Today’s letter is E, for Laura Esquivel. This Mexican writer is most well-known for her first novel, Like Water for Chocolate (1989). It was made into a film in 1994, but what I didn’t know until I did a little research on Esquivel was that the novel was written before the film. Everyone had told Esquivel, who was a nursery school teacher as well as doing a little screen-writing, that her idea for the film would never be made as it would be too expensive, what with the period Mexican army costumes, the giant dovecot at the end of the ranch’s roof, the extraordinary fires and ghostly visions, the flowing mountains of food, and so on. The novel is packed with magical realist events, all caused by the combination of powerful emotions and marvellous food. So, Esquivel, who was married to the film director Alfonso Arau, wrote her idea as a novel anyway, with the idea for a film still at the back of her mind. When it was a success (it was Mexico’s best-selling novel for three years running), the moneymen and producers came back and said ‘this really would make a great film’. So her husband made the film, it was beautiful and the most successful foreign film in the USA, and then their marriage broke up, apparently over the profits. That’s a pretty sad ending, to a lovely film and a terrific book that celebrate love, over and over again.
So the story is about love, and about food. It’s set sometime around the end of the nineteenth century, in rural Mexico near the American border, on a large and prosperous ranch run by Mama Elena De La Garza. Tita is the youngest of her three daughters, condemned by evil Mama Elena never to be allowed to marry because her destiny is take care of her mother until she dies. Tita is also a marvellous cook, and often the reader must think, why don’t you just poison the old witch?, because if ever there was a wicked mother in a fairy story, Mama Elena is that character. Tita’s life is complicated when she and the local young gentleman Pedro fall in love. Mama Elena won’t hear of letting Tita marry, because of the slave youngest daughter tradition, so she calmly offers her eldest daughter Rosaura to Pedro instead. Pedro is not happy about this, but on the advice of his father he marries Rosaura so he can be near Tita. Tita’s grief and tears flow into the wedding cake that she and Nacha, the family cook, are making. This has the explosive result of uncontrollable vomiting by all the wedding guests. Similarly extravagant results follow whenever Tita is feeling passionate or emotional, and each of the twelve chapters of the book is structured around a recipe for that month.
The recipes are more than just a way to link the events of the story, and keep the narrative going, they are part of the story. When Tita is born, her mother is chopping onions and Tita can feel them so strongly inside the womb that she is born on a wave of tears. When Tita is feeling desperate with love for her lost lover Pedro, who is also dangerously close to her, living in the same house, she makes quail in rose petal sauce for dinner. Her mother won’t eat it, it tastes too salty. Pedro loves it, Rosaura feels sick after three bites. But when Gertrudis, the middle daughter, and Mama Elena’s child from a secret love affair, eats her dish of quail, she is overcome with a lust so strong that she runs from the room for the shower. The heat from her body sets the shower room on fire and she has to run naked into the fields to cool down. She is swept up by a rebel army captain, and carried away on horseback, for an energetic career working in brothels, and then in the army as a successful general. At this point in the story, the reader puts the book down gently in awe and admiration at the sumptuousness of Esquivel’s imagination.
Tita doesn’t see anything unusual in the visions she has or the peculiar results of her emotional struggles when people eat her meals. Time goes on, she escapes from Mama Elena’s ranch, but nearly dies with the effort and her misery, and refuses to speak for six months until she realises that she is not speaking because she chooses not to. With this realisation, that she has free will and can do what she wants, her slavery ends. But the nasty daughter-slave tradition is to be carried on, in Esperanza, the daughter of Rosaura and Pedro. Tita is furiously angry at this, and Rosaura’s death, after a three-day screaming argument between the sisters over poor Esperanza’s fate, is a very odd one indeed.
I love the cookery in this novel. I like reading recipes that tell stories and have history wrapped around them. I also really like recipes with ingredients that I don’t know, or can’t even pronounce. The recipes in this novel are like Mrs Beeton’s, in that they involve improbable quantities, like the wedding cake that uses 17 eggs and the juice and grated peel of one lime. Tita’s stuffed chillies with walnut sauce needs a sack of nuts and 8 pomegranates. My fingernails ache just thinking about all the effort of peeling and chopping.
Next to recipes for food, I like stories that give you medicinal remedies, and the ingredients for cool drinks. When Mama Elena finally dies, the malice of her ghost lights a spilling oil lamp and sets Pedro on fire. Tita heals his burns with thinly grated potato and egg whites beaten in oil. She stops any scarring with a poultice of the bark of an unpronounceable tree. How can anyone not enjoy reading about magical remedies like that? Almost real, subtly unreal. For something to happen, Esquivel just says that it happens, and we swallow the fantasy completely. This novel is a delicious and beautiful meal for the senses.
Lurking behind the fantastical kitchen episodes, we have a considerable amount of Mexican history. Soldiers and rebels trot to and fro across the fields, and villages are perpetually being attacked by one army or another: we never really know what the war is about, or between whom. People die unexpectedly from stray bullets, but the cooking has to go on. When General Gertrudis brings her soldiers back to the ranch to visit, they eat almost all the food and animals, and the maids have to serve all the meals in shifts, one beginning as soon as the earlier one has ended. The sheer effort of feeding the men constructs the routine of the house.
When Tita and the other women aren’t cooking, they are sewing. When Rosaura is married, a silk sheet is prepared with a hole in the middle, surrounded by beautiful embroidery, so that the marriage can be consummated without immodesty. All her daughter’s nappies are snow white and embroidered in silk around the edges. Tita crochets a vast woollen bedspread for years and years, as a way of absorbing her misery about Pedro, night after night. When she leaves the ranch, it is almost the size of the house, trailing behind her in the carriage like a comfort blanket when she is taken away to safety by the doctor.
‘Like water for chocolate’ is actually an abbreviation: it should really be ‘like hot water for chocolate’, and means the boiling water to make hot chocolate. This is an idiom in Mexican (apparently) that signifies the moment of passion and emotion when you are just about to explode, with joy, or rage, or grief. That upwelling surge from the heart is the power behind the magical cooking in the novel.