Seducing the Taste Buds

Like Water for Chocolate is easily one of the most recognizable literary titles there is. The debut novel of a former kindergarten teacher, it was originally published in 1989 in Spanish as Como agua para chocolate. It was a sensation in Mexico and this success was a precursor to what would be a global literary sensation. Its 1992 English translation swept the world over, easily climbing up bestseller lists. Like Water for Chocolate helped turn Laura Esquivel, the once writer for children’s program, into a household name, with many a literary pundit singing paeans for her imaginative and powerful amalgamation of local culture, history, and family dynamics. It marked the red carpet welcome for an incoming and excitable in the vast world of literature.

In her stellar debut, Esquivel introduced to the general reading public a young woman named Tita de la Garza. Tita was the youngest of Mama Elena, a domineering matriarch who lorded over the De la Garza ranch. Located near the Mexico-US border, the ranch was a legacy she received from her late husband. Tita also had two older sisters – Gertrudis and Rosaura. Even when she was in her mother’s womb, Tita exhibited an affinity with food. She was “sensitive to onions, any time they were being chopped, they say she would just cry and cry”. Her sobs were so audible that even their half-deaf cook, Nacha, could hear her wails. Her violent wailing also induced early labor: “Tita made her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves, and cilantro, steamed milk, garlic, and, of course, onion.”

The quotidian life at the De la Garza ranch was disrupted when Tita fell in love at first sight with Pedro, their neighbor. The feeling, thankfully, was mutual and without further ado, Pedro asked permission from Mama Elena for Tita’s hands. However, Mama Elena, without preamble, rejected Pedro’s offer, adamantly forbidding their union. It was a tradition in the De la Garza household that the youngest daughter is obliged to take care of the matriarch until her death. To fulfill her fate, Tita must remain unmarried. In Tita’s stead, Mama Elena offered the hand of her second daughter, Rosaura, to Pedro. So as not to sever their tie and to remain close to Tita, Pedro took Mama Elena’s advice.

“You must take care to light the matches one at a time. If a powerful emotion should ignite them all at once, they would produce a splendor so dazzling that it would illuminate far beyond what we can normally see; and then a brilliant tunnel would appear before our eyes, revealing the path we forgot the moment we were born, and summoning us to regain the divine origins we had lost. The soul ever longs to return to the place from which it came, leaving the body lifeless.

~ Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate

To add salt to the injury and to remind her youngest daughter who was in-charge, Mama Elena tasked Tita to bake the cake for Pedro and Rosaura’s wedding. To help heal the wounds of a broken heart, Tita turned her attention to her passion, cooking. She poured her time, energy, and attention towards honing her culinary skills. But it was not only these ingredients that she poured into everything she cooked. Perhaps the most important element of her culinary repertoire was her outpouring emotions. When she is sad, she cooks. When she is happy, she cooks. When she feels grief, she diverts her sorrow to cooking. Cooking was an escape but she also used it to convey things that words cannot fully express.

A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies. Tita’s story was divided into twelve distinct chapters, with each chapter representing the twelve months of the calendar. It was also a projection of the flow and ebb of emotions in the story. The arrival of each month was accented by the introduction of a new recipe, a refreshing approach to the established praxis of storytelling. The novel doubled as a primer to Mexican delicacies. Food and the diversity of the Mexican kitchen was a seminal element in the narrative. It was successfully incorporated into the story of Tita. The smell and taste of food permeated all throughout the narrative, giving it a distinct complexion, and, quite literally, flavor.

The food and delicacy took center stage. However, the novel doesn’t reduce itself into a typical recipe or menu book. The novel explored profound subjects such as the dynamics of family and the prevalence of traditions. Through Tita and Mama Elena’s relationship laden with tension and resentment, Esquivel managed to vividly portray how whimsical traditions establish discord in tightly knit families. The novel perfectly captured the burden and the pressure such traditions put on the unwilling participant. This in turn results into rebelliousness and resentment. Whilst Like Water for Chocolate was set during the turn of the century, the prevalence of traditions still reverberate in the contemporary, albeit to a more limited extent.

Albeit the seemingly pleasurable and lighthearted story, violence is a pervasive element in the narrative. Mama Elena, a domineering character, imposed her will on her youngest daughter. Tita’s unwillingness and resentments were meted with punishments that bordered on the violent and the cruel. She never shied away from inflicting physical, emotional and psychological pain on her daughter. Inevitably intertwined with violence are the elements of passion and lust. It was not a seminal element of the story but carnal desire, especially amongst the male characters, was prevalent in the story. The desire and longing is overwhelming that some characters resort to the imposition of their own will.

“Those huge stars have lasted for millions of years by taking care never to absorb any of the fiery rays lovers all over the world send up at them night after night. To avoid that, the star generates so much heat inside itself that it shatters the rays into a thousand pieces. Any look it receives is immediately repulsed, reflected back onto the earth, like a trick done with mirrors. That is the reason the stars shine so brightly at night.”

~ Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate

With its vivid elements and riveting structure, it was Tita who propelled the narrative. Her development was an important facet of the narrative. She was voiceless in a household that was dominated by the vitriol of an embittered woman. Even after her death, Mama Elena haunted Tita and imposed herself into her daughter’s life and affairs. However, as the narrative progresses, she slowly gained that voice. Through subtle acts, she went against her mother’s wishes. She has reached a eureka moment, that her mother’s pronouncements were unfair and was an injustice to her. Whilst cooking remained her primary means of expressing herself, she has learned other means to channel her inner thoughts and frustrations without further earning the ire of her mother.

There was a folktale like quality to the the story. Complimenting the lush tapestry of Like Water for Chocolate are elements of history and magical realism, two facets that has become staple in Hispanic literature. The brand of Esquivel’s magical realism careened towards the emotional and the character-centric. Ghosts and the physical manifestation of internal emotions, rather than full-blown magic, were substitutes for the grander themes of social and political nature. Embedded on the background, these themes formed a credible backdrop for the story. The focus of the narrative was still on the character and their development.

Passion and desire were two facets that were often synonymous to the story of Tita. However, the romantic elements was, perhaps, the novel’s weakest element. Whilst Tita’s resolve and loyalty was admirable, the same cannot be said of her first flame, Pedro. The love-at-first was trite but as the narrative progressed, Tita and Pedro’s love story started to flourish. However, what prevails was the quality of Pedro as a character. He was the antithesis to Tita’s considerate and servile character. Pedro also did not exhibit any character development. He was selfish, immature, and whiny. His biggest flaw, however, was his total disregard of the concept of consent as he let his passion and lust dictate his actions. The passivity of the secondary characters such as Rosaura and Gertrudis was also glaring.

Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate is flawed. Nevertheless, Esquivel delivered on several fronts. The novel’s strongest facet was Esquivel’s storytelling. The quality of her prose held all the elements together, both the strong and the. She veered away from the formulaic and the predictable and instead, came up with an innovative and imaginative structure that elevated the narrative. She further elevated the story by incorporating vivid and distinctive elements of magical realism without weighing down Tita’s story and development. Although it was narrated by Esperanza, Tita’s niece, Tita’s voice remained audible and distinct.

“It doesn’t matter to me what you did, there are some things in life that shouldn’t be given so much importance, if they don’t change what is essential. What you’ve told me hasn’t changed the way I think; I’ll say again, I would be delegated to be your companion for the rest of your life-but you must think over very carefully whether I am the man for you or not.”

~ Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate

Overall, Like Water for Chocolate is a colorful and wonderful amalgamation of culture, character development, and obviously, food, with some dashes of magical realism and history. It is akin to one of Tita’s recipes – an explosion of distinct flavors and different textures. Food is nearly synonymous to the novel but it did little to alter the flow of the narrative. Like Water for Chocolate was Tita’s story and her growth was the mantle of the story. What also triumphed, in the end, was the strength and fervor of Laura Esquivel’s imaginative writing. In writing Like Water for Chocolate, Esquivel came up with a memorable classic that will transcend time. It was a complete recipe that both filled and seduced the taste buds, the olfactory senses, and the imagination.

Ratings

77%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 20%
Writing (25%) – 23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Amongst the many book titles that have long captivated me is Mexican writer Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. The first time I came across the novel in the book store, it immediately caught my attention. However, I held back because I thought that it was a collection of stories. You see, back then, I am apprehensive about venturing into short story collections; I still am although I have made strides when I finally read my first short story collection and wrote a review about it. A few years later, I learned my mistake and, to reconcile my error, I immediately bought and read a copy of the book. Lo and behold! The story of Tita made me realize how much I have been missing out all this time because of my apprehension. Tita’s story was sad and is a portrayal of how tradition and deeply ingrained values hold us back from chasing what we really love or want. Thankfully, Tita didn’t let this setback hold her from producing a better version of herself. The smell of food permeated the story, as intoxicating as the story itself. Should I now watch the movie adaptation?

Book Specs

Author:  Laura Esquivel
Translator: Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen
Publisher: Double Day
Publishing Date: 1992
Number of Pages: 246
Genre: Romance, Magical Realism

Synopsis

The number-one bestseller in Mexico in 1990, Like Water for Chocolate is a romantic, poignant tale, touched with bittersweet moments of magic and sensuality. Evocative of How to Make an American Quilt in structure, Tampopo in its celebration of food, and Heartburn in its irony and wit, it is a lively and funny tale of family life in turn-of-the-century Mexico.

The narrator’s great-aunt Tita is the youngest of three daughters born to Mama Elena, the tyrannical owner of the De la Garza ranch. While still in her mother’s womb, she wept so violently – as her mother chopped onions – that she caused Mama Elena to begin early labor; and Tita slipped out in the middle of the kitchen table amid the spices and fixings for noodle soup. This early encounter with food soon became a way of life and Tita grew up to be a master chef. Each chapter of the novel begins with one of Tita’s recipes and her careful instructions for preparation.

In well-born Mexican families, tradition dictates that the youngest daughter not marry, but remain home to care for her mother. Even though Tita has fallen in love, Mama Elena chooses not to make an exception, and instead, arranges for Tita’s older sister to marry Tita’s young man.

In order to punish Tita for her willfulness, Mama Elena forces her to bake the wedding cake. The bitter tears Tita weeps while stirring the batter provoke a remarkable reaction among the guests who eat the cake. It is then that it first becomes apparent that her culinary talents are unique.

Laura Esquivel’s voice is direct, simple, and compelling. She has written a fresh and innovative novel, bringing her own inimitable strengths to a classic love story.

About the Author

Laura Beatriz Esquivel Valdés was born on September 30, 1950 in Mexico City, Mexico.

Esquivel attended the Escuela Normal de Maestros in Mexico City, a teachers’ college. After obtaining her degree,, Esquivel started working as a kindergarten teacher. She established a children’s theater workshop in which she wrote and produced drama for children. During the 1970s and 1980s, wrote for children’s television programs. In 1992, she made her first major international breakthrough when her debut novel novel, Como agua para chocolate (1989), was translated and published in English as Like Water for Chocolate. The novel was also adapted into a film.

She followed up her Like Water for Chocolate success by publishing more novels. She published her second novel, La Ley Del Amor, in 1995. A year later, it was published in English as The Law of Love. Her other works include Between the Fires (2000), a collection of essays on life, love, and food; Tan veloz como el deseo (Swift as Desire, 2001); and Malinche (2006).

Esquivel is currently residing in Mexico City with her husband and children.