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The Encrypted Recipes in Laura Esquivel’s  Like Water for Chocolate




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Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in... -
The Film

Laura Esquivel’s novel, Like Water for Chocolate, is a contemporary novel based on romance, recipes and home remedies. Very little criticism has been done on the novel. Of the few essays that are written on this work, the majority of them consist of feminist critique. This novel would be most easily approached from a feminist view because of the intricate relationships between women. However, relationships between women are only one of the many elements touched upon in the novel. Like Water for Chocolate is a novel that uses recipes as a crypt for many important themes in the novel. Jaques Derrida defines crypt as something that, "disguise[s] the act of hiding and to hide the disguise: the crypt hides as it holds".The recipes are more than just formulas, they hold, concealed within them, memories. These crypts are revealed through food and the process of food production. Esquivel has personal ties with food and feels that the production of food creates a centre of the household. Tita, being the person most closely associated with food preparation in the novel, becomes the primary focus in the structure of her family. The crypts that Esquivel uses are opened throughout the novel in a variety of ways. Tita is constantly struggling against her mother, tradition and inevitably her own destiny. Along the way many aspects of her trials are revealed in her cooking. Eventually, Tita is able to free herself from the emotional chains that her mother has bound her. In the end her destiny is revealed, which in return sets her free from her struggles.

Esquivel begins each chapter of the novel with a different recipe. The various recipes evoke memories of different events in Tita’s life. Certain dishes are prepared at certain times of the year or for special occasions. In the words and ingredients of the recipes themselves lie the formula to produce a particular dish. Whether it be dinner rolls, wedding cake or sausages, the dish’s sole being relies on the recipes. In a sense, the recipe is the first step in a chain reaction to triggering a memory. After the food is produced, it has a texture, smell, shape, taste and colour unlike the others. These elements arouse the senses, which can trigger emotions. As mentioned above, with the creation of food a centre is created. The centre is the substructure which other elements are built. Esquivel associates certain dishes to love, lust, sickness, pregnancy, motherhood, and the supernatural. Whoever controls the food, appears also to control all those elements mentioned above, and in the novel this person is Tita. She is seen as the strong woman in the family. It is not a coincidence that Esquivel places the novel during the time of the Mexican Revolution. Historically, many women participated in this war and women had been participating since 1519, during the Spanish Conquest. This is interesting because Tita is very much a soldadera—a female soldier—herself, similar to Toci. Toci is the oldest of the Earth Mother Goddesses from the Valley of Mexico. 

If a recipe is available, open for anyone to read and follow, why would it be described as a crypt? This is precisely where the secret lies. Because one follows the recipe doesn’t guarantee that the dish is created in the way it is intended to be. A dish prepared by two different people doesn’t necessarily taste the same. Esquivel seems to believe that recipes also consist of what could be described as "hidden ingredients." These ingredients could consist of love, patience, sorrow or, perhaps, a respect for tradition.Encrypted into the recipes, these ingredients only come out after the food is prepared and eaten. Marisa Januzzi describes how complex the recipes used in the novel can be: "Interestingly, some of the foods and techniques called for, as well as metric amounts, are among the untranslated elements in the text, leaving me to conclude that maybe recipes are even less translatable, in their way, than poetry" Nancha and Tita respect this complexity and have a deep understanding of food. The two women have a relationship with food that the other characters in the novel are unfamiliar with. A good example of a character who is unfamiliar with food preparation is Rosaura, which is expressed in the episode where she attempts to cook for the family. She follows the same recipes that Tita does, however everything tastes awful:

There was one day when Rosaura did attempt to cook. When Tita tried nicely to give her some advice, Rosaura became irritated and asked her to leave the kitchen. The rice was obviously scorched, the meat dried out, the dessert burnt. But no one at the table dared display the tiniest hint of displeasure, not after Mama Elena had pointedly remarked: "As for the first meal Rosaura has cooked it isn’t bad. Don’t you agree, Pedro?" . . . Of course, that afternoon the whole family felt sick to their stomachs.

