Does your family have any traditions? Do you eat certain foods for certain holidays? Traditional values and family are important in many cultures, but they seem to play an especially important role to Mexicans (Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia). One of the most important parts of their culture is food. Much of Mexican’s daily routines and traditions revolve around the ritual of preparing the food and eating it (Mexican Cuisine and Cooking).
In Laura Esquivel’s novel, Like Water for Chocolate, the food (recipes) and tradition are the main part of the book just as they are the main part of the Mexican tradition.
Esquivel’s novel is very different from most books. Her novel incorporates recipes into the book in order to tell a story. These recipes, however, are not only formulas, but they are memories and traditions being passed down from generation to generation. Each chapter begins with a new recipe, and these recipes are used to tell Tita’s life story, the main character and narrator in Like Water for Chocolate. Tita becomes the focus of her family. This occurs because she is most closely connected with food preparation. This closeness to the food is seen from the first “scene” in the book where she is born. “Tita made her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves, and cilantro, steamed milk, garlic, and of course, onion.” (Esquivel 5-6). This shows Tita’s connection to food which grows through out the book. Tita prepares certain dishes for special occasions and at different times of the year.
Not only does Tita prepare certain dishes for different occasions, but Mexican’s also prepare different dishes for certain occasions. For example, a tradition for a wealthy Mexican family is what is called a country gathering. This is a gathering of family members. At this gathering, they began with a breakfast of fruit, eggs, beans, chilaquiles, coffee, milk, and pastries. They would then go out on horseback after their typical breakfast (Lomnitz and Perez-Lizaur 187). Some of the holidays that they make special dishes for include: Dia de la Candelaria, day of the dead, and Christmas. Dia de la Candelaria is the day that marks the end of the Christmas season. On this day, it is a tradition to eat tamales and drink atole, a drink that goes with tamales and is made from cornstarch. This is not the only part of this tradition but it is what most Mexican’s think of when they think of this day. The traditional Christmas Eve meal is usually turkey and other Mexican foods that go with it (Mexican Culture). Different dishes are also used for events such as pregnancy, sickness, marriage, and almost any event that could happen in a persons life.
In Esquivel’s novel, the recipe that is made in each chapter is selected based on what happened in the chapter. Tita prepares turkey mole for Roberto’s baptism (65). Then later on in the novel to help Tita’s “sickness”, Chencha prepares ox-tail soup to cure what no medicines had been able to cure (125). For marriage, Tita prepares a certain kind of wedding cake with icing and a certain filling. Tita takes her time in preparing each dish and makes sure to follow each recipe or formula carefully.
However, following the recipe may not ensure the dish turns out as it is intended to. Esquivel seems to believe that in the recipes, there are more than just tangible ingredients; there is something more to the recipes that is intangible. These intangible ingredients consist of love, patience, sorrow, and hate all of which are feelings that Tita has throughout the novel. These “extra” ingredients cannot be seen by just looking at the dish. They can only be “seen” when the meal or dish has been eaten. For example, the meal that Tita prepares with the rose petals. She prepares this meal with passion and love. However, this is not seen until Gertrudis gets in the shower and a soldier, Juan, smells the aroma that is coming from her. Esquivel elaborates,
The aroma from Gertrudis’ body guided him. He got there just in time to find her racing through the field. Then he knew why he’s been drawn there. This woman desperately needed a man to quench the red-hot fire that was raging inside her. A man equal to loving someone who needed love as much as she did, a man like him. (55)
This is a direct effect from the extra ingredient, passion which she felt for Pedro, that was added by Tita unconsciously. This new element gives the food a whole new meaning, one that only Tita and Nacha, the family cook and nanny, understand. A prime example of a character that has no familiarity with food preparation is Rosaura, which is seen when she tries to cook for the family. She follows the recipe exactly (as Tita would), however it tastes bad:
There was one day when Rosuara did attempt to cook. When Tita tried nicely to give her some advice, Rosaura became irritated and asked Tita to leave her alone in the kitchen. The rice was obviously scorched, the meat dried out, the dessert burnt. But no one at the table dared display the tiniest hint of displeasure, not after Mama Elena had pointedly remarked: “As the first meal that Rosaura has cooked it isn’t bad. Don’t you agree, Pedro?”….Of course, that afternoon the entire family felt sick to their stomachs. (50-51)
The sickness that the family felt was that of the hate in she prepared the meal with. The hidden ingredients can also be seen in the meals that Tita prepares for Mama Elena. The ingredients that Tita subconsciously adds to her food are partial done through Nacha.
Nacha might only be a cook and nanny to the De la Garza family, but she plays a much larger role as mother to Tita. Nacha is much more of a mother than Mama Elena could ever be to Tita. Through all the years that they spent in the kitchen, Tita was building a strong relationship with the food she prepared. This was more of an experience than anything else was for Tita. Susan Lucas Dobrian goes on to further explain this idea in her article “Romancing the Cook.” She describes the meal preparation:
The kitchen becomes a veritable reservoir of creative and magical events, in which the cook who possesses this talent becomes artist, healer, and lover. Culinary activity involves not just the combination of prescribed ingredients, but something personal and creative emanating from the cook, a magical quality which transforms the food and grants its powerful properties that go beyond physical satisfaction to provide spiritual nourishment as well. (60)
The meal preparations that Dobrain describes are also linked to Nacha, Tita’s mother figure.
Tita gets her great cooking skills from Nacha, this is there way of passing down the recipes from generation to generation. The recipes in Like Water for Chocolate are kept in the family. Tita then passes the recipes to Esperanza. Esperanza then passes them to her daughter who puts them in the book. The recipes that are passes down from generation to generation are also what tell us the story of Tita. The recipes are taught to the next generation. However, they are taught not only to be followed, but also how to know the different qualities of the ingredients that go into each dish. This is only something that can be passed down from generation to generation. In the book, The Mexican Elite Family, Larissa Addler Lomnitz and Marisol Perez-Lizaur state, “Her cooking is famous for the old-style Mexican recipes she uses, inherited from her mother and grandmother. She will share these recipes with no one but her own daughters.” (97). This is a prime example of how Mexican’s value food and the traditions they have within their blood family.
Throughout the book, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, food plays a main role, but not only does it play a main role in the novel, it also plays a large role in Mexican culture. The novel carries many of the culinary traditions that Mexicans find very important in their culture. Mexican women play a big role in domestic life and must know how to prepare food. The ability of Mexican women to create dishes (for every occasion) is one that has become a great tradition in Mexico. A tradition that I wish would be a part of the culture of America, because it seems to be something that makes Mexican families closer (something American’s need to learn).
Dobrain, Susan Lucas. “Romancing the Cook: Parodic Consumption of Popular Romance Myths in Como Agua Para Chocolate.” Latin American Literary Review. July-Dec. 96: 55-66.
Esquivel, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate. Trans. Carol and Thomas Christensen. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Lomnitz, Larissa Adler and Marison Perez-Lixaur. A Mexican Elite Family, 1820-1980: Kinship, Class, and Culture. Princton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987.
“Mexican Cuisine and Cooking.” Inside Puerto Vallarta Travel Magazine: Puerto Vallarta, Mexica. <http://www.hypermex.com/html/pv_cook.htm>.
Mexican Culture. <http://mexicanculture.about.com/culture/mexicanculture>.
“Mexico.” Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. 2000 ed. Microsoft Corp,
As we mentioned earlier in the "Why Should I Care?" section, food is so much more than what's on your plate in Like Water for Chocolate.
Course Number One: Eggs
Eggs. Small, white, delicious, perfect for breakfast tacos and huevos rancheros. Who doesn't like a good egg? Well, if it's soft-boiled and you're Tita De la Garza, you definitely don't. Mama Elena forced her to eat them as a child, kinda like how our mothers forced us to eat broccoli.
So, eggs bring up bad memories for Tita, but on the other hand, they're an important ingredient found in many of her recipes. The first item on the egg list? Chabela Wedding Cake for Rosaura and Pedro's ceremony.
We know this cake is going to be anything but eggcellent (har har) when we read this:
[…] the egg whites reminded [Tita] of the testicles of the chickens they had castrated the month before. (2,78)
What eggsactly is going on with this food? It causes pain and grief, sure, but also, if we didn't have eggs we wouldn't have the cake, the cream fritters, the Three Kings' Day Bread.
Course Number Two: Onions
Take care to chop the onion fine. (1, 1)
In the first line of the novel we find a tear-inducing symbol. For us normal folk, a bit of misty eyes is normal, but for Tita, onions cause her to cry, sob, weep, and bring on literal rivers.
Having her emotions so strongly tied to food and the kitchen allows Tita to express herself and cast spells over her diners. Tears are a seasoning for food, and Tita's are powerful enough to make grown men weep like babies. Oh, and vomit uncontrollably. Yum.
Want to know more about the power of the onion? Check out the "What's up with the Ending?" section.
Course Number Three: Roses
Remove the petals carefully from the roses, trying not to prick your fingers, for not only are the little wounds painful but the petals could soak up blood that might alter the flavor of the dish and even produce dangerous chemical reactions. (3,155)
Talk about an understatement. It seems as though Tita's blood is a most powerful Viagra… And while this may seem like an obvious and, let's face it, cliché, symbol for love, Esquivel does a nice job of using the flowers in an unconventional, unforgettable, and sexy way.
In one of the most visual scenes of the entire book, a bouquet of roses from Pedro to Tita leads to a most enticing dish, quail in rose petal sauce:
With that meal it seems they had discovered a new system of communication, in which Tita was the transmitter, Pedro the receiver and poor Gertrudis the medium […]. (3,179)
The roses are a symbol not only of sexuality and sexual desire, they also lead to the freedom of Gertrudis from the ranch and Mama Elena's rule. Roses are also an example of how expressing your sexuality and having sex (safely, please) can lead to or cause liberation.
For Gertrudis, this is certainly the case. While working in a brothel may not seem like the most progressive of jobs, she chooses it for herself. And what does she do afterward? She fights like a man, among men, becoming a general who men have to listen to and obey. And to think it all started with a pretty little flower…