Exploring the burning pleasure and pain of physical desire is Laura Esquivel’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’. It is an erotic tale in the purest sense, delving the agony of repressed love, and the intense delight and suffering of which we are capable. It evokes the smells and tastes of the body, as well as those of the kitchen, showing the power of the senses to overwhelm us.
Tita falls in love with Pedro. Their eyes meet, and:
‘She understood how dough feels when it is plunged into boiling oil… The heat that invaded her body was so real. She was afraid she would start to bubble… like batter.’
Even a single look can be erotic. Pedro finds Tita grinding ingredients in the kitchen and his gaze transforms her ‘from chaste to experienced’ without even touching. She is ‘like water for hot chocolate’ because she is ‘on the verge of boiling over‘ with desire.
Every erotic experience is conveyed in terms of food and cooking, rising heat, flesh seared and long simmering. Chillies appear in recipes repeatedly, symbolising the fiery heat of passion. Tita’s emotional journey is told alongside and through her creation of cuisine.
Tita’s fearsome mother, Elena, insists that Tita must never marry, being destined to take care of her until the day she dies. Pedro agrees to marry older sister Rosaura instead, declaring it as a means of staying close to his beloved, but, of course, as a servant declares, ‘You can’t just exchange tacos for enchiladas!’
Passion is contained and beaten into submission as surely as Tita herself whips eggs into meringue. Each dish provides a metaphor for Tita’s love life and cooking remains her only way of expressing her emotions, with magical results. Weeping as she beats the wedding cake for Pedro and Rosaura, her tears enter the mixture. As each guest takes a bite, they are overcome by an intense longing for their lost loves, by sadness at opportunities missed and sacrifices made. Their despair is such that they end by vomiting it from their bodies, like poison.
When Tita pours her sexual yearning into her Quail in Rose Petal Sauce, her blood mixing with the soft petals, she induces in her guests a sexual frenzy. The dish brings on a ‘voluptuous delight’, acting as an aphrodisiac so potent that Gertrudis, Tita’s other sister, feels ‘an intense heat pulsing through her limbs’. She rushes to an outdoor shower to cool off but her body is so powerfully charged that the wooden boards catch fire.
Gertrudis’s sexual allure is carried upon the air to the nose of the captain of the rebel troops, Juan, who leaves the field of battle to whisk her off, quite naked, to become his lover. The scent of her ‘red-hot fire’ draws him and he recognises ‘the lust that leapt from her eyes, from her every pore’. He scoops her onto his horse and they make love for the first time, immediately. ‘The movement of the horse combined with the movement of their bodies.’
Gertrudis is so filled with amour that one man cannot satisfy her, and we hear that she seeks out employment at a brothel, before joining the rebel troops, and rising to the position of general. There, she meets Juan once more, and they become married, fulfilling the destiny denied Tita and Pedro. In many ways, Gertrudis’ path throws that of Tita into sharp relief, she being confined to the kitchen and to watching over other family members, while Gertrudis, literally helps lead a revolution. She so firmly throws off all conventions, fully embracing her sexual nature, that we might argue that she, rather than Tita, would have made a more fascinating heroine.
Once Mama Elena dies, we hear that Tita and Pedro conduct a fragmented, illicit love affair, coupling discreetly, to avoid upsetting Rosaura. Theirs is a life half-lived. When, at last, Rosaura’s passing allows Tita and Pedro to enjoy one another without guilt, so joyful are they that they are, magically, consumed by flames, fulfilling the prophesy that: ‘If a strong emotion suddenly lights all the matches we carry inside ourselves, it creates a brightness that shines far beyond our normal vision and then a splendid tunnel appears… and calls us to recover our lost divine origin.’
Laura Esquivel explores the tragic consequences of denying love: for Tita, who is forbidden from marriage by her mother; and, as we discover, for her mother, Elena, whose thwarted love resulted in an affair which brought on her husband’s death and sowed the seed for her own discontent and bullying of Tita.
‘Like Water for Chocolate’ is a tale, beautifully, enchantingly told, of our struggle against what is forbidden, of denial and of fulfillment, and of our helplessness in the face of desire.
I read in translation, by Carol and Thomas Christensen. The book was released in the USA in 1993, and simultaneously at cinemas (still shots featured here are from the film).
Laura Esquivel lives in Mexico. In an interview with Salon Magazine, she notes: ‘I’m interested in that relationship between outer reality and inner desire. It’s important to pay attention to the inner voice, because it’s the only way to discover your mission in life, and the only way to develop the strength to break with whatever familial or cultural norms are preventing you from fulfilling your destiny.’