These hidden ingredients are not only encrypted in the recipes but also in Tita’s subconscious. She is only subconsciously aware of what she is doing while preparing the food. Esquivel uses magical realism to express some of the emotions that Tita puts into her cooking—allowing them to assume a visible form which is more easily expressed-- which will be discussed more in depth. The hidden ingredients are encrypted into Tita’s subconscious partially through Nancha. Although Nancha is the family cook and nanny, she is the mother figure in Tita’s life. She raises Tita in the kitchen. After all, Tita was born in the kitchen on a flood of tears caused by her mother chopping onions while preparing dinner. Through all of the years she spent in the kitchen, she was unconsciously building a complex relationship with food. Preparing dishes became more of an experience than a necessity to survive. This idea is expressed more in depth in the article, "Romancing the Cook," by Susan Lucas Dobrian. Dobrian describes meal preparation as the following:

The kitchen becomes a veritable reservoir of creative and magical events, in which the cook who possesses this talent becomes artist, healer, and lover. Culinary activity involves not just the combination of prescribed ingredients, but something personal and creative emanating from the cook, a magical quality which transforms the food and grants its powerful properties that go beyond physical satisfaction to provide spiritual nourishment as well. 

The recipes are crypts in another aspect as well. They are passed down from generation to generation. They are held within the family. Tita passes the recipes to Esperanza (Rosaura’s daughter), and Esperanza passes them to her own daughter (the woman that narrates at the beginning of the novel). The recipes that are received tell a stories while keeping old memories alive. Memories are kept through the words, ingredients and foods that are created. The women keep them protected within their own spheres. With the passing of the recipes, the one who passes it also teaches the younger how to prepare the dish, not just to follow the directions. They are taught patience and knowledge of the different qualities of all the ingredients that go into making a dish. Maria Elena de Valdes says that by passing recipes, it allows a woman her space:

The essential questions of health, illness, pregnancy, childbirth, and sexuality are tied very directly in this novel to the physical and emotional needs of the body. The preparation and eating of food is thus a symbolic representation of living, and Tita’s cookbook bequeaths to Esperanza and Esperanza’s daughter, her grandniece, a woman’s creation of space that is hers in a hostile world. 

The younger generations learn the beginnings of how to develop a special relationship with food. If an outsider were to follow the same recipe, the memories remain safe because they are unaware of the stories and memories hidden in each dish.

Because of Tita’s understanding of food, she acquires a certain position in her household and that is the center. She prepares the food they eat that sustains their survival. In some aspects she provides life. With this position she is linked to everyone else’s lives. Although she never has children of her own, she becomes more of a mother to Rosaura’s children than Rosaura is. She is Pedro’s lover. She is like a daughter to Nancha. These relationships are a little bit different than what we might think of as normal relationships. The most abnormal being the relationship Tita shares with her mother. They are related by blood, but that is where the family ties end. Theirs is a complex relationship. Her mother is jealous of Tita and Pedro’s love, not because it is wrong, but because it was something that she once had. She won’t allow Tita to be happy, prohibiting her from having the life that she wants and in order to do so, she forces a ridiculous tradition upon her. Tita is not allowed ever to marry because as the youngest, she has to take care of her mother until her mother dies. In an interview with Claudia Loewenstein, Esquivel gives her view on Mama Elena: "Mama Elena is a castrating woman because she is a product of a castrating society. She is also a victim of repression but with all of her strength she was unable to rebel against tradition"  The ties between Tita and her mother are so stretched and tangled that they cannot be fixed.

Even after Mama Elena’s death, her ghost haunts Tita. The memory of her mother is so embedded within her subconscious she is unable to get rid of her contempt for her. Derrida explains this phenomena by stating, "The inhabitant of a crypt is always a living dead, a dead entity we are perfectly willing to keep alive, but as dead, one we are willing to keep, as long as we keep it, within us, intact in any way save as living" Although Mama Elena is dead, Tita is keeping her alive through memory. In other words, Tita must kill her mother, who is already dead, in order to stop being haunted. The word "killing’ is used here as a means to an end. She needs to somehow stop the memory of her mother from continuously haunting her. Eventually, she is able to chase off Mama Elena’s ghost, and how she is able to do so will be discussed later.

