking helps Tita manage her depression. The narrative stretches from Tita’s kitchen birth to her mysterious death. The narrative of each chapter begins as a recipe with instructions. From these instructions, the narrative evolves into a chronological account of Tita’s life, showing how food influences and affects her.
The first chapter introduces the story’s main characters during the first month of the year, January. The narrative begins with a traditional Mexican recipe and its preparation. Familiar ingredients include sardines, chorizo sausage and chilli. A crucial ingredient of Christmas rolls is the onion. The process of chopping onions finely induces tears. Tita’s sensitivity towards onions and her affinity to shed tears easily is repeated later in the story during the preparation of “Champandongo” which also highlights the “peacefulness” in the kitchen that is crucial in helping the protagonist manage her depression.
Onions, an essential ingredient in most dishes, serve as a metaphor to foreground Tita’s sorrow as a result of her mother’s repressive behaviour towards her. The chapter ends when Tita weeps throughout the night while working on a bedspread, contemplating her dilemma in dealing with Pedro’s amorous advances. The ferocity of Tita’s tears enforces the seriousness of her emotional turmoil. The preparation and making of Christmas rolls is in honour of Tita’s sixteenth birthday.
Magic realism is used to show how Tita’s mysterious powers and her talent for cooking impacts the lives of her extended family. Tita’s sorrowful shedding of tears into the icing mixture of Rosaura’s wedding cake causes the wedding guests to experience similar symptoms of longing and sorrow.
The impact on Rosaura is telling. Her physical condition worsens throughout the narrative. Before her marriage to Pedro, Rosaura, who does not enjoy the same voracious appetite for eating as Tita experiences acute feelings of nausea. Such feelings alongside her husband’s secret longing for Tita, affects her physically and emotionally. This emotional event is preceded by the practical process of energetic manual egg-beating which has “a bad effect on Tita’s mood” and leads her to start trembling. Such sorrowful influences are contrasted with the story’s joyful ending when Tita’s niece, Esperanza, marries Doctor John Brown’s son, Alex, and Tita’s loving bond with Pedro. The consumption of strong chillies, a familiar sexual aphrodisiac, in walnut sauce leads the guests to experience feelings of love and lust.
The month of May (chapter five) is introduced with another traditional recipe, Northern-style Chorizo (sausage) which includes the staple ingredient of pork and a crucial and dramatic alteration to Tita’s life. After revolutionary soldiers leave Mama Elena’s ranch, Tita becomes deranged as a result of her mother’s ongoing cruelty towards her. The intricate process of preparing the pork sausage cannot disengage Tita from her repressive feelings.
The following month of June begins Tita’s transformation. Tita is taken away by the American doctor, John, to be lovingly nursed back to health. Instead of a cooking recipe, the chapter is introduced with a recipe for making matches. During the course of Tita’s rehabilitation by John I had thought of the preparation of a soup dish, particularly chicken soup, known to be good for the soul. But, the month of July begins with a recipe for Oxtail soup which is no less edifying. The narrative states; “Soups can cure any illness.” The passage that follows this statement reinforces the important influence that food and cooking has for the story’s main character. The successful preparation and enjoyment of dishes helps Tita to remember events from her past. In this case, the healing properties of oxtail soup lead Tita to remember Nacha’s soothing guidance and care. But not all memories are joyful. Chencha raises her own internal concerns for her young mistress while she recuperates under the care of Doctor Brown. It is Chencha, however, who prepares and brings Tita the oxtail soup.
The essence and benefits of healing that soup brings to the human body and soul does not extend to Mama Elena after she is also served oxtail soup, this time prepared by Tita, after her ordeal at the hands of bandits who raid her ranch. Elena is physically crippled as a result. Mistrustful of her daughter, consumed with bitterness from her past and consuming a dangerous emetic, Elena slowly deteriorates towards her inevitable death.
The loving bond between Doctor John Brown starts earlier in the narrative and is indicative of important similarities between the protagonist and doctor. John falls in love with Tita after being summoned to attend to her sister’s difficult labour. When Tita is nursed back to health she learns about John’s Indian grandmother, Morning Light, who is also alienated from the rest of the family because of her unique gifts of traditional healing which can be compared to the benefits that cooking brings. John shares one of Morning Light’s philosophical beliefs. The allusion to matches, and not food, is a precursor to the story’s fiery ending. John tells Tita that “everyone is born with a box of matches inside them”. It reflects the human capacity for love. The nourishing properties of fire are good for the human soul and ultimately consumes it. Fire is compared with food. Comparing his grandmother with Tita, John describes her as a quiet woman who is always near her stove.
