A bit of classic magical realism today. First published in 1989 in installments, Like Water for Chocolate was a bestseller in Laura Esquivel’s native Mexico and subsequently around the world. A popular film version earned the story a place in yet more hearts (if you are tempted to watch it, don’t watch the version with the English voice-over, stick with the Spanish). The story is a heady combination of love, passion, family drama, food, recipes, and magic, all set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution.
Tita is the youngest member of the De La Garza family, destined never to marry but to serve her domineering mother, Mama Elena, until the end of her days. In the face of her mother’s tyranny Tita seeks solace in the family’s cook, the kind and supremely talented Nacha, who passes on her recipes and love of exotic foods.
But when Tita falls in love with a local boy, Pedro, the small measure of happiness she has carved out for herself collapses. So determined is Mama Elena to prevent the marriage that she forces Tita’s older sister, Rosaura, to marry Pedro instead. For 22 years Tita and Pedro live in close proximity and, despite Pedro’s marriage, the insuppressible passion between them grows secretly stronger. Full of unfulfilled desire, Tita pours her emotions into her cooking with some very surprising effects on those who taste her food. Tita learns that she can use food to communicate sensuous messages, all under Mama Elena’s nose.
Pedro didn’t offer any resistance. He let Tita penetrate to the farthest corner of his being, and all the while they couldn’t take their eyes off each other. He said, ‘Thank you, I have never had anything so exquisite.’
Like Water for Chocolate is a love story, but the dominant force is passion — an overwhelming sensation that cannot be suppressed or denied. It’s a real heart-pumper of a novel. The magical elements serve to accentuate this passion and, like a lot of magical realism, they can be taken as literally or as figuratively as the reader likes. When Tita cries so much her tears fall in a river down the stairs, or when Tita’s sister, Gertrudis, emits so much heat due to burgeoning sexual desire that she sets fire to the shower block, the magic serves to bring the human emotions to life in a vibrant, poetic, and light-hearted fashion. In Like Water for Chocolate, love makes everything possible and passion is a magical emotion, one that can lift those who possess it above life’s mundanity.
Esquivel’s style is darkly comic and quietly witty. Like all good fairy tales she isn’t afraid to do away with people in rather nasty ways and she doesn’t shy away from the grubbier parts of life and the basics of bodies, illnesses, and poverty. All of her characters are an honest and rich combination of good and bad, moral and immoral, strong and weak.
And then there’s the food. Each chapter begins with a list of ingredients for a mouthwatering dish: northern-style chorizo, quail in rose-petal sauce, chilies in walnut sauce, to name a few. During the course of the chapter the reader is taught how to carry out the recipe and every finished dish holds some significance for Tita and that particular stage of her life and love. It’s an unusual structure but it works charmingly and enhances the impression that the reader is peeking into a family chronicle, a muddled and messy recipe book tied up with family history.
Like Water for Chocolate is a little bit bizarre, but perfectly so, and beneath the surface lies a moving love story as heart-rending as they come. Short but beautiful, funny but poignant; for anyone who likes stories about food, love and passion, this one’s for you.