In the novel, Tita’s cooking has a profound outcome on the other characters. Her meals have more effect than what we usually experience while eating. When we eat a meal, we eat to suffice our hunger or to fill our stomachs. However, sometimes food can be the cause of illness and the origin of disease. Tita’s cooking causes two specific "illnesses" in the novel. Illness is in quotations because it is meant in a metaphorical and symbolic sense. The first of these illnesses is suffered by Rosaura and eventually leads to her death. The medical reason for Rosaura’s death is indigestion and gas. Rosaura blames her flatulence and obesity on Tita’s cooking. She even begged Tita to cook her special meals in order to accommodate her health problems. Tita follows Rosaura’s request, but her body continues to produce gas and she dies. Gas is not only a noun, but is also a verb that means to harass, torment or torture. This better explains the cause of Rosaura’s death. She is tortured by love. She watches the way that Tita and Pedro are together, she knows that what they have is real. Rosaura desperately tries to have love, by going through the "rituals" of love. The rituals could be marriage, children, and intimacy. Things that people that are in love, do together. Unfortunately, she is missing the one vital ingredient which is love. Going through these rituals moves her further and further from what she wants. She is harassed by the relationship that Tita and Pedro share. This hate and discontent fills slowly over time inside of her. Literally, she balloons out and is at the bursting point. It is at this pinnacle that she suffocates on the gas that she produces.

The other important illness mentioned relates to Mama Elena. There comes a point in the novel in which Tita and Mama Elena’s relationship is almost completely abolished. Mama Elena can no longer eat Tita’s food. It is by no coincidence that it is the two women overwhelmed with jealousy of Tita become ill from her cooking. Mama Elena believes that the food tastes as though it has been poisoned. She refuses to eat and begins to lose weight. The phenomena of food tasting like poison can be approached from the viewpoints of each of the women. From Tita’s point of view it can be seen as if Tita placed poison in the food, not physically, but emotionally. Out of her sheer hatred for her mother, she is unable to cook for her out of the goodness of her heart, which results in the production of a poison-like flavor. On the other hand, it can also be seen that Mama Elena tastes the bitterness in the food due to her own emotions. Mama Elena is unable to expel her feelings of jealousy and loathing for Tita. Kristine Ibsen feels that this is the reason for the bitterness in the food: "Elena’s bitterness towards Tita leads her to taste poison in everything she eats; although she finally consents to let Tita prepare her meals, she secretly expels the food from her body with syrup of ipecac, and eventually dies from vomiting"

The bitterness that Mama Elena tastes and the gas and halitosis that Rosaura suffers are examples that food is encrypted into the text. The emotional and psychological elements that are occurring in the book are produced in just this manner. The food being the prime object that triggers the "illnesses" are too much associated with the psyche and not a physical ailment. Tita, being the center of the household, the provider of food, is the one that allows these emotions to be released, but they are released physically.

Illness is only one of the many symptoms released through Tita’s cooking. Another emotion that is expressed physically through her cooking is love. After all, this novel does fit the criteria of a love story. Tita and Pedro share a passion for one another that the others have not experienced (except Mama Elena for a brief period). Tita even uses food as a metaphor for the passion she feels. The title of the novel also happens to be a metaphor for one of her emotions as well. A good example of how prevalent food is in Tita’s psyche is exemplified in the following quote:

. . . when she first felt his hot gaze burning her skin. She turned her head, and her eyes met Pedro’s. It was then 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—her face, her stomach, her heart, her breasts—like batter, and unable to endure his gaze she lowered her eyes and hastily crossed the room. . . 

The emotions described in this passage are very powerful. She allows these emotions to overwhelm her and take control of her in the kitchen. Nothing else could compare to the scene when she prepares her recipe for Quail in Rose Petal Sauce. In the dish she uses rose pedals, given to her by Pedro, as a main ingredient because Mama Elena forbids her to them. Tita holds the roses so tightly to her chest that her blood and sweat and the rose petals all intermix. She extends so much of herself in preparing the meal that her emotions are extended to the other characters, especially her sister Gertrudis. Gertrudis is so overwhelmed with passion and desire that she runs off naked and jumps on the horse of a federal troop and rides off with him. Gertrudis then works as a prostitute for many years because she is unable to quench her desires. Dobrian describes this act as, "Esquivel inverts the prominent virility of the romance hero and transfers the hyperbolic nature of sexuality to Tita through the magical effect of her cooking to her sister. . ."  The others at the table feel the effect of Tita’s sensuous dish, however not to the extent that Gertrudis does. Even Mama Elena finds herself longing for the touch of her old lover. However, the purpose behind the creation of the exotic dish was for Tita to relay her feelings to Pedro, but she had to keep them hidden, disguised in the food. Valdes demonstrates how the sexuality between the two lovers is shared:

Tita’s emotions and passions are the impetus for expression and action not through he normal means of communication but through the food she prepares. She is therefore able to consummate her love with Pedro through the food she serves. This clearly is much more than communication through food or a mere aphrodisiac; this is a form of sexual transubstantiation whereby the rose petal sauce and the quail have been turned into the body of Tita. 

