Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Adventure classics -- Love & magic in the kitchen

Like Water for Chocolate

by Laura Esquivel


For an English-speaking reader, the title of the magical 1989 novel Like Water for Chocolate needed a little explanation. When first published in Spanish, Mexican author Laura Esquivel could assume her audience would understand surface obvious meaning -- the simmering to a boil of water used to prepare the ancient Aztec beverage of chocolate.

Just to be sure, Esquivel obligingly explains, at least in the English translations as being “on the verge of boiling over.” It’s an apt expression also of the inner turmoil of young Tita de la Garza, cook and flunky of an early twentieth century Mexican border family, whose emotions are repressed to the boiling point by her abusive mother, jealous older sister Rosaura, and feckless sweetheart Pedro.

Don’t worry, though, that I’m giving you a heavy end to this June of writings about Texas and the Southwest. Think of Like Water for Chocolate as a palate-cleansing sorbet between the heartier courses of a dinner. (And speaking of palate cleansers, I’m eager to try the simplest of Tita’s recipes, the one for jasmine sorbet at the end of the November chapter, as soon as I can lay hands on some organically-grown jasmine flowers.)

Esquivel arranges the novel in twelve chapters, one for each month of the year, like a serial in an old-fashioned woman’s magazine. With that nod to its antecedents, each chapter includes a signature recipe, plenty of home remedies and housekeeping hints, and enough magic, adventure and romance to propel a telenovela through several seasons.

(The most famous recipe is that for quails in rose petal sauce. But since its aphrodisiac effect depends on the infusion of blood Tita gives the petals by clasping her lover’s bouquet of roses to her breast, I can’t promise it will have the same effect on everyone.)

The novel, narrated by Tita’s great-niece, begins with her birth, brought on by her excessive weeping in utero due to the onions her mother Mama Elena was chopping. “Her wailing got so violent that it brought on an early labor. . . Tita was literally washed into this world on a great tide of tears that pilled over the edge of the table and flooded across the kitchen floor.”

Mama Elena will be widowed two days later when her husband dies of shock from the effects of another family secret (to be revealed, of course, in a later chapter), and decrees that Tita, her youngest daughter, will never marry but become responsible for caring for her mother for the rest of her life.

Denied any education or contact with the outside world by this destiny, Tita takes control over the only venue left to her -- the kitchen -- and her cooking becomes a reflection of her emotions. When she cooks happily, her meals are delicious and nourishing.

But when Mama Elena refuses Pedro’s request to marry Tita, on the grounds of the terrible destiny decreed for her, Pedro accepts a chance to marry Rosaura, hoping this family tie will at least keep him closer to his first love. Now Tita cooks in anguish, infusing the enormous wedding cake with her sorrow. The results are memorably unpleasant.

“The moment (the wedding guests) took their first bite of the cake, everyone was flooded with a great wave of longing. . . But the weeping was just the first symptom of a strange intoxication -- an acute attack of pain and frustration -- that seized the guests and scattered them across the patio and the grounds and in the bathrooms, all of them wailing over lost love.”

And so the story goes, with repeated episodes of heartache, separation, hope -- and plenty of cooking. Will Tita and Pedro ever find happiness? Will Mama Elena, who even reappears from beyond the grave, ever leave them in peace? Stay tuned for the dazzling finale.

Of course, there’s a movie, and both it and the book are readily available on

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics begins a July of science fiction adventures with H.D. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau.)

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