Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate is quintessential magical realism, beautifully done with food. More than any other fiction book I’ve read, food is a central part of the plot as well as a symbolic and metaphorical device throughout the entire book. Tita’s relationship with food and the preparation of it is central to her identity, and she often uses it to describe her emotional state. In the quote above she compares a soul without love to a useless ball of corn flour; just as fire transforms useless corn flour into tortillas, love transforms and gives life to the soul.
In another passage she again compares herself to dough, transformed by the gaze of Pedro, whom she loves:
She turned her head, and her eyes met Pedro’s. It was then she understood how dough feels when it is plunged into boiling oil. The heat that invaded her body was so real she was afraid she would start to bubble—her face, her stomach, her heart, her breasts—like batter, and unable to endure his gaze she lowered her eyes and hastily crossed the room.
Soon Tita’s feelings become imbued in her dishes and affect the emotions of those who eat her food. One of the most well-known fictional recipes in the book is the quail in rose petal sauce that is infused with Tita’s love for Pedro. Tita’s sister, upon eating it, becomes overcome with lust and runs off on horseback to sleep with a nearby soldier.
Food and fire are a key vehicles of personal transformation in this book, and it makes complete sense to me, given my own feelings about cooking. I call it “my favorite alchemy” because it allows me to transform basic elements into something new or enhanced, and in the process it transforms me. When I cook, I become a creator. When I cook for others, I become, for that moment, a steward of their happiness, nourishment, and wellbeing. I feel a sense of peace when I cook, that only comes with being lost in the flow of something that I love. Cooking is my meditation in motion, my creative play, and more than when I do yoga or attempt to meditate, I feel connected to my essential self. My kitchen is my church. The only thing that would make it better is if someone would wash the dishes afterwards.
I’ll leave you with another favorite food-related passage:
She felt so lost and lonely. One last chile in walnut sauce left on the platter after a fancy dinner couldn’t feel any worse than she did. How many times had she eaten one of those treats, standing by herself in the kitchen, rather than let it be thrown away. When nobody eats the last chile on the plate, it’s usually because none of them wants to look like a glutton, so even though they’d really like to devour it, they don’t have the nerve to take it. It was as if they were rejecting that stuffed pepper, which contains every imaginable flavor; sweet as candied citron, juicy as pomegranate, with the bit of pepper and the subtlety of walnuts, that marvelous chile in the walnut sauce. Within it lies the secret of love, but it will never be penetrated, and all because it wouldn’t feel proper.
In this passage Tita considers the last chili that no one wants to take because how it might make them look, and what a shame that would be since to miss out on something so wonderful because of that. Aside from the beautiful imagery and evocation of flavors, this passage makes me consider when and why I hold myself back because of what others may think, or because of tradition or custom, and what amazing things I might miss in the process. I hope that today you love fully and live fully.
I hope that today you go ahead and eat the last chile.