Once again, Tita is able to overpower the other characters with an emotion (lust) so potently in her cooking that it is revealed in the physical realm as well.

Tita has almost developed certain "powers" because of her control with food. However, this is the only way that she is allowed to express herself. Her mother keeps her under lock and key with the excuse of tradition. Because of tradition, Tita has no life of her own. Her future was already planned from birth. The description of her birth couldn’t be a better omen for how her life was going to be led, symbolized through her tears. The following passage describes Tita’s entrance into the world:

Tita was sensitive to onions, any time they were being chopped, they say she would just cry and cry. . . Once her wailing got so violent that it brought on an early labor. And before my great-grandmother could let out a word or even a whimper, Tita made her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves, and cilantro, steamed milk, garlic, and of course, onion. Tita had no need for the usual slap on the bottom, because she was already crying as she emerged; maybe that was because she knew then that it would be her lot in life to be denied marriage. 

Her birth represents the theme of destiny in the novel. As Esquivel states in an interview in Salon Magazine, "Tradition is an element that enters into play with destiny, because you are born into a particular family—Jewish or Islamic or Christian or Mexican—and your family determines to some extent what you are expected to become". Tita is raised her whole life knowing exactly the way the rest is going to be spent, alone with a mother that she despises. She is set free from her arranged destiny when Mama Elena dies, not physically, but when she dies in Tita’s memory. With this turning point, Tita’s destiny becomes something entirely different; her life is turned around.

Esquivel uses the phrase "a turning point" because there is in fact a precise moment that Tita is allowed a new destiny. Her mother dies half way through the novel, however she continuously haunts Tita. The ghost of Mama Elena doesn’t approve of Tita’s relationship with Pedro. The ghost bestows a number of warnings, curses actually, whenever she is upset. The only way that Tita is able to break the hold that Mama Elena has on her is when she acknowledges that it is her life to live and she will not let anyone else plan it for her. In the following words that Tita screams at her mother’s ghost, Mama Elena disappears:

‘I know who I am! I am a person who has a perfect right to live her life as she pleases. Once and for all, leave me alone; I won’t put up with you! I hate you! I hate you, I’ve always hated you!’ Tita had inspired the magic words that would make Mama Elena disappear forever. The imposing figure of her mother began to shrink until it became no more than a tiny light. As the ghost faded away, a sense of relief grew inside Tita’s body. 

With these words, the life that Tita had been born to live had been dramatically altered forever. Now she could experience freedom.

Tita’s new destiny entitled her to the man that she loved, Pedro. Her final destiny however is rather sicklying ironic. Tita and Pedro, although much aged, are able to express their love for one another. Unfortunately Pedro dies while they are making love. Tita is horrified until she remembers the story told to her, by the doctor, which had been passed to him from his grandmother:

[grandmother] said that each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves; just as in the experiment, we need oxygen and a candle to help. In this case, the oxygen, for example, would come from the breath of the person you love; the candle could be any kind of food, music, caress, word, or sound that engenders the explosion that lights one of the matches. For a moment we are dazzled by an intense emotion. A pleasant warmth grows within us, fading slowly as time goes by, until a new explosion comes along to revive it. Each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul. . .You must of course take care to light the matches one at a time. If a powerful emotion should ignite them all at once they would produce a splendor so dazzling that it would illuminate far beyond what we can normally see; and then a brilliant tunnel would appear before our eyes, revealing the path we forgot the moment we were born, and summoning us to regain the divine origin we had lost. The soul ever longs to return to the place from which it came, leaving the body lifeless. . . 

Tita takes the advice literally and begins swallowing matches one by one, until a fire begins to blaze in her belly. She is quickly enveloped by flames. The doctor’s grandmother was right, in the end she sees Pedro at the end of a dark tunnel consumed by light. Tita finally is able to have the future that she had wanted her entire life. Destiny had been altered ever since the death of Mama Elena’s ghost. In the death of the ghost, Tita is able to live..

