Like Water for Chocolate
A Mexico book by Laura Esquivel
I finally have gotten around to reading this much beloved novel even though it's been available for years and was made into a very popular movie few years ago. I'm glad I did. It turned out to be one of the more pleasant reading experiences I've had in a while.
If you haven't been on another planet for the last decade or more you'll probably know that "Like Water for Chocolate" is a sort of combined novel and cookbook. Food plays a very prominent part in the narrative. The heroine, Tita, is a wonderful cook and we are even provided with her recipes along with the action.
The story is set at the time of the Mexican Revolution - 1910-1920 - in Piedras Negras in Northern Mexico. And, like so many Mexican stories, it concerns a family. In this case the family consists of three sisters plus a mother who can only be described as a complete bitch. The story mainly concerns Tita, the youngest daughter, the remarkable cook and originator of all those recipes.
Tita is the victim of a Mexican tradition that says she can't marry while Mama is alive and needs to be looked after and catered to. And Mama - the bitch - isn't the type to go against that tradition. She quickly reveals her domineering side when she sees Tita fall in love with Pedro the moment he appears in her life. She immediately sets out to kill off the romance. I liked Esquivel's comment about Mama at one point in the narrative: "Unquestionably, when it came to dividing, dismantling, dismembering, desolating, detaching, dispossessing, destroying or dominating, Mama Elena was a pro." In fact, Mama is so cruel and miserable she arranges for one of her other daughters to marry Pedro, thus ensuring he's never very far away from poor Tita. But the two lovers never get a chance to express their love even though they are frequently under the same roof.
That's the basic situation. Read the book and find out how it gets resolved.
The narrative covers twelve months in twelve chapters, from January to December, with each chapter featuring one of Tita's recipes. Tita uses those recipes to express her love for Pedro. Presumably the way to a man's heart really is through his stomach. And, at the same time, whatever emotion Tita is feeling at a given moment often gets transferred to others through her cooking. Also, as this is a Mexican novel, it has its full share of magic, miracles and even a ghost or two.
However, this concentration on food and cooking, interspersed in the narrative, also has its jarring moments, as for instance in this passage on page 73:
"One of Nacha's relatives, who had just had her eighth child was grateful for the honor of feeding Mama Elena's grandson. For a month she performed marvelously; then one morning, while on her way to the village to visit her family, she was struck by a stray bullet from a battle between the rebels and the federales and was mortally wounded. One of her relatives arrived at the ranch to bring them the news, just as Tita and Chencha were combining all the ingredients for the mole in a large earthenware pan.
That is the final step, which is done when all the ingredients have been ground as indicated in the recipe. Combine them in a large pan, add the cut up turkey, the chocolate, the sugar to taste. As soon as the mixture thickens, remove it from the heat…." And so on.
Despite those odd juxtapositions, it's a wonderful and warm story about a family you grow to like, set against the wartime background of the Mexican Revolution. Tita is a loveable heroine and Mama is everything a villain should be. And - oh, yes - there are those great recipes…..Quail in rose petal sauce, Cream fritters, Turkey mole with almonds and sesame seeds and so on. What more could you ask for?
Verdict: Tasty, saucy, spicy, delicious, piquant, hearty. If you're looking for an appetizing read, here it is.
There is also a Reader's Companion which I haven't read - yet. Bookmarks : A Companion Text for Like Water for Chocolate. By Janet Giannotti