Tita’s vow of silence during her rehabilitation is misunderstood by Brown, but is important because it represents her “first step towards freedom.” Before Tita’s dementia, rehabilitation and empowering transformation, her sister, Gertrudis, is kidnapped by a lustful revolutionary soldier who sees her naked while showering and vainly trying to get rid of an amorous sensation of sweating which causes her body to heat up. The recipe for preparing “quail in rose petal sauce”, linking the food metaphor with sensuousness and sexuality, and Tita’s inventiveness, rather than perceived mystical powers, while preparing the quail and improvising the dish with the bloodied rose petals (as a result of her depression), has a profound effect on Getrudis who is unable to stem an unknown tide of sexual feelings. The virginal Gertrudis is not able to understand or interpret these sensations.
While the recipe does not mention this, red rose petals are required for the dish. The roses given to Tita by Pedro are pink, but turn blood red after she mistakenly clasps them tightly to her body and allows the roses’ thorns to pierce her. Alongside Tita’s inventiveness in preparing Quail in Rose Petal Sauce, she unknowingly infuses the sauce with her own blood;
“Tita’s blood and the roses from Pedro proved quite an explosive combination.”
While Getrudis deals with these strange sensations of sexuality, the narrator suggests that she is afflicted by a “strange alchemical process.” This suggestion is taken further. “A new system of communication” has been created with Tita acting as the sender, Pedro the receiver, and Getrudis the victim, rather than the medium. Getrudis’ encounter is also a starter to Tita’s emancipation from her mother. The previously innocent Gertrudis is incarcerated in a town brothel, becoming sexually promiscuous and experienced before experiencing liberation as a woman and leaving the town to become a leading revolutionary.
The events beginning with the cooking of quails and ending with Getrudis’ dramatic departure from the De la Garza ranch to join (and lead) the Mexican revolution lead to another significant event. The narrator’s common bond with her great-aunt is not only emotional and culinary, but literary. Getrudis’ emancipation inspires Tita to begin writing her own recipe book and begin a process of preserving the De la Garza family traditions and history. This passage highlights the importance of the positive influence that food can have over its artistic creators and conflicting consumers. Relying on imagery, Tita begins her journal;
“Today while we were eating this dish, Getrudis ran away”
The literary journey does not begin with Tita. Later in the narrative, Getrudis writes a letter to her sister, describing the “fire” that she feels inside her and the journey towards her own emancipation. After her mother’s death, Tita discovers the secret to her bitterness and abuse of her daughter which is revealed in a hidden diary and series of letters detailing her mother’s own abuse as a result of an interracial love affair.
While the preparation and serving of Quail in Rose Petal Sauce culminates in an extraordinary sensual culinary experience, the preparation of Turkey Mole with Almonds and Sesame Seeds is inspired by the maternal love that Tita experiences after feeding her nephew and the joy of his impending baptism. Such feelings of tenderness are extended to the animals sacrificed to be merged into the ingredients of dishes. By way of example, the meticulous process of feeding turkeys prior to their slaughter is aptly described. In the event, everyone enjoys Tita’s Turkey Mole. It leads to euphoric feelings. The narrative exposes the secret of Tita’s excellence as a cook. “Her secret was to prepare the mole with a lot of love.” But we have also seen how dishes, infused with the literary device of magic realism, impact on characters negatively when Tita’s emotions are conflicted by the unhappy events in her life.
Clearly, cooking does have an influence on our lives, whether we are doing the cooking, or eating from the dishes. If you don’t believe me, open up any good recipe book for inspiration. I particularly like Mexican food, but would like to try out the recipes laid out in Esquival’s delicious Like Water for Chocolate. Time and finance permitting, let’s also try Nigella Lawson’s recipes, particularly the one’s related to her Italian heritage. Those who know me, know that I’m a glutton for traditional pasta dishes.
Now, I’m hungry. For food. For love. For you.