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.
Peak citrus season is during the winter, and for this I am grateful. It’s a reminder that warm places exist, and that we’ll get there someday. I tend to eat oranges least often of the citrus fruits; there are too many other interesting varieties—blood oranges, for example, elegant in name and hue. Then there’s the grapefruit, which I recently saw a teacher use to represent “Jupiter” in a fruit solar system. The pink giant, so sour that it borders on bitter, is not for the faint of heart, but topped with brown sugar and broiled, it’s tamed into nature’s creme brûlée (which is nothing like actual creme brûlée, let’s be honest, but it is a healthier, delicious treat.) Though really the title of Jupiter should belong to the pomelo, a huge green globe with a similar pink flesh. It’s actually one of the handful of OG citrus fruits, with most of the rest being a result of natural and artificial hybridization over time.
Finally, there’s tangerines and clementines—varieties of mandarin oranges. I would say that they’re not the most interesting—that they seem meant for little hands and little lunch boxes—but I’ll never forget the way MFK Fisher wrote about them in Serve It Forth. Even though I read it years ago, I remember the magical way she described her secret ritual, and I recently looked up the passage so that I could relive it.
After you have put the pieces of tangerine on the paper on the hot radiator, it is best to forget about them. Al comes home, you go to a long noon dinner in the brown dining-room, afterwards maybe you have a little nip of quetsch from the bottle on the armoire. Finally he goes. Of course you are sorry, but–On the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready…The sections of tangerine are gone, and I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that cracked so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell.There must be some one, though, who knows what I mean. Probably everyone does, because of his own secret eatings.MFK Fisher, Serve It Forth
I love this passage because it’s warm and quiet and because she captures all my senses: I can see the plump sections on the radiator, then the orange contrast against the snow on the sill. I can feel the thin skin of the wedges beneath my teeth and swear that I can hear it breaking, a sound like the most imperceptible clink of a spoon against an enamel bowl. I can taste the sweet cold pulp and smell the “perfume.” It makes me feel that I am gloriously alone, enjoying a simple tangerine.
Every once in a while, I buy a bag of tangerines or clementines for easy snacking, yet in spite of that I can never finish them all before mold crawls around a couple. It was really a preventative measure that brought me to make clementine olive oil cupcakes (ok, and a craving for something sweet), coupled with a lack of milk, eggs, and butter that made them vegan, and a burning desire to try the orange blossom water I just bought which led to the glaze….
When I was in college, I noticed a sandwich called “The Cuban” tightly wrapped in plastic in the prepared food section of the dining hall. In the very white world of a private university in the South, something from my own ethnic background was rare, so naturally this caught my attention. My initial delight deflated as soon as I got a closer look. French bread? Mayonnaise? TURKEY??? IMPOSTER!!! A Cuban sandwich is comprised of lechon asado (roasted pork), ham, swiss cheese, dill pickles, and sometimes mustard in between two slices of Cuban bread and is served after being smashed in a plancha until flat, crispy, and the cheese is melted. And the dining hall was trying to sell me a cold turkey, pickle, mayonnaise, and pork sandwich on french bread and call it a CUBAN? No.
I was a really shy student for most of undergrad who avoided any sort of conflict, but I was irritated—angry even—and so I wrote a strongly worded email to dining services, as a shy, conflict-averse girl would. While a small part of me just felt like being the antagonistic youth, a bigger part of me really was offended. Even though it happened constantly, I still wasn’t used to my identity being erased–I didn’t want to get used to it. The dining hall calling this turkey sandwich a “Cuban” triggered that feeling…and they did it with food. Food played a special role in my own identity development. When I struggled with who I was, food was something I could hold onto. Learning to cook Cuban food was my way into becoming comfortable owning my identity. I may have sucked at speaking Spanish and was pale as Cuban bread, but damn it if I didn’t make the best goddamn flan.
Dining eventually responded to my email, saying that there were many interpretations of Cuban sandwiches and that this version was just their version, but personally I couldn’t swallow it. (Their defense and their sandwich.) Sure, there’s room for interpretation, but you don’t mess that much with a classic. It may seem trivial, but even to this day the thought of my tiny battle with dining irritates me, and reading the quote above from Eddie Huang’s memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, brought me back.
I recently finished Fresh Off the Boat and really enjoyed it. It was an entertaining, honest, and funny reflection on race, identity, growing up, and of course food. It follows Eddie Huang moving to Orlando with his family as a kid, up to his opening of Baohaus in New York City as an adult—with a lot of life in between. Throughout the book, food plays a big role in his coming of age. For example, …
There’s something so delightfully escapist about eating a slice of key lime pie in winter.
Winter is a season of slow crackling spices, like cinnamon and nutmeg, with a lingering warmth to take with you into the cold.
But the citrus bite of a key lime pie in winter is a defiant shard of sun in a bank of snow; it’s a flashing yelp of joy before a wave crashes into you and tumbles you into the sand….