Although Tita does eventually gain a personal freedom in the end, she suffers from the ties of tradition during he life. Tita and Pedro were never able to marry. She also never became a mother, probably the one thing that she was born to do. From another perspective we can say that she provides life for the others in the novel. She never literally gives life by giving birth, but she does become a mother figure. With the theme of motherhood predominating in the story, pregnancies also play a role. In fact, they are an extremely important element in the novel. Throughout the novel there are a total of four different pregnancies, each playing a significant role. Despite the numerous mediums represented in the novel, the act of being pregnant is symbolic in itself. Pregnancy is a crypt, the mother is keeping a child concealed within her womb. The womb, like a crypt, holds as it hides. It keeps the unborn baby safe and kept out of the dangers of the outside world. The only person that is truly able to relate with the child is the mother because there is a special bond. However, this rule doesn’t seem to apply to Tita and her relationship with Rosaura’s children. To start from the beginning and continue chronologically, the pregnancies go as follows: Tita is born, then Roberto, followed by Esperanza, and finally Tita’s false pregnancy.

The story begins with the most odd birth of them all, Tita is delivered into the world cascading down her own flood of tears. She is born and then raised among the smells, sounds and tastes of the kitchen. As discussed earlier, her flood of tears is a symbol for the life that she is destined to live. Nonetheless, when the tears dry, only the residue of salt remains, in which Nancha sweeps up and uses in her cooking for a many years. In this sense, Tita literally is in the food she prepares. Although Mama Elena is Tita’s birthmother, Nancha is her main source of love and nurturing. In fact, Nancha is the one who "nurses" Tita because Mama Elena is unable to do so, as described in the following passage:

When she was only two days old, Tita’s father, my great-grandfather, died of a heart attack and Mama Elena’s milk dried up from the shock. Since there was no such thing as powdered milk in those days, and they couldn’t find a wet nurse anywhere, they were in a panic to satisfy the infant’s hunger. Nancha, who knew everything about cooking—and much more that doesn’t enter the picture until later—offered to take charge of feeding Tita. She felt she had the best chance of ‘educating the innocent child’s stomach,’ even though she had never married nor had children. 

Nancha and Tita share more of a mother-daughter bond than Tita does with her real mother. Throughout this novel, there is a theme that expresses the belief that the best care provider doesn’t necessarily have to be the child’s birthmother. The special bond that is supposed to develop between mother and child is not bestowed upon all characters. Nancha and Tita both are natural care providers and are very good at what they do. However, this is not true of Mama Elena, she could not be defined as a care provider. She and Tita are more enemies than they are family. One would think that a mother would want what is best for her child. Also that she would like to see her grow up, get married, have children, and, most importantly, be happy. However, in Mama Elena’s case, the only person’s happiness that she cares about is her own. Tita is there for her benefit and hers alone. Tradition is a far more important issue than her daughter’s happiness or freedom, which is unusual from most mother-daughter relationships. Mama Elena’s strong hold on the tradition results in hatred between the two women. There has never been a foundation of love between the two, so they really have no reason to even try and save their relationship. Despite Tita’s rough relationship with her mother, she still has the ability to nurture and protect. She even has a better knack for motherhood than her sister Rosaura.

Rosaura gives birth to two children in the novel. The first pregnancy produces a boy named Roberto. Tita develops a special bond with Roberto right from the beginning. When Rosaura goes into labour, Tita happens to be the only one around and she delivers him. She is forever touched by this moment, as she describes her emotions, "The baby’s cries filled all the empty space in Tita’s heart. She realized that she was feeling a new love: for life, for this child, for Pedro, even for he sister she had despised for so long". Her attachment even becomes stronger when Rosaura is unable to produce milk and the wet nurse dies. Miraculously, Tita is able to feed Roberto by herself. Valdez gives a reason for the phenomenon: " . . .Tita is able to take the infant and nurse him in spite of the fact that she has not given birth. Her breasts are filled with milk not because she wishes she were the other of the child, but because the child needs to eat and she is the provider of food". Valdez reinforces the idea that one doesn’t have to be a mother in order to be a chief provider. She continues by comparing the care that Tita provides to communion in the Catholic Church:

Tita’s cooking controls the pattern of living of those in her household because the food she prepares becomes an extension of herself. The culmination of this process of food and art and communication is food as communion. The transubstantiation of Tita’s quail in rose petal sauce into Tita’s body recalls the Roman Catholic doctrine of the communion wafer’s becoming the body and blood of Christ, but on a deeper level it is the psychological reality of all women who have nursed an infant. 

