Latin American Women and Food in Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate"
Latin American Women and Food in Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate"
"Like Water for Chocolate": Latin American Women and Food
Food is life and death, profanity and sacredness, an intoxicating aphrodisiac and an addiction, abjection. Food refers to material and spiritual experience, embodies the most covert fantasies, fears, and passions. (Jankauskait 73)
Born upon the kitchen table amid the varied and sensuous aromas of Latin American food, Tita cannot escape her relationship to food, both by the decree of her traditional mother Elena and the request of her mother-like caretaker, Nacha. That such a tension between subjection and liberation exists within the first two pages of the novel suggests the nature of Laura Esquivel’s rich exploration of feminist themes for Latin American women in Like Water for Chocolate. One such feminist theme involves the relationship between Latin American women and food. The novel explores this theme in two ways: first, by suggesting the relationship extant between food and feminine voice; and second, by demonstrating the subversive nature of the food relationship to the dominant power-structure, especially though not limited to its tendency to create female community.
Food and the Feminine Voice
The novel throughout suggests a relationship between cooking and feminine voice. In a tradition which relegates women to a “[traditional]…culinary role” (Peterka 40), making “[k]itchens/recipes…the sanctioned sites…to which women’s lives have been officially circumscribed” (Spitta 198), women find themselves in sore need of a voice. The similarities, therefore, “between culinary and literary creation” (Jaffe 202) that inhabit Like Water for Chocolate from beginning to end, demonstrate the recognition on the part of Latin American women that food provides them with an opportunity to seize a voice, and with it, to poignantly articulate their experiences.1
The way in which women seize this voice is through what Spitta terms “poetic recipes”—or, “poems structured as recipes” (Spitta 201). These recipes contain not only the ingredients for food, but also the ingredients of life, as apparent in Esquivel’s narrative, which begins with ingredients for food; however, as Tita—confined to the kitchen—is necessarily interrupted by the story occurring around her, these ingredients for food adopt the ingredients of life as well—both the former and the latter are recipes, and what’s more, the same recipe. They are conjoined—Tita does not and cannot separate the recipes passed onto her from Nacha from the realities of her life, for one helps to articulate the other and vice versa. Tita bakes her sister’s wedding cake, but by doing so, her inner ire cannot help but find expression in said cake. Tita’s recipes, her food, contain an embedded discourse, a story, an expression of her existence—thus Tita, keeping with her fellow Latin American women, creates poetic recipes.
Food and Creativity
Liberation in Subjection
In this way, Latin American women find, as Tita does, liberation in their subjection to the kitchen; for in the kitchen, they can utilize the preparation of food, the innovation of recipes, to express themselves, whereas other arenas are closed to them entirely. Just as recipes involve the artful measurement and mixture of ingredients, so too do poetic recipes involve careful measurement of concepts and an artistic mixing of words. One of the key ways food allows for voice is in its ability to facilitate higher creative thought.
Authors like Viramontes assert, “‘I have never been able to match [my mother’s] nopales, but I have inherited her capacity for invention’” (as quoted in Spitta 198); and similarly, Ferré says, “‘The important thing is to apply the fundamental lesson we learned from our mothers…the secret of good writing, like that of good cooking, has nothing to do with gender, but rather with the wisdom with which the ingredients are combined’” (as quoted in Spitta 199). Spitta draws the female literary tradition, particularly in the Latin American tradition, as one seeking creativity in abiding by and discovering “new recipes, as well as by learning to stoke literal and figural fires” (Spitta 199). Apparent in Spitta’s tone is the desire to reconcile the kitchen as an historical avenue for female voice with the modern Latin American female author’s choice to articulate this historical avenue in postmodern terms.
