For the love of Mexican cuisine: Revisiting “Like Water for Chocolate” on its 30th anniversary

The scene where Pedro is hypnotized by Tita’s dangling breast as she hovers over a metate, an indigenous grinder, used to pulverize the almonds and sesame seeds for her turkey mole, stayed with me for more than 20 years. I was a pre-teen and probably too young to be watching  “Like Water for Chocolate,” a movie based on the 1989 book by Mexican writer Laura Esquivel. At the time of its release, it was the highest-grossing foreign film in the U.S. To this day, it remains in the top 10 of the most profitable foreign-films.

The film left an undeniable mark on me. As a child, I did not have the words, experiences or range of emotions to understand what the two were feeling — but I knew I wanted to feel the passion of a love so intense that the possibility of a thousand worlds erupts when you lock eyes with someone you love. I recently rewatched the film for no other reason than to be swept away in the power of love. What I didn’t expect was to find a heedy homage to Mexican culture, the power of cuisine and the emotions it provokes — which are akin to love. 

In 1992, the year of the film’s release, Mexican restaurants were not receiving Michelin stars or James Beard awards. “Like Water for Chocolate,” showcased the complexity and sophistication of Mexican cuisine.. The movie spotlights diverse ingredients and highlights indigneous culture in a way that we’ve only begun to see celebrated in the last decade in restaurants such as Pujol in Mexico City, La Guelaguetza in Los Angeles and Tzuco in Chicago. It is a rich and revolutionary piece of cinema examining cultural and gender politics through a tale of food.

The tale revolves around Tita de la Garza, a young woman from the Rio Grande, who, because of bad fortune, is prohibited from marrying. Family tradition dictates that the youngest daughter in the De La Garza family must attend to her mother until she dies. When Pedro, a handsome and local boy arrives to ask for Tita’s hand in marriage, Elena, the matriarch, rejects his request and instead offers Rosaura, her eldest daughter, as a wife. Pedro agrees to the union. He justifies his actions with the belief that marrying Rosaura at least allows him to live in the same home as Tita, therefore being close to his one and true love. The story unfolds with these two lovers grappling with the consequences of this decision and the enormity of their feelings for one another. 

Under the tyrannical and watchful eye of Mama Elena, Tita works to stifle her feelings for Pedro and live up to the high standard of a respectful and diligent Mexican daughter. But the matriarch fails to underestimate the power Tita wields to communicate her feelings through food. Tita goes to work preparing the wedding feast for her sister and lover. The meal for 180 guests — chicken capon, where a rooster is castrated and fattened up before slaughter — is symbolic of both lovers living the life planned out for them, and sacrificing themselves for the greater good. Tita spends the entirety of the meal prep engulfed in her grief, crying while mixing the caker batter for the meringue-topped wedding cake. Nacha, the house cook and Tita’s closet confidante, urges her to shed all her tears before the wedding and sends her off to bed. Nacha dips a finger in the mixture to see if the salt from Tita’s tears changed the consistency or taste. The taste doesn’t seem off, but almost immediately Nacha is overcome with a feeling of longing for the love of her youth, and sadness for what could have been and never was.

Just before guests sit down to eat and celebrate the union of Pedro and Rosaura, Pedro whispers declarations of undying love to Tita. Tita’s mood changes and she leaves the party as the wedding cake is being served in order to share the news with Nacha. As guests consume the dessert made at the throng of Tita’s pain, nausea and sorrow overwhelms the entire group. Guests roil in vomit and tears as they experience the manifestation of the chef’s deepest pain, formed during creation. Tita finds Nacha laying dead, clutching a photo of a love never realized. 

Tita’s life and destiny may be controlled by her mother, but through her command of the kitchen, she is able to break free and bring others into her world. She fights. Not with words or weapons but with champandongo, a hearty casserole made of ground beef, pork, corn tortillas, queso manchego, mole, dried citron and walnuts. When Rosaura seeks to uphold the cruel family tradition of forbidding her only daughter from marrying, Tita’s anger is funneled into what can only be labeled a curse. Rosaura becomes a smelly ball of flatulence and bad odors that eventually leads to her death — freeing her daughter Esperanza to do what she pleases. Ox-tail soup brings Tita out of her selective mutism. 

The movie’s most iconic dish is a quail in rose petal sauce made with the petals of a bouquet Pedro gifts Tita. When Mama Elena demands Tita dispose of the flowers, Tita gets creative and repurposes them into the evening’s meal. Her excitement and desire from having received this token of affection from Pedro is funneled into the dish. When Tita’s other sister, Gertrudis, consumes it, she is overcome with a heatwave of desire. The fire radiating from inside her body engulfs the outhouse shower in flames and calls the attention of a revolutionary on horseback. He rides in and sweeps Gertrudis away naked. Tita and Pedro’s passion for one another is transmuted and consummated by these two surrogates. Thanks to Tita, Gertrudis finds love, escapes her mother’s authoritarian control and goes on to live a life that is her own.

Tita makes the deepest cuts, biggest impact and greatest healing through food. Through various dishes, she expresses her longing, hopes, pain, frustration and desires. Only those who can live without eating can avoid the power she holds. The book on which the movie is based begins each chapter with a different recipe and tips on how to best produce them. In the age of digital influencers and bloggers, the recipes beg to be turned into a journey of self-discovery.  

The possession of love, like a great meal, doesn’t last long. But the memory of it, and the potential of tasting it again fuels people to devote their whole lives in search of it. “Like Water for Chocolate,” is the rare film that provides you with the burning desire to experience everything you see onscreen — the love and the delicious delights. It’s a story that folds indigenous culture, Mexican cuisine and a love story into a sophisticated tale on Mexican identity. At a time when Mexican cuisine was narrowly defined as tacos, enchiladas and burritos, Esquivel showed us that it was so much more. 

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pop culture and food


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