Esquiviel knows how to talk the talk, and she does it in two distinct manners:
In some ways, she's straight to the point and direct. For example, those cooking instructions explicitly tell us how to prepare each dish at the beginning of every chapter:
Place five egg yolks, four whole eggs, and the sugar in a large bowl. Beat until the mixture thickens and then add two more whole eggs. (2,75)
But wait, there's more. A softer, more confessional tone comes out after the first instructions are given:
Tita was so sensitive to onions, any time they were being chopped, they say she would just cry and cry. (1,2)
We feel like we're in a kitchen, gossiping with a friend, or listening to a grandmother tell a tale from back in the day. Whether the story is true or not ("they say") doesn't matter too much. We're just happy to be invited along for the tale of love, family drama, and bandits.
What's magical realism you ask? Let's just say it's got next to nothing to do with top hats and fuzzy white rabbits. It's all about fantastical, mystic, and epic themes. Just look at how Tita was born, on a table in a kitchen, "[…] washed into this world on a great tide of tears that spilt over the edge of the table and flooded across the kitchen floor" (1,3).
That obviously can't happen in real life, but right off the bat we suspend our ideas of reality (realism: get it?) and allow ourselves to enter a world where spirits talk, matches are eaten, and food can make people burn down bathrooms, with influences of from fairy tales and Mexican mythology.
Okay, so what's up with that? Why does Esquiviel feel the need to make everything so loco? Maybe it's a way of coping with the harsh reality of, um, reality. Think about it: why do we love flicks like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, the Matrix, etc.? It's a way to escape our sometimes tough world and enter another one.
Now, if you'll excuse us, there's an episode of Game of Thrones with our name on it…
Like Water for Chocolate, or "Como Agua Para Chocolate," can be taken two different ways.
The first, and more innocent, of the two is the common Mexican expression to indicate anger. We're not surprised that much of Tita's anger comes from Pouty Pedro:
[…] it seemed [Pedro's] rage dominated the thoughts and actions of everyone in the house. Tita was literally "like water for chocolate"—she was on the verge of boiling over. (8,513)
The second meaning can be understood in a more risqué manner. In Mexico, hot chocolate is prepared with water (not milk). When the water is hot enough (near boiling) it's ready to receive the chocolate. All that heat and almost bubbling action describes a state of arousal or passion, like that between Pedro and Tita, Juan and Gertrudis, and, yes, even Mama Elena and her ill-fated lover, Jose.
With the last lines of the novel, we are left in the hands of Tita's grand-niece, who states:
[…] perhaps I am as sensitive to onions as Tita, my great-aunt, who will go on living as long as there is someone who cooks her recipes. (12, 867)
Hmm, well, if that's true, maybe we can gain some closure in the fact that Tita dies so suddenly. While she's not with us physically, her memory is alive in her recipes and alive in her food, which has been passed down to her grand-niece. Not to mention the fact that she died in a moment of ecstasy (orgasm) and will spend the rest of her after-life with Pedro.
Love. It conquers all. Even death.
Food. It makes us cry (dang, onions) it makes us laugh, it can even make us throw up (we'll pass on the wedding cake, thanks). It's nourishing to the body and the soul, and the ending in Like Water for Chocolate is true to both notions.
It's a dog-eat dog-world during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917. While the ranch seems removed from the actions and events at times, Esquivel never lets us forget that there's a pretty brutal battle being fought. We see it in the decline of fancy-schmancy food:
They had to get every possible use from this pig, one of the few animals that had survived the visit from the revolutionary army had made to the ranch a few days before. (5, 291)
We also feel it in the violence from the bandits:
They raped Chencha. Mama Elena […] suffered a strong blow to her spine and was left a paraplegic, paralyzed from the waist down. (7, 439)
And, we also see it echoed in the characters, especially in Tita. Just as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata wanted to revive democracy and put Mexico back into the hands of all Mexicans, Tita wants her life in her own hands, and eventually rejects the dictatorship of Mama Elena.
Like Gertrudis, Tita's able to escape the ranch at the end of chapter 6; when she returns, she's a changed woman:
For the first time Tita firmly held [Mama Elena's] gaze, and Mama Elena lowered hers […]
without words, they made their mutual reproaches and thereby severed the strong tie of blood and obedience that had always bound them together" […]. (7, 440-441)
It had been a long time coming, but ch-ch-changes are bound to happen in the midst of a Revolution.
To the table or to bed
You must come when you are bid.
Not only is this a Mexican proverb, it's a command to the domestic parts of the house—the kitchen and the bedroom. For our girls/women readers, it may be hard to imagine your male friends, partner, uncle, or any old geezer commanding you to do something. But back in the day, women had to listen to the men. Heck, back in the day women couldn't vote. Or drive. Or live in their own apartment.
Tita, however, may be an exception. She's not exactly bid to the kitchen, she's born in it. Plus, she likes it. And, she's never bid to the bed—she's taken there by Pedro (she wants him as much as he wants her). Even so, she, and all the women in Like Water for Chocolate, live in a violent and male-dominated world.
