The time: the turn of the 20th century (1910-1917); the place: a ranch somewhere far off in Mexico. Something is cooking in the kitchen—and yes we do mean that literally and figuratively. The narrator of Like Water For Chocolate is the great-niece of Tita De la Garza, the main protagonist of the novel.
"It wasn't easy for [Tita] whose knowledge of life was based on the kitchen to comprehend the outside world" (1, 7). From the very beginning, we realize that Tita's life is really, really unfair. Here's a point by point summary of just how sucky things are in her life:
- Her mother, Mama Elena, is a strict, abusive, tyrannical, borderline psychopath whose main goal in life is to keep Tita as a slave.
- Pedro, the love of Tita's life, marries her sister, Rosaura, instead of her.
- Her other sister, friend, and confident, Gertrudis, is kidnapped by a general in the revolutionary army and ends up working in a brothel.
- Her best friend, mother figure, and culinary guru, Nacha, passes away.
- John, doctor and gringo, loves her, but Tita's not sure she can love anyone but Pedro, who, honestly, is a bit of a brat.
So Tita is up against a lot. Luckily for us, she's a true fighter and muscles through her hardships with grace and cunning. One way she does this? She expresses her love for Pedro through her food. Halfway through the novel, she escapes from the ranch with John. After Nacha dies, she keeps her close by cooking and continuing on the family recipes.
Cooking, for Tita, is a form of therapy (chicken enchiladas are good for the soul.). It helps her through physical and mental abuse by her mom, losing her nephew, depression, and more. Of course, there are other elements besides family drama—there's a war going on.
And not just any war—for Mexico, it was the BIG war, the one in which peasants and natives came together under the leadership of the likes of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata to revolt against the current dictatorship. These men and women wanted a free Mexico, a democratic Mexico, and set the country boiling, much like the women under the tyrannical rule of Mama Elena.
Although Like Water for Chocolate playfully appropriates resources from the Spanish American canon (most notably, from Magical Realism), the novel may be identified more closely with popular serial formulas such as the sentimental novel and its descendants. Laura Esquivel has chosen to use conventions from popular discourse that will be easily recognized by the reader: Tita, treated like a servant in her own home, is denied marriage to the man she loves because of the social sanctions represented by her mother; there is a growing tension between the lovers prior to the consummation of their relation; there is a series of impediments and tragedies, including the death of Pedro’s son and Tita’s subsequent emotional crisis; Tita is rescued by a kindly older man (the fact that he is North American makes him particularly innocuous) whose selfless love cannot be reciprocated; there is an obligatory (false) pregnancy; and there is even a scene in which Tita swoons. In short, like the archetypal romantic heroine, Tita must go through difficult trials, but she is ultimately rewarded at the end as love triumphs. In addition, as is typical of serial discourse, there is a continual play in the novel of climax/anticlimax as each crisis is resolved and a new one takes its place, as well as a tendency to fall into melodramatic and overwrought prose.
The appropriation of popular discourse, with its emphasis on such “feminine” values as nurturing and selflessness, is a means of undermining the patriarchal system. Furthermore, since such genres are forms of discourse often written by women and for a female public, Esquivel reinforces the idea of a community of women. Just as the rituals associated with cooking provide Tita with a sense of security, the fact that these popular genres often rely on formulae provides women with an order and a control that may not exist in their everyday world. Nevertheless, a close reading of Esquivel’s text reveals that although the novel replicates popular forms on the surface, a deliberate inversion of roles has been effected that allows the author to appropriate this genre and challenge it at the same time. One obvious variation from the norm is that, unlike the characters in standard romance fiction, in which passivity is considered a virtue, Esquivel’s women are stronger and more decisive than their male counterparts. The head of the family is a woman, one of the sisters becomes a general in the Revolution, and it is Tita, not Pedro, who eventually dares to stand up to her mother and to Rosaura as well. Moreover, even before her rebellion, Tita wields an underground power through the strange effects produced by her cooking as she “penetrates” her beloved through the sensual power of her culinary creations. Finally, although love triumphs at the end of the novel by uniting the lovers in death, Like Water for Chocolate further challenges the sentimental canon as it negates the formulaic “happy ending”—at least in a traditional sense.
Esquivel invites the reader to reassess conventional approaches to literature by experiencing the pleasure of the text, through flagrant sight—gags, and, especially, through the sensorial stimuli—the scents, tastes, colors and textures—induced by food. The use of the taste and scent of food as a device to stimulate memory is not unique, but Esquivel approaches the subject playfully: Tita compares her emotional and physical states in terms of ludicrous culinary metaphors that question both the seriousness of canonized discourse and the timeworn metaphors of popular literature. The narrator’s means of expression is humorous but at the same time concrete; it transcends abstract notions of femininity and returns them to immediate experience. The “culinary” metaphors, along with the recipes and household remedies that frame the narrative, allow Esquivel to rescue the neglected oral tradition of female discourse by creating a chain of characters through which the story (and the recipes) have been handed down (from Nacha to Tita to Esperanza to the narrator). Thus, although the novel revolves around a love story, Tita’s awakening as a woman is not dependent upon men but, rather, upon her own realization of this ancient tradition.