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Like Water for Chocolate

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In the book and film Like Water for Chocolate (written by Laura Esquivel, then made into a film in 1992), Tita has cried in her mother’s womb whenever her mother chopped onions, and is born on a flood of her own tears right in the kitchen. Tita becomes a great chef, and she ends up using the food she cooks to communicate with her would-be love, Pedro. Tita’s mother has refused to let Pedro marry her youngest daughter, who by tradition must remain single to care for her mother in old age. So Pedro has married Tita’s older sister in order to be close to Tita.

It’s a story of cruel power in the form of Tita’s mother and repressed longing in the form of Tita and her two sisters, none of whom do well under the aegis of tradition. Married to Pedro, Rosaura lives in misery with a husband who fathers two children but doesn’t love her; Gertrudis ends up abandoned in a brothel (thought she later returns triumphant, having overthrown tradition and become a Revolutionary general herself); Tita sneaks around with Pedro and ultimately is rejoined with him, but their long-frustrated passion kills them. Set during the Mexican Revolution, this story is an allegory about the ills of the power in the hands of the few.

What’s special about it is that the food that Tita prepares has magical powers. The wedding cake she is forced to make for her sister and Pedro, and into which she has wept, makes the guests themselves weep and then vomit. The quail in rose petal sauce that she prepares later inflames the lust of everyone at the table.

This book and movie connect us to sometimes mystical but almost always genuine power of real food to affect our emotions. I say “real” food not out of some snobbery, but because I don’t think it’s always true about corporatized or pre-packaged food.

There are exceptions. Years ago at Penn State, I taught a course called Women and the American Experience. Because the course was gen ed, I took a kinder, gentler approach to feminism—the students collected oral histories from women they knew and at the end of the term we had a potluck where all 60 students were to bring food made from a recipe passed down from the women in the family. One young woman brought an Entenmann’s packaged coffee cake. She was visibly upset and said that for years her family had believed her grandmother had gotten up at the crack of dawn on Christmas and made the traditional coffee cake by hand. After she’d badgered her grandmother repeatedly for the recipe, she had finally admitted that it had been store-bought all these years and just heated up with some fresh confectioner’s sugar icing drizzled over it. I couldn’t have planned it better as a commentary on how women have coped. Oppression, whether that grandmother’s or Tita’s, can often be dealt with in ways we don’t expect. And food has been a major tool over the decades.

There’s a better video excerpt (, but it won’t embed, so here’s the rose petal scene (with awful dubbing):