Reading through the ingredients, recipes, and romances that mix together in Like Water for Chocolate doesn't require too much heavy-lifting. In large part this is due to minimalistic dialogue and straight to the point summaries. Not to say that the book is easy; it's filled with complex themes and references to Mexico's violent history. And some of those recipes like "Chiles in Walnut Sauce" (12, 798)? Yeah, we'll leave those to the professionals…
Exaggeration is alive in this tale—just look at what happens to Gertrudis when she eats the quail in rose sauce, or when Mama Elena turns into a (goodness, greatness) great ball of fire:
The firecracker moved fast, approaching Pedro, whirling crazily, with enough violence to make the lamp closest to him explode into a thousand pieces. (10,686)
Obviously, a person can't change into fire (cue magical realism), but with this and many other instances, we really feel the impact of, say, two lovers separated by an evil mother.
Esquiviel is all about lush food descriptions and heaps of sensory images (use of taste, smell, sound):
The chiles anchos, with their membranes removed, are also toasted—lightly, so they don't get bitter. (4,215)
She's also pretty good at describing steamy romantic scenes, which, at times, even make us sweat:
Tita, on her knees, was bent over the grinding stone, moving in a slow regular rhythm, grinding the almonds and sesame seeds. (4,216)
These, along with fantastical episodes (wedding cake orgy!), weave a story that we experience like a five-course meal. Not only do we read the words, we get shivers from them, we smell the lard, we taste the toasted chiles. We really, really crave some Mexican food.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Ah, the color white. So many things come to mind: virginity, purity, cleanliness, freshness, a new start, and, um, ghosts? Allow us to explain:
Tita stood as if in a trance, staring at the whiteness of the sheet; only for a few seconds, but long enough to cause a sort of blindness […] when she looked at Rosaura […] she saw only a snowy ghost. (2,114)
This is the moment in which Tita is forced to look the truth in the face and it ain't pretty. It's one thing to make a wedding cake for your sister and true love's wedding, it's another thing to see the sheet specifically made for the let's-get-it-on moment.
It makes total sense that Tita would be traumatized by this image. That sheet means the end of any hopes of being Pedro's wife, and the end of any normal relationship with Rosaura. It also means complete powerlessness—Mama Elena chose the fate of the two sisters, as well as Pedro.
Matches are oh so much more than a way to light a candle in Like Water for Chocolate. When Tita finally escapes from under the rule of Mama Elena, she goes to live with John, who she watches make matches.
Okay, so what does that mean besides that the guy is a science nerd? Cue the metaphor: According to his grandmother, Morning Light, every person has a box of matches inside them that must be lit.
Tita fears that her matches have not only been dampened, but soaked through by her tough past. But John, ever the cheerleader, believes the opposite and encourages her to stay away from those who will try and extinguish her soul (we're guessing that's Mommy dearest).
The trick is for Tita to figure out who can light her fire. Is it Pedro? Dr. Brown? Jim Morrison? Only time will tell, and later on John gives a box of matches to her as a gift. Not exactly roses, or chocolate, but it's the thought that counts, right?
Just the name alone gives us the heebie-jeebies. The dark room is where Mama Elena bathes and is the only place she is naked and vulnerable.
Only Tita, whose mission it was to serve her until death, was allowed to be present during this ritual, to see her mother naked. (5,327)
Why is it such a big deal for her to be in her birthday suit? For her, the body and anything remotely sexual causes her pain. Her love and stud muffin, Jose, was killed suddenly, and that was her one chance at happiness.
On the flipside, when Pedro and Tita have sex for the first time in the dark room, it is transformed to a place of glowing light:
Plumes of phosphorescent colors were ascending to the sky like delicate Bengal lights. (8, 538)
For the two love birds, the dark room is a place to be free and safe from the eyes of the rest of the ranch. As Bob Marley so eloquently crooned, "in the darkness there must come out the light."
And, as Dr. Brown told Tita, "[…] each of us is born with a box of matches inside of us but we can't strike them all by ourselves" […]. What they were both saying is that even the darkest of places can be lit up, ignited, sparked, excited. Even the dark room. Even the dark depths of Mama Elena's soul.
Just as the dark room is where Mama E is most vulnerable, here it is the same for Tita. The main difference is that her domain is warm and full of light, color, and good people like Nacha:
Everything on the kitchen side […] on through the door leading to the patio and the kitchen and herb gardens was completely hers—it was Tita's realm. (1,7)
In her home, Tita leads a different lifestyle from her sisters. She works all the time and feeds her family, much like stereotypical mother role, and spends most of her time around Indigenous women—Nacha and then Chencha, who exist solely in the kitchen, away from the elite social circles of Mexico at the time. This causes in her a greater spiritual and mythical bond to food and the world around her. And even though the kitchen is a domestic space, Tita uses it to express herself and derives power and control from her cooking.
The narrator is the grandniece of Tita De la Garza, whom the story revolves around. The novel starts in the first person point of view, in a conversational-like manner:
To keep from crying when you chop [an onion] (which is so annoying.) I suggest you place a little bit on your head. (1, 1)
Turns out the narrator gets this sensitivity to onions from her great-aunt, and the novel switches from first person to third person to tell Tita's saga. It's a close third person, though, so we feel like an invited guest to the story:
Tita had no use for the usual slap on the bottom, because she was already crying when she emerged; maybe that was because she knew then that it would be her lot in life to be denied marriage. (1, 2)
You might be wondering, as we were, why the grand-niece tells the story of Tita and not…well, Tita. Perhaps it's to show the importance of passing down stories (and recipes) so as not to repeat history. Or, maybe to add a tall-tale feeling to the novel, which is already heavily influenced by magic and fantasy. Read on for more on that…