The food that baby Roberto receives (Tita’s breast milk) is encrypted in the sense that it is coming from an unlikely source, in fact, more of an impossibility. A woman who has never been pregnant is unable to produce breast milk, but in Tita’s case this is not true. The production of milk is one of the many ways that Esquivel encrypts food in the novel. Tita begins to rely on Roberto for unconditional love, and in turn, Roberto becomes strongly attached to Tita. Both Rosaura and Mama Elena can see what is going on, and neither of the women approve. In order to severe the ties between Tita and the infant, Mama Elena convinces Pedro and Rosaura to move to San Antonio. The distance that is put between Tita and Roberto propels Tita into a deep depression. She is no longer able to provide for the infant. The effect is even worse on Roberto and he dies as a result of the separation. The infant won’t eat and dies of physical and emotional starvation. Roberto has no ties to Rosaura, and can not live. Tita blames his death on her mother and on Rosaura, which even further inflames her hatred for the women. It appears strange that a child would die because it was estranged from its aunt and not its mother. This odd relationship is how Esquivel expresses the importance of the care provider in the family. Tita understands food and has an amazing ability to express herself both literally and metaphorically in her cooking.

Tita’s motherly instincts also take control when Rosaura gives birth to her second child, Esperanza. Tita and Esperanza have even a stronger bond than Roberto and Tita shared. This is due to the fact that they have much in common from the beginning. Esperanza is born three months premature, like Tita. Mama Elena’s death effected Rosaura so much that it brought on an early labor. Esperanza, also being the only daughter, was also considered the youngest, thus she is forced to follow in the footsteps of Tita, which greatly upsets Tita. She is furious at her sister for following the absurd tradition and will do anything to stop her from following it. For example, Pedro wants to name the baby girl after Tita’s full name, Josefita, but she adamantly refuses. Tita’s feelings are expressed as, "But Tita refused to hear of it. She didn’t want her name to influence the child’s destiny". Due to the bad shape that Rosaura was in after giving birth, Tita once again was left to take care of the baby. She refused to breast feed her like Roberto for fear of becoming too attached. Instead she fed Esperanza in the same way Nancha had fed her, with teas and gruels. Esperanza spent most of her time with Tita in the kitchen. She grew up surrounded by the same smells and the warmth of the kitchen. The birth of Esperanza plays a large role in the novel. Her character parallels Tita’s almost perfectly. However, Esperanza’s life takes all of the good turns that Tita’s was unable to take. She does not have to experience the type of mother that Mama Elena was—because of Rosaura’s early death—she also is not denied from her true love. Esperanza’s destiny is the one that Tita should have had, but due to unfortunate situations, one that she was unable to experience. Tita didn’t miss out completely though, through her strong love for Esperanza she lived through Esperanza’s experiences. Even more importantly, the recipes, secrets and the powers of the kitchen were passed down to Esperanza: "Esperanza went to the best school, with the objective of improving her mind. Tita, for her part, taught her something just as valuable: the secrets of love and life as revealed by the kitchen".. This fact more than anything allowed Tita to live on through Esperanza, along with past relatives.

Rosaura’s pregnancy with Esperanza was an important as well as a symbolic event. However, Tita experiences a "pregnancy" that is slightly more of a symbolic representation. Pregnancy is put into quotation marks because Tita’s pregnancy is not genuine. It is actually a curse thrust upon her as a punishment from the ghost of her dead mother. It is punishment for consummating her love for Pedro. The pregnancy is not entirely a figment of Tita’s imagination; she experiences real symptoms. Tita stops getting her period, she experiences morning sickness, her breasts swell, and the most odd thing of all, her stomach actually grows. The symbol of an essentially "empty" womb represents the unborn child in Tita. It is a symbol of her destiny or the fact that her destiny does not hold children in her future. Her womb is a crypt that hides nothing—which in hiding nothing in fact reveals that the hidden crypt is nothing. It is a crypt that is hiding empty space, or in other words an empty destiny.

Because Tita’s womb holds no infant, she obviously never gives birth. Although, she does end the pregnancy without giving birth, she does so by ending the curse. As discussed earlier, Tita chases off her mother’s ghost forever when she expresses her real feelings of hatred for her mother and her desire for freedom. When Mama Elena’s ghost is banished, the curse ends:

Tita had said the magic words that would make Mama Elena disappear forever. The imposing figure of her mother began to shrink until it became no more than a tiny light. As the ghost faded away, a sense of relief grew inside Tita’s body. The inflammation in her belly and the pain in her breasts began to subside. The muscles at the center of her body relaxed, loosing a violent menstrual flow. This discharge, so many days late, relieved all her pains. She gave a deep peaceful sigh. She wasn’t pregnant. 