Cooking and Community
Poetic recipes allow a space for women not only to express but also to retain their experiences, the richness of their tradition—a tradition which modern Latin American women are no longer seeking to abandon as a relic of male oppression. Instead, Latin American women seek to reclaim food and the kitchen as a valuable contributor to voice and an essential element of their cultural past (Peterka 40). For while Ferré holds that nothing differentiates female and male writing, the traditions do differ (as cited in Spitta 199): again, as Spitta states and Esquival highlights by setting up Tita’s subjection/liberation in the kitchen, Latin American women are informed by the oppressive female culinary role. However, they now seek to recognize this role as a valid avenue for expression and a valuable deposit of historical female voices.
It is Gertrudis who prays “a silent prayer, asking that Tita be granted many more years in which to prepare the family recipes,” for should Tita die, “her family’s past would die with her” (Esquivel 179). This past is contained within the recipes passed on to Tita from Nacha. Her act of writing the cookbook is simply one that records the lives and histories already contained within the family recipes, and notably, the lives and recipes of women who came before: “[n]ot a mere ‘rule for cooking,’ the recipe, like literature, delivers a story, a history, a social context, and sociological insight” (Peterka 48). That it is Tita’s great niece who relates the experiences of Tita’s life, by means of a recipe book which has miraculously survived the destruction of the ranch, highlights the relationship between food and voice. Tita has a voice, with everything a voice implies, “as long as there is someone who cooks her recipes” (Esquivel 246). This recipe book, in fact, provides an excellent place for discussion of the subversive nature of the culinary Latin American female voice, particularly through community.
Food as Discourse
For, without a doubt, this relationship of Latin American women to food proves subversive to the dominant power structure, not only in its ability to create a voice for the diminished female, but also in its tendency toward community. Food, by nature, “signifies interaction, mutual bonds, and communality” (Jankauskait 73). However, as González illustrates, food and its consumption may indicate power-structure, complete with elements seeking to support or subvert it:
Eating itself may be an act of conquest or a gesture of tribute and reverence, the meal an affirmation of hierarchy or a kind of abnegation. And food may hide poison, or tears, or the ingredients that stimulate love or induce forgetfulness. (González 268)
Such words certainly resonate with Esquivel’s novel, wherein, in a literal sense, Mother Elena believes Tita to be hiding poison in her food (Esquivel 132), Tita’s tears magically poison her sister’s wedding cake (Esquivel 35, 39-40), her blood stimulates passionate love (Esquivel 51), and Chencha’s ox-tail soup brings about a sort of forgetfulness that enables Tita to face life again following the death of her nephew (Esquivel 123). In these cases, the food itself contains a discourse on the present power structure and its choice to diminish Tita and her community—which will be defined further on. Tita and her community, by means of the food, attempt to subvert their power-structure by utilizing the food itself and the poetic recipe. If women have utilized the avenue of food to find a voice, they have also used it to voice their discontent with the present power-structure: “In ‘poetic recipes’…poets in fact displace recipes…away from kitchens…onto an authorial space from which they mock and critique the subjection of women [that form affirms]” (Spitta 200). But what is this power structure, and exactly how does community fit into this scheme of subversion?
Mama Elena as the Power Structure
The power structure is represented by Mama Elena, a woman who seems more male than female and whose sense of tradition relegates Tita to the life of subjection, from which and through which she ultimately finds liberation. The patriarchal structure circumscribes women to the kitchen, seemingly depriving them of voice—so Mama Elena places Tita in the kitchen, demanding her unfettered obedience and silence, as evidenced by Mama Elena’s outrage when Tita does choose to speak up (Esquivel 199).
However, through this subjection, Tita is empowered to undermine Mama Elena’s authority, not only by expressing herself through her food and poetic recipes, but also by her building of a mother-daughter like relationship with Nacha—the carrying on of the tradition “which passes through kitchens and is transmitted from mother to daughter” (Spitta 199)—as well as Chencha, John’s Kickapoo grandmother, and to some extent Gertrudis, all of whom seem to form a “recipe sharing community…who appreciate what Sor Juana calls the ‘natural secrets’ of the kitchen” (Jaffe 205). Furthermore, the division of Esquivel’s novel—a story revolving around a creative, oppressed woman who ultimately finds liberation through her subjection and in those who appreciate this tension—mimics a menstrual cycle (Jaffe 205).
Community as Creative Impetus
This community undermines the authority of Mama Elena by the nature of its existence; not only does it allow Tita a voice, but it also allows her the ability to be innovative and creative, as suggested by—in this case—voice’s synonym ‘expression.’ Tita herself notes Mama Elena’s fear of her possessing a voice, or the ability to be innovative and creative, when she worries about her possible pregnancy, comparing the fear to that “she felt when she was cooking and didn’t follow a recipe to the letter” (Esquivel 198). Tita knows that “Mama Elena [might] find out and, instead of congratulating her on her creativity, [would] give her a terrible tongue-lashing for disobeying the rules” (Esquivel 198). Only when Tita confronts this fear and indulges the “temptation to violate the oh-so-rigid rules her mother imposed in the kitchen…and in life” (Esquivel 198) does her belly soften, her breasts cease to ache, and her menstrual flow return—each of these, it is important to add, are all essential symbols. The former two relate to the idea of food and consumption; the latter to the regularity of the community in which Tita operates.
Subjection Versus Liberation
The tension between subjection and liberation, and the attempt of Latin American women to reclaim the kitchen as a valid avenue of voice—especially in terms of historical tradition—adds to the depth of Esquivel’s sensuous Like Water for Chocolate. Food manages to create a space, via the circumscription of women to its preparation, wherein women can find a voice. Poetic recipes, then, contain this voice and transmit whole traditions, stories, and experiences. Communities of women who subverted the patriarchal power-structure through food and poetic recipes, in the hopes of no longer having to be placed by virtue of gender into any hard-and-fast role of subjection, resemble Tita and her attempts to keep alive the traditions of her family, the stories of her community, and undermine the authority enforcing a diminishing and oppressive role. This element of female culture and history demands a more prominent place at the table of feminist criticism.
1Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the veritable patron saint of contemporary Latin American writers (Spitta 198), is the first to note the parallels between food and voice; in defense against the Inquisition of her intellectual pursuits at the convent, she notes that the kitchen has already provided her with many secrets and bears a natural inclination to the intellectual (Peterka 40). Additionally, Sor Juana’s sense of indebtedness to and passion for the kitchen finds credence in the fact that she authored the first cookbook of New Spain (Jaffe 211).
- Esquivel, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romance, and Home Remedies. Trans. Carol and Thomas Christensen. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.
- González, Mike. “Food in Latin America.” Contemporary Latin American Cultural Studies. Eds. Stephen Hart & Richard Young. London, Eng.: Arnold, 2003. 268-277
- Jaffe, Janice A. “Latin American Women Writer’s Novel Recipes and Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.” Scenes of the Apple: Food and the Female Body in Nineteenth - and Twentieth-Century Women’s Writing. Eds. Tamar Heller & Patricia Moran. Albany:
State U of New York Press, 2003. 199-213
- Jankauskait, Margarita. “Food, Gender, and Representation.” The Anthropology of East Europe Review 21.1 (Spring 2003): 73-76.
- Peterka, Martha Lane. “Filosofias de Cocina: Culinary Art as Literary Metaphor from Sor Juana to the Present.” Monographic Review 21 (2005): 40-51.
- Spitta, Silvia. “The Spice of Life, the Taste of Diversity: Latin/a American Poetic Recipes and Iconoclastic Prayers.” The Americas Review 24.1-2 (1997): 197-226.
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Miller, Michelle. "Latin American Women and Food in Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate. HubPages. 15 Aug. 2011 (<----date of access). <http://theseattlegirl.hubpages.com/hub/Latin-American-Women-and-Food-in-Esquivels-Like-Water-for-Chocolate>.
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