Essay, Research Paper
Ultimate Love in Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate is a love story set in Mexico, interspersed with recipes, related in unadorned, uncomplicated language. Yet when the ingredients are combined and simmer, subtle and unusual flavors emerge. On one level, this is the story of Tita, youngest daughter of the formidable matriarch Mama Elena who forbids Tita to marry her true love Pedro because tradition says that the youngest daughter must care for her mother until her death. When Pedro marries Tita’s oldest sister in order to be near Tita, it begins a life-long conflict filled with passion, deception, anger, and pure love. Interwoven throughout the narrative are the recipes, which, like an ancient Greek chorus, provide an ongoing metaphorical commentary on the characters and their culture. Finally, there is the food itself that Tita creates as head cook on the family ranch, food so vibrant and sensual, so imbued with her feelings of longing, frustration, rebellion, or love, that it affects everyone who eats it. The story is told by Tita’s grand-niece who follows in her footsteps, using her cookbook and continuing a tradition quite different from the one her great-grandmother tried to impose. The combination of all these elements, food, tradition, romance, and a good measure of the super natural thrown in, enlace to form a passionate narrative where ultimate love is the string that holds it all.
Tita was born and raised in the kitchen. It is in this realm where she burst in a tidal wave of tears from her mother’s womb; where she was destined to serve a long life of solitude and emptiness. However, it is here where she also learns the most important lessons about life from the Indian cook Nacha. Tita was always attracted to the scents, the flavors, and the mysteries of the kitchen. As a toddler she spent her days witnessing the magic that Nacha manifested every time she set herself to make a platter. Tita was her apprentice and without knowing it, little by little, she completely embodied the power to cook, and what’s more, to reveal herself through her food. When she had no other way to express herself, food became her mode of communication. Mama Elena’s cruel appointing of Tita as head of all the preparations for the wedding of her sister Rosaura and the man that Tita loved, resulted very tragically. While baking the cake with Nacha, Tita’s tears sank into the batter of the cake, and acted as poisonous toxins that nauseated all those who ate it, ruining the wedding, and killing Nacha herself, who also tasted Tita’s melancholy teardrops:
Weeping was just the first symptom of a strange intoxication
-an acute attack of pain and frustration- that seized the guests
and scattered them across the patio and the grounds and in
the bathrooms, all of them wailing over their lost loves
Her feelings towards the other nuptial that occurs in the novel are completely different since it occurs much later in her life and Mama Elena and all the forces that were against her, had vanished. At her niece’s wedding, Tita felt so much happiness in preparing all the edibles that everyone complimented her food and those who dared to ask her for the secret recipe only received the reply: “The secret is to make it with love” (239). As in the book’s title, descriptions of how characters feel in various situations are presented in imagery from food and cooking. In addition, the unique ways in which food is prepared and the ingredients employed are shown as determining or redefining people’s fates. The novel equates understanding these secrets of the power of food with understanding life. By doing this, Esquivel marks a new phase in feminist thought where, instead of rejecting the kitchen as a space that impedes women’s freedom, she adapts the kitchen’s secrets to literary production.
In this novel, tradition manifests itself as the greatest obstacle that can stand between the love of two people. Tradition is set as the factor in this Mexican culture that predetermines the destinies of people even before they are born. However, when this framework of rules and social standards bottle up and leave a person trapped with no air to breathe, a defense mechanism arises and builds enough strength to rebel and bring about the change that is necessary. Esquivel presents the plot during the turbulent civil war years of Mexico, exactly written to emphasize the great war that is about to take place between a desperate soul and her own strictly bound world. Also, to foreshadow the revolution and change that is about to take place within this character, Tita.
It had been an unbroken tradition that Mama Elena was certainly not about to change: “Being the youngest daughter means you have to take care of me until the day I die”(10). After being told that she could never marry Pedro, Tita realized that she would never experience or truly know what love is. This became a catalyst for Tita’s powers to surge and for her lunacy to later on take place. After losing Nacha and her sister Gertrudis to the sorcery of her food, and Pedro to her sister Rosaura, Tita’s loneliness and desperation only seemed to swell. Soon enough she became mentally unattached because she could no longer take the torture of dealing with her mother, and was taken away by a doctor to be treated and spiritually revived. This Dr. John brought back life and love to Tita. He taught her that everyone needs another being to light up their lives just like fire needs oxygen to survive. Through him she felt the magic of love again; however this love was directed at Pedro, for she could never forget him. By doing this, she fought back. She liberated herself from her mother’s and her background’s traditions. It is of no coincidence that soon after she reenacted herself to love her mother died and due to this, she again encountered Pedro. Mama Elena was the walking personification of the rule that condemned Tita. Even after her mortal death, she came back to haunt Tita and curse her child (a child that was only as magical as Tita’s food). However, once Tita released all her anger and told the ghost of her mother how much she hated and had always hated her, she “said the magic words that would make Mama Elena disappear forever”(199). With her mother’s death, grew Tita’s new dominion over the line of tradition that she would create: one entirely different from the one her mother tried to impose.
Rosaura’s second child was a girl by the name of Esperanza or (in English) Hope. This Hope for a new way in the family of the De la Garzas was almost sabotaged by Rosaura who attempted to incarcerate this little girl with the same fate that was given to Tita. Esperanza’s aunt (Tita) would not and did not let this happen. Rosaura died a few years after giving this birth, and with her, died every tradition that could interfere with Esperanza’s destiny- that could interfere with her encounter with love. Esperanza went on to marry John’s son, thus symbolizing the new line, the new tradition, that would inhabit the family forever.
Inspired by great writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Juan Rulfo, Laura Esquivel fills what could have been empty spaces in her novel with the very typical of Latin American writing and yet extraordinary power of Magical Realism. Evidence of the supernatural is present in abundance all throughout the novel. The book itself is structured as a calendar that in each month gives the instructions for cooking a fancy platter. This connection between food and the supernatural has been established through the history of literature in almost every culture:
“The kitchen is a place of remembered magic. What are spells,
if not womankind’s oldest recipes? What is a caldron but a pot
for witches’ bouillabaisse? Snow White’s stepmother was Apple
Annie with a grudge, and Macbeth’s Weird Sisters were the soup-
chefs of Destiny. If a woman’s place is at the stove, then it is there
she spent millenniums perfecting her potions. She let her power
simmer over a low flame; then she served up the concoction, a
work of art from the hearth, to charm those who would love her
and poison those who would enslave her”(Grieve 1).
Tita is one such kitchen magician. Through her Chabela Wedding cake she caused sorrow and death because of the tears that she shed over the batter. Through her Quail in Rose Petals she aroused sexuality, heat, and vibrations within the bodies of all her victims, but especially in that of Gertrudis (who ran off literally burning) and Pedro who (with her eyes) “let Tita penetrate to the farthest corners of his being”(52). All this was caused by the intense satisfaction that Tita felt when receiving roses from Pedro and the fact that her blood mixed with the petals as she “clasped them so close and tightly to her hands and breasts”(48).
The scary sense of the word supernatural is also existent in the novel. At various times, Tita is visited by the ghost of her mentor and spiritual mother Nacha, as well as by the evil spirit of her biological mother Mama Elena. These two entities have opposite objectives. Nacha visits Tita in her time of need- whether it be to enlighten her with a flavorful dish or to aide her with a miraculous cure composed of wild leaves and teas.
Mama Elena raids Tita’s reality and like an evil witch condemns her daughter: “You have blackened the name of my entire family, from my ancestors down to this cursed baby you carry in your belly…I curse it, and you forever”(173)! Due to the fact that Mama Elena had lived a life full of lies and deception to her own husband, she never became sensitized by love, even that which should be provided to a child. Her disdain was a consequence of living a life that was not truly relished because only through self-love and love for others, could one fully reach complete integrity and self-actualization.
Moreover, Esquivel made use of Magical Realism to (to a certain extent) provide the reader with signs of comic relief and also to hyperbolize situations that needed appropriate emphasis. Tita’s coldness when she first discovered that she was to remain unmarried for the rest of her life was one of these situations. The narrator compared the infinite coldness and emptiness that ran through Tita’s chest to “black-holes” in space (15). To cover this immense cold, Tita sewed every night for the rest of her life a bedspread, that no matter how long she made it, it still could not cover her coldness. Without Pedro, her true and only love she would never feel that completeness ever again thus leaving huge gaps for icy breezes to roam within her soul. When Dr. John went to rescue Tita after becoming demented from the madness of her mother’s ranch, and he placed her in a carriage, “Chencha tossed the enormous bedspread on her shoulders and Tita was left with no choice but to let it drag behind the carriage like the huge train of a wedding gown that stretched for a full kilometer”(101). The mix of colors, patterns and textures, and the longevity that composed the bedspread symbolized the intense delusion, suffering, loneliness, and coldness that entrapped Tita throughout all the years when her life and her love had been denied.