Esquivel uses the word "discharge," a synonym for the following: ejection, emanation, radiation, spurious output and exhalation. With the non-existent fetus being repelled from her body, she is freed from the empty womb, which also releases her from the destiny she was tied to. Her life would not be led under her mother’s boot. Although Tita doesn’t have children in the future, she does experience a future with Pedro—something that formerly was not possible. Throughout everything that we have discussed thus far, Laura Esquivel has used a specific approach in order to express main points in the novel. All of the symbols and significant events have been derived from an important literary utensil: magical realism. This important element in the novel is what gives it its life and a twist all of its own. Anything is possible, however not too far-fetched. A baby could be born on its own river of tears couldn’t it? Isn’t it also possible that a bunch of fighting chickens could spin so fast they dug themselves a hole into the ground? Well maybe not exactly, but it isn’t too far out there. It is this stretch of the imagination that makes it so fun. If you consider the word: magical realism, it consists of both reality and magic intertwined. David K. Danow describes magical realism in his book, The Spirit of Carnival, as containing specific elements: "While negotiating the tortuous terrain of credibility, magical realism manages to present a view of life that exudes a sense of energy and vitality in a world that promises not only joy but a fair share of misery as well. In effect, the reader is rewarded with a perspective on the world that still includes much that has elsewhere been lost. . ."

Esquivel uses magical realism to express happiness as well as sorrow. Magical realism is constantly used in order to express Tita’s emotions, which are then revealed through food. For example when Tita’s tears fall into the batter of Rosaura’s wedding cake causing everyone to get ill, or the whole episode when the characters are overwhelmed with feelings of lustfulness after eating Tita’s infamous Quail in Rose Petal Sauce. Esquivel takes a point she is trying to make and then proceeds to push it a little further, to emphasize it a little more, thusly giving the text a magical element. We as Americans feel this effect even more so, due to our culture. Magical Realism is not something commonly used in English literature and is something rather different to us. Danow addresses this issue, "That ‘magical dimension’ is hypostatized in literature by the superimposition of one perceived reality upon another, as seemingly fantastic events that may nevertheless appear to the indigenous, heterogeneous peoples of the region as an indubitable norm are embedded within what outsiders perceive as distinct, exclusive, and the only ‘true’ reality". In other words, because we are not as familiar with the culture described in Esquivel’s writing, we view the text slightly differently than a reader raised in a similar culture would.

The main focus of magical realism in this novel is not only to exaggerate a specific point, but also as a function of humour. Ibsen describes Esquivel’s humour as "women’s humour" which consists of intimacy through support and healing, whereas "men’s humour" consists of domination of power and sexual joking. However in the case of Like Water for Chocolate there is a role reversal and the women are the ones that initiate the sexual jokes—even if represented in the magical effect. This reversal, even just in humour, also shifts power. Women are portrayed with the respect and honour that is normally attributed to men. The humour provided by the magical events produces a comedic relief that shifts the readers’ focus away from the more depressing aspects of the novel. The mass nausea that occurs on Rosaura’s wedding day as a result of Tita crying into the batter relieves us of the sad fact that Tita’s true love is marrying her sister.

Like Water for Chocolate is a novel that is intertwined with love, hate, relationships, humour, tradition, destiny and magic that are all revealed through food created in the kitchen. The various recipes that introduce each chapter hide within themselves a story. Behind the story are people, events and traditions. The recipes are passed through the generations, which is in fact a crypt within a crypt. Each generation adds a new layer through the events experienced in their lives. Each time a relative cooks one of the family recipes, a story is being told, a memory is being recalled. Quail in Rose Petal Sauce means more than a favourable dish, it is a trigger that sends the message of two lovers lustfulness that could not be reached. The memory would not be relived if not for the creation of the dish, whose ingredients lie within the recipe. In this novel, the person placed in the centre of the home is a woman, which is very rare in Latin American literature. The novel is centered on the lives of women and rarely focuses on men. Esquivel uses the reversal of gender roles to the story’s advantage because it is fresh and different. Magical realism is the final touch that gives the novel an aspect of comfort, which makes it all the more enjoyable.

Mackenzie E. Dennard

Extract from the Film
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