Border crossing – Como agua para chocolate

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Of Como agua para chocolate, Cecilia Lawless once wrote that “Laura Esquivel has written an unclassifiable work that simultaneously breaks and brings together boundaries of genre so as to concoct something new in Mexican literature.” (p.216)

“In linking the act of narration and the act of cooking, this novel doubles as a community cookbook. The novel intrigues me because it equates cooking and eating with both a sense of self and a sense of community. Like community cookbooks, which so often cross and collapse formal borders and share some characteristics of autobiography, history, etiquette, and folklore texts, this novel crosses boundaries as well. It collapses borders – those between fiction and instructive cookbook; reading about food and wanting to eat food; woman as provider of sustenance and woman as object of consumption. Indeed, rewriting and rethinking borders is a primary focus of this text. Like Water for Chocolate takes place along the Mexican American border, so that the setting underscores the novel’s exploration of the limitations of the woman’s role in the kitchen, and its movement between the forms of novel and community cookbook.” (pp.216-217)

She asked: “How does this cookbook/novel participate in the act of creating community among its readers?” (p.217)

“[An] association between food and sociability is a strong factor in Like Water for Chocolate, where constant slippage occurs between the narrative and cook-book discourses of the text. This novel demonstrates a particular Latin quality that encodes dining as a rite of eating, speaking, and narrating about food. As you eat, you tell stories of other great gastronomic moments. Eating and storytelling become intertwined. In such a way, food operates on various levels and rarely ceases to act as a mode of communication, a base for community.” (p.218)

Right up to the last chapter, the plotline follows with unnerving accuracy the recipe for a gothic novel. Here is Eve Sedgwick’s summary of the European gothic […]: “You know the important features of its mise en scene: an oppressive ruin, a wild landscape, a Catholic or feudal society. You know about  the trembling sensibility of the heroine and the impetuosity of the lover. You know about the tyrannical older man [woman] with the piercing glance who is going to imprison… them. You know something about the novel’s form: it is likely to be discontinuous and involuted, perhaps incorporating tales within tales, changes of narrators, and such framing devices as found manuscripts or interpolated histories.” The introduction of food in Like Water for Chocolate serves to subvert or at least parody these very conventions. In spite of many troubles – a brush with insanity, the jealousy of her sister, repression by her mother – Tita manages, through her cooking, to develop her own language and sense of self, combining erotics with independence.” (p.219)

“In Like Water for Chocolate the culinary “secrets” are made public.” (p.224) This notion of secrets being made public is certainly a theme throughout the novel and works on multiple levels…

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Cecilia Lawless ‘Cooking, community, culture: A reading of Like Water for Chocolate‘ in Recipes for Reading, Ed. Anne Bower, Amherst, Massachusetts, University of Massachusetts Press, 1997

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the feminist kitchen

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Ksenija Bilbija sums up much of the interest in the kitchen as site of story in Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate when she wrote:

“For feminists, the kitchen has come to symbolize the world that traditionally marginalized and limited a woman. It represents a space associated with repetitive work, lacking any “real” creativity, and having no possibility for the fulfillment of women’s existential needs, individualization or self-expression.” (p.147)

[As an aside, I also found her discussion of the kitchen and the alchemist’s laboratory, especially as the two spaces might be read in Cien años de soledad, p.149-, interesting)

Ref: Ksenija Bilbija ‘Spanish American Women Writers: simmering identity over a low fire’ STCL 20(1) Winter, 1996; pp.147-165

On the suspension of academic skepticism

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The (misread) blending of genres in Como agua para chocolate has been presented as a reason for the poor critical reception it initially enjoyed. Kristine Ibsen explains that “to read Esquivel’s novel the critic must, to paraphrase Susan Leonardi, suspend his or her “academic skepticism” and admit the pleasure of the text.” (pp.133-134) [I really like this challenge]

According to Ibsen, “a careful examination of the text reveals that Esquivel has neither replicated the male canon nor popular “women’s” literature. In fact, underlying the appearance of conventionalism may be detected as playfully parodic appropriation that serves not only to undermine the canon but, more importantly, to redirect its focus to an aesthetic project in which such binary oppositions as “high art” and “popular” literature are overturned.” (p.134)

Ibsen also refuted a dismissive review of the book’s magic realism (George McMurray commented that the episodes of magic realism “never would have been written without the precedent of Cien años de soledad“, quoted p.133) with a really interesting comparison of the two texts. She wrote: “By appropriating the resources of magic realism, Esquivel has consciously selected a mode that has become so much a part of the canon that it would be easily recognized by anyone even remotely familiar with contemporary Spanish-American literature. Thus, although the hyperbolic episodes of magic realism that appear throughout Como agua para chocolate may indeed be indebted to Cien años de soledad, there is a marked difference in perspective between the two novels. While García Márquez’ narrative centers on a re-examination of broad historical trends, Esquivel’s work produces a meaning independent from the original text by concentrating on the individual experience in relation to history: rather than emphasizing issues of sexual domination and violence upon which the the Americas were founded, Esquivel “feminizes” her novel through the exaggeration of traits traditionally associated with women such as irrationality and sensitivity.” (pp.134-135)

Ref: (italics in  original; emphases in blue bold mine) Kristine Ibsen ‘On Recipes, Reading and Revolution: Postboom parody in Como agua para chocolate.’ Hispanic Review 63(2) (Spring, 1995), 133-146

Forming identity through food and romance in Como agua para chocolate

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I like what Regina Etchegoyen had to say about the role of the culinary in Como agua para chocolate:

“En la novela, la vida familiar cotidiana se mezcla con elementos fantásticos, creando así una atmósfera de realismo mágico. El humor que se consigue mediante la exageración y la magia se combina con lo trágico de la situación: un amor que sólo puede conseguirse la muerte.
Pero es la comida y sus efectos el aspecto primordial de la obra. El placer que provoca la comida tanto en su preparación como en su gusto, es la base temática y estructural de Como agua para chocolate. […] La comida y sus funciones, a través de la protagonista Tita, se convierten en el centro de la novela. La novela/libro de recetas/folletín presenta los secretos de la vida ye del amor mediante la comida.” (p.119)

“La comida le ofrece [a Tita] lo que la realidad le niega: expresar su sexualidad y su amor.” (p.120)

“Tita ve el mundo filtrado por su experiencia culinaria.” (p.121)

“La cocina se convierte en un estilo de vida por medio del cual Tita se define como persona. Sus manos operan en función a sus quehaceres domésticos. Sus manos son instrumentos que tejen para canalizar sus frustraciones y escriben un recetario donde narra su historia para dejar plasmada una prueba de su amor y de su talento único. Pero cocinan, ante todo, como parte esencial de su personalidad y de su vida. Escribir, tejer y cocinar son actividades esenciales de la protagonista, por medio de las cuales puede expresarse abiertamente como mujer.” (p.121) …”Escribir, actividad tradicionalmente masculina, se entrelaza con tejer y cocinar, actividades tradicionalmente femeninas.” (p.122)

“La comida, además de poseer una función temática en la novela, tiene una marcada función en el nivel estructural de la narrativa. Las recetas no sólo inician cada uno de los capítulos de la novela, sino que también unen todo lo narrado, pues encadenan todas las acciones que sucedem. Las recetas establecen el marco narrativo. Cada receta abre el capítulo, se interrumpe y concluye anticipando el siguiente capítulo. Cada receta evoca el recuerdo de un hecho particular en la historia de amor de Tita. Las recetas, además, conectan lo narrado con el momento de la narración en el que la narradora (sobrina/nieta de Tita e hija de Esperanza) relata.” (p.122)

Again, the blurring of genres allows all of this work to take place in the text…

Ref: Regina Etchegoyen ‘Como agua para chocolate: Experiencia culinaria y autorrealización femenina.’ Cuadernos hispanoamericanos Jan. 1996: 547pp.119-125

Como agua para chocolate – a pastiche of genres

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I’m interested in how criticism of Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate focused in on Esquivel’s (mis)use of genre. Critics have made a number of interesting comments on how her deployment of many genres works in the novel, Susan Lucas Dobrian being an example:

“As a postmodern parody, Como agua para chocolate represents a pastiche of genres. It is all-in-one a novel of the Mexican Revolution, a cookbook, a fictional biography, a magical realist narrative, a romance novel, and serial fiction. Amidst this generic slippage, the underlying element that ties these genres together within this novel are the assertions of femininity found in popular culture. Although on the surface Esquivel structures her novel as a popular romance, the generic hybridization and parodi stance open and free the novel from the restricted and hermetic formulas that tightly structure the typical romance narrative. Linda Hutcheon [-p.57] emphasizes this effect of parody when she posits modern parody as a liberating strategy that, rather than criticizing the original text, may instead be directed towards the social codes that enable such a narrative. Indeed, Esquivel adds a political charge by situating her narrative against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution. In doing so, the author both forges an underlying theme of rebellion, change, and momentum  in the gender politics of the novel, and confronts Mexican popular myths of femininity within the bloody conflict. By waging war, both literally and figuratively, between repression and liberation, a new story comes to light, or perhaps, better said, the same story is read in a new light.” (pp.56-57)

Ref: Susan Lucas Dobrian ‘romancing the cook: parodic consumption of popular romance myths in Como agua para chocolate.’ pp.56-66 Latin American Literary Review Vol. 24, No. 48 (Jul. – Dec., 1996)

Theoretical tourism – an interesting academic concern

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Introducing her critical reading of Como agua para chocolate (de Laura Esquivel), Cecilia Lawless writes:

“Laura Esquivel has written an unclassifiable work, which simultaneously breaks and brings together bou[n]daries of genre so as to concoct something new in Mexican literature. Como agua para chocolate. Novela de entregas mensuales con recetas, amores y remedios caseros (1989) is a mixture of recipe book, how-to household book, socio-political and historical document of the Mexican Revolution, psychological study of male/female as well as mother/daughter relations, an exploration into gothic realms, and ultimately, an extremely readable novel. My interest in this text lies in the very basic beginnings of questioning and uncovering – “cooking-up” – the layers of possibility that this text presents. In essence, every analysis of literary work acts as a recipe ….” (p.261)

However, she observes: “how can Western feminist theory find access to this text without appropriating yet another Latin American work?
In drawing a parallel between literary theory and cooking recipes, I would admit that I am against a form of theoretical tourism on the part of the first world critic where the margins become a linguistic or critical creation, a new poetics of the exotic; however, I do enjoy tasty cooking.” (p.261)

I like this term – theoretical tourism – and it does apply well to certain criticisms of this text…

Ref: Cecilia Lawless ‘Experimental Cooking in Como agua para chocolate.’ Monographic Review / Revista Monográfica Vol.VIII pp.261-272 (I don’t have a full reference here, but I believe it is 1992)