Country Focus: Mexico
Like Water for Chocolate
By Laura Esquivel
Translated by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen
Originally published in Spanish as Como agua para chocolate, 1989.
My edition: Anchor Books, 1994.
Genre: Fiction/Magical Realism
Time period: early 1900s, concurrent with the Mexican Revolution
Q: What does the phrase “like water for chocolate” mean?
A: In the context of Laura Esquivel’s novel, boiling over. The expression comes from a recipe for hot chocolate which calls for the water to reach that particular temperature. The story takes place in the early 1900s, so packets of Swiss Miss aren’t yet available in stores.
Q: Why name the book after hot water?
A: The protagonist, a young woman named Tita de la Garza, is metaphorically boiling over. Tradition requires that the youngest daughter in the De la Garza family, Tita, devote her life to caring for her mother, Mama Elena. Inclined to be heartless rather than progressive, Mama Elena forbids Tita from marrying her handsome suitor, Pedro. Not only does Mama Elena eighty-six Pedro’s proposal, but she cruelly suggests to Pedro that he marry Tita’s older sister Rosaura instead. Believing that marriage to Rosaura is his only chance to remain close to his beloved Tita, Pedro weds Rosaura. This allows him to move into the De la Garza’s ranch and begin a clandestine relationship with Tita. Mama Elena quickly grows suspicious of the pair and torments Tita to no end. It’s no wonder the girl is “like water for chocolate.”
Q: How do Tita’s roiling emotions manifest themselves?
A: The only thing Tita loves more than Pedro is cooking. Tita was born in the kitchen and raised by the cook. Food preparation has always been her forte, but now her emotions infiltrate her dishes like an invisible marinade. Depending upon Tita’s mood, her meals may trigger waves of heartbreak, nausea, sensuality or euphoria in unsuspecting diners.
Q: Each one of the twelve chapters features a recipe. Will I be able to impress my book club friends by serving them one of these dishes?
A: Unlikely. For one thing, the recipes run super-sized (a 17-egg cake), include unusual ingredients (Suconusco chocolate beans) and lack precise instructions, so unless you’re an improvisational cook, you’d better stick to nachos.
Q: Why the 3-book rating?
A: Esquivel is a capable storyteller, and Like Water for Chocolate may charm readers who like star-crossed romances, foodie fiction or magical realism. What didn’t work for me was Esquivel’s glorification of Tita’s and Pedro’s shallow relationship. By the novel’s end, the two have shared over twenty years of sultry glances and passionate embraces but barely any conversation. Is that really the recipe for true love?
As you see, within our bodies each of us has the elements needed to produce phosphorus. And let me tell you something I’ve never told a soul. My grandmother had a very interesting theory; she said that each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves; just as in the experiment, we need oxygen and a candle to help. In this case, the oxygen, for example, would come from the breath of the person you love; the candle could be any kind of food, music, caress, word, or sound that engenders the explosion that lights the matches. For a moment we are dazzled by an intense emotion. A pleasant warmth grows within us, fading slowly as time goes by, until a new explosion comes along to revive it. Each person has to discover what will set off these explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul.