When most people travel, they research local cuisine and cultural heritage markets. I research celebrated writers and literary works. In my opinion, literature adds something to travel. So when I went to Mexico a few weeks ago, I decided to read Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate).
I hesitated to choose this as my first Mexican novel because I heard it had originally been poorly received in Mexico. I worried the novel wasn’t taken seriously in literary circles. Perhaps it was too “general fiction” or “upmarket” to be high-brow literature.
But almost immediately, I loved this book. I was hooked in the first few pages.
It’s set during the Mexican revolution. Yet nearly the entire book takes place inside a kitchen. But this confining setting doesn’t make for a confiding plot.
The book follows the life of a young girl, Tita. As per family tradition, Tita, the youngest daughter, is forbidden to marry. She is destined to take care of her aging mother. Although young Tita and a boy named Pedro are deeply in love, Tita’s mother refuses their matrimony. Instead, she offers Tita’s sister, Rosaura, to be Pedro’s wife.
Tita is understandably enraged and heartbroken. And yet, she is punished for showing any sign of emotion. So, despite her pain, she is forced to act fine and prepare Pedro and Rosaura’s wedding feast.
Pedro marries Rosaura, but only as a strategy to be near Tita. He lives in the family home with his new life, loving Tita from afar. Tita meanwhile toils along in the kitchen, cooking for and taking care of the family. She silently carries the burden of a family tradition she despises and is tightly controlled by her mother.
What sucked me in was the magical realism, my favorite genre. Magical Realism differs from fantasy as there are no magical creatures or superpowers, rather the supernatural appears in small, ordinary ways.
Tita, unable to express her true self or true emotions, realizes her culinary dishes begin to infect her diners with her passion, her melancholy, her arousal. Unintentionally, her emotions spill out through food.
A single tear falling into the cake icing was enough to overwhelm her aunt with an immense feeling of loss at the mere taste of a little frosting on her fingertip.
A Few Thoughts on Like Water for Chocolate
What I loved about this novel is that Esquivel centers her story around the small powers held by women in the domestic sphere. Considering the limited options of many women at the time, Tita’s power and servitude both rely on her in the kitchen. Despite being trapped in the unwanted role of caretaker, it is also through this role that Tita harnesses her truly essential role in the family and processes her emotions.
This contrast is made even more powerful by the revolution playing out quietly in the background, and yet the real tension is not in warring soldiers but in warring siblings and the conflict between mother and daughter, progress and tradition.
The story speaks volumes to the way so many of us bury our true emotions, true selves, only to find these feelings bubbling out of us in strange and unexpected ways. This phenomenon speaks to the title. The expression ‘like water for chocolate’ refers to someone whose emotions are on the verge of boiling over. (When making chocolate, the water must be just at the boil when the chocolate is added and beaten).
I also enjoyed that each chapter opened with a traditional Mexican recipe and a short description of how to prepare it.
Romance or Toxicity?
Of course, it wouldn’t be South American literature without love at first sight gone wrong, without unblossomed love remaining steadfast through years of trials and suffering. Tita and Pedro hardly know each other when they fall for one another. There is a lot of him glimpsing her ankle and being overwhelmed by love for her and jealousy when other men are interested in Tita (despite him being married to her sister).
While the whole love at first sight thing is incredibly romantic, I have a hard time with these relationships as they are almost always incredibly toxic. All I could think while reading it is that no one should stick around for a man who marries their sister. But I supposed having strong boundaries often collides with South American romance. Apparently, there is no love without years of pining for what’s been lost, waiting patiently, and testing the love through strife.
Although definitely not my style for dating (I prefer men that aren’t married, especially not to my family members) I’ve come to expect this kind of taboo love from South American literature. And yet, the passion and beauty of the language were so compelling, you can’t help fall for Tita and Pedro. Esquivel writes about love so beautifully, it’s hard not to be intoxicated.