There are matters of the heart, and there are matters of the stomach. Both heart and stomach experience pleasure and pain, and both are intimately related, with love serving sometimes as condiment and sometimes as the main course alongside such culinary treasures as quail in roses and an oxtail soup infused with fiery chiles.
Love and food are the grand subjects of Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate, a masterpiece of magical realism first published in her native Mexico in 1989 and appearing in English translation three years later. The setting is a borderlands ranch in a place where rural tradition prevails. In the case of Tita de la Garza, that tradition has forbidden her from accepting their neighbor Pedro’s proposal of marriage, for as the youngest daughter, Tita is responsible for caring for her mother, Mama Elena, and keeping the ranch going.
There’s an option, though, as Mama Elena explains: Pedro can always marry Tita’s older sister Rosaura. Pedro thinks it over and agrees, incurring the anger of his father, who asks his son why he’s forgotten his vow of love for Tita. Replies Pedro, “When you’re told there’s no way you can marry the woman you love and your only hope of being near her is to marry her sister, wouldn’t you do the same?”
That’s a recipe, of course, for a particular kind of unhappiness. Pedro and Rosaura wed while Tita retreats into the kitchen, building on the considerable skills of Nacha, the ranch cook, a quiet but constant presence throughout the story even after her death. Tita has a sixth sense for all things food-related, knowing exactly what to cook and exactly when to do it. She is also imbued with what the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called the tragic sense of life. Unamuno wrote, “There is no true love save in suffering, and in this world we have to choose either love, which is suffering, or happiness.” Tita lives up to the apothegm, serving up sensory wonders while bursting into tears without any apparent reason. “For her,” writes Esquivel, “laughing was a form of crying.”
So when Pedro brings her roses, she goes out onto the patio, catches half a dozen quail, and cooks them up in rose sauce. Life goes on, with all its complications and twists. Rosaura, for her part, develops both an unfortunate problem with flatulence and a “voluminous, gelatinous body.” Such a condition can’t be maintained forever, and when it ends as it must, Tita and Pedro are free to confess their love, a love that burns so ardently that the whole ranch is consumed in fire, sparing only a cookbook in the mountain of ashes.
Fans of Mexican country cooking will revel in the YouTube series “De Mi Rancho a Tu Cocina” (“From My Ranch to Your Kitchen”), in which a cheerful abuelita serves up such wonders as squash with roast pork and quesadillas with freshly ground chiles and tomatoes. Watch a few episodes, cook yourself something delicious, read or reread Like Water for Chocolate, and revel in the splendor of love, heart, and innards alike.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.