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

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)