There is a plethora of primal romance in this novel. Without that instantaneous attraction that occurs between two entranced bodies, Tita’s and Pedro’s eyes would have never met. They would have never experienced that unending desire to unite themselves entirely- heart and soul. The love that both of these characters embody with regards to the other is so grand that it makes them do irrational and unnatural things. Love will risk anything, change anything, create or destroy anything. Pedro’s act of approving Rosaura for marriage only to be close to Tita is an act of love that took great courage from him but still remains delicate when judged. It can be understood as an act of machismo from him, however, he claims otherwise to his father: “I am only going to marry out of a great love for Tita that will never die”(15). Pedro indeed keeps this promise. Not only because he waited as long as possible to have intercourse with Rosaura after marriage, but because even after all the years that passed, he never lapsed Tita’s presence from within him, and as soon as they reunited they resumed the love that they once triggered. Tita’s approach to manifesting her love is through her food. It is said that “the way to a man’s heart is through a woman’s hearth,” and noticeably, Tita did just that (Grieve 1). She captivated Pedro with many of her meals, but especially with the Quail in Rose Petal:
With that meal, it seemed they had discovered a new system
of communication, in which Tita was the transmitter, Pedro
the receiver, and poor Gertrudis the medium, the conducting
body through which the singular sexual message was passed
This dinner was the confirmation of their passion. Through it, they penetrated each other to the farthest corners of their being, and all the while, they could not take their eyes of each other. Just their looks made their senses vibrate all through out. Moreover, Tita’s breasts are constantly described to be aroused by Pedro’s mere presence: “With this amorous look of ecstasy…Pedro had transformed Tita’s breasts from chaste to experienced flesh, without even touching them”(52).
Gertrudis is an essential factor to the romantic and sexual development of the plot. She was the daughter of an illicit father: a mulatto; a slave. This is the reason for the surprising and unlikely rhythm that she shows off while dancing at the Christmas party. No one but Tita, who discovered the secret after her mother’s death, was aware of the fact that Gertrudis’s father was of African descendant. From him , she did not only inherit rhythm, but also strong sexuality and a very fertile genetic dominance. Even though Gertrudis was pale white, had blonde hair and green eyes, and the man she went on to marry was a white Mexican also, “she gave birth to a black boy”(181). Gertrudis’s body was full of a sexual heat, just waiting to detonate. Tita’s Quail in Rose Petal served as this detonator because as soon as Gertrudis tasted it, pink sweat dropped from her cheeks and her skin burned off a cloud of pink smoke as if evaporating all the liquids within her. Her sexual potential was so uplifted by the magic of Tita’s food, that as she ran outside the pink cloud that she gave off was so vast that it reached one of the rebel soldiers fighting in the war several miles away. As soon as he tasted this smell, an unknown force came over him and he dispatched in his horse quickly galloping in the direction of this arousing aroma. Gertrudis ran to him naked, for all her clothes had burned off. Her unification with the horseman was a representation of all the fire that had been stored within her for so long that it was now released in a burst of passion. The delicacy of her face, the perfection of her pure virginal body, the lust that leapt from her eyes, along with the sexual desire that the rebel, Juan, had contained for so long while he was fighting in the mountains, made for a spectacular encounter.
In this novel, sex is portrayed as the ultimate act of love. It is held high in the alter of male and female commitment. It is through this action that the most intense and profound communication can occur between two people. It is only through this preeminent act that Tita and Pedro at last confirmed and surpassed their love from mortality to eternity. An analogy is made by Dr. John when treating Tita, that all humans are born with a certain amount of passion or a certain amount of matches in a matchbox. To achieve happiness one must light up their matches one by one, little by little, until they have reached the totality of their potential bliss. However, these matches cannot be lit alone. They need a significant other, an oxygen that could keep their fire burning. If these matches are left alone throughout life, they will moisten and lose all feasibility to be lit. If this happens and at some point such a great passion is ignited that causes all the matches to light up all at once, then an uncontrollable fire will consume the soul, leaving it with no air to breathe, causing its earthly collapse and taking the soul to a luminous tunnel where an eternal life of love should take place. This is precisely what occurred to Pedro when he and Tita had sexual intercourse for the very first time. The ecstasy that he felt during climax was so powerful that he died and entered this luminous tunnel. Without him, Tita knew that she would never be able to light her candles again, thus, literally taking matches, eating them, and creating a fire of her own within her. She was successful in that she saw the bright tunnel and Pedro within it. They wrapped each other in a long embrace, again experiencing an amorous climax, and left together for the lost Eden. Never again would they be apart. They achieved their purpose in life: to find the soul mate with whom to integrate and run away with them to an infinite realm comprised of pure love. The magic produced in Tita and Pedro’s consummation was one that created such a fire that it burned down the entire barn. All this passionate fire was held within them for a very long time and when at last it broke loose, it was inextinguishable.
Love places itself as the most primary yet unexplainable element in the life of Tita. Love made her feel loneliness, desperation, and anxiety. It induced her with a new way of transmitting herself: through food. Love made her suffer from bounded traditions yet it also made her triumphant after opposing cultural forces and renewing them. It made her manifest supernatural events that hold no explication, yet flourished powerfully and erotically. Love gave her a hope, a reason to cry, a reason to live, a reason to be complete. Of greatest significance, it gave her passion in bondage and in death, all created from a firestorm of desire too long held within.