Like Water For Chocolate: Does Passion Matter?
**First, a warning. I am going to spoil the living daylights out of some parts of this movie. If you can’t handle that, please watch it, and then return. The movie is excellent, and I would love to hear your thoughts on it.**
Imagine that you live on the US-Mexico border, in the era of the Mexican Revolution. There’s something in the air during a revolution, I imagine. A kind of boldness and danger and fragility that makes some people rebellious and others incredibly rigid. This is the setting for Como Agua Para Chocolate a 1992 film based on the novel of the same title by Mexican writer Laura Esquivel.
Like Water For Chocolate follows the story of Tita, a young, passionate woman stuck in an incredibly traditional family, and her forbidden love for Pedro. The lovers experience separation, misunderstanding and pain as they navigate the impossibilities of living around each other, unable to be a couple. Tita, a stable and consistent character, is always cooking, and in this story, where there is food, there is emotion (quite literally). Pedro does completely inscrutable things in order to stay near Tita, but the most important relationship in the story is not Tita and Pedro’s, it is Tita’s relationship with passion and its place in her life.
Tita spends the entirety of the novel in service to others. Even when she enjoys cooking, she’s doing it because it’s her responsibility to feed and nurture the people around her. I won’t get into the gendered reasoning for that lifestyle, because it isn’t very subtle. She’s a woman, in the early 1900s. Women did all the housework then, and whether or not that has changed is an argument that varies by location and time in the present. For Tita, it is a given. The most interesting thing then, is how she engages with that duty and what she makes of it.
It is possible to frame the movie around food entirely, since the meals Tita cooks throughout are a direct translation of the way she feels. *SPOILERS AHEAD, SERIOUSLY* The first meal in the story of major significance is Tita’s sister Rosaura’s wedding cake, for her marriage to Pedro. A wedding cake is huge, literally. It takes more eggs and patience than most people naturally possess in the first place, but to have to bake one for the love of your life to wed right under your nose can’t make it any easier. Crying into the cake batter as you cook? Expected. Magically transmitting the longing for the love of your life to the eaters? Not so much. There is certainly a stretch in any magical realist narrative, but in this case, I find the magic to be perfectly plausible. We frequently assume that passion, be it of the chef or eater, will change the way a meal tastes. That isn’t actually all that odd. In fact, we pay for the privilege of eating other people’s passion when we dine at the restaurants of the world’s culinary elite, imagining for ourselves a relationship, between chef and food, food and ourselves or ourselves and the chef, that augments the taste of our meal in our minds. More interesting than that is whether doing so is improper. Tita’s mother is enraged by the emotion eaten and endured by guests at the wedding, because she only wanted parts of Tita’s passion to show through. This isn’t new either. Women doing housework were (and are) expected to do so in a show of love and gratitude and sacrifice, but all of those are to be for family, a love that is often defined by its reciprocity, and one the recipient does not initiate or attempt to start. For Tita then, cooking is defiant, a rebellious undercurrent exists in her cooking. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this reclamation, but perhaps viewers can see it as subversive and wry. One of my favourite novels, God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy talks about “love laws” that dictate who and when we can love. Tita’s experiences as the cook and keeper of her family dance on those boundaries repeatedly throughout the film.
Take Gertrudis (Tita’s other sister), and Rosaura and Pedro’s baby. Gertrudis is where Tita and Pedro’s desire unfolds, and she benefits from the passion in the quails that Tita cooks, liberated from convention by the strange chemistry the meal causes in her. Later, she returns to free Tita herself, a sort of even exchange of empowerment between two sisters who care for each other. Rosaura’s baby is another body to be filled with Tita’s feelings, nursing from Tita, who is spontaneously able to nourish those around her, seemingly no matter what comes her way. Contrast this with Rosaura who Tita also feeds in a time of vulnerability, but who can’t enjoy Tita’s food, either because it’s cursed, or because she places expectations on everything else attached to the meals in a way that ruins the taste. Again, Tita’s passion exists as a constant in the alchemy of feelings into food, but the receipt of those emotions is tainted by the recipient, attempting to dictate not what Tita does (she must cook regardless) but the way she does it; they evaluate her performance based on their own expectations.
I think at times, we’re all guilty of this. We walk into a highly rated restaurant, one that we’ve seen on tv or a blog or in a movie, and we expect a kind of magical transference to occur. Unsurprisingly, as with everything else, perfection in food is an ever moving target. Notable then, is the way that Tita evaluates the food. She is always confident that it is good. She always serves it with supreme assurance in her own competence. For Tita (the cook) food is a way to obviate and channel emotion. For her family (the eaters) food is an emotional experience. The question is whether passion matters. Must a chef be passionate about the people to make perfect food? Can the reader bring passion to the table, or do they need to come as a blank slate? In this film, it’s mostly the former, since Pedro cannot bring his love for Tita to the table with the rest of the family; there are constraints on the appropriateness of his emotion. In real life, we expect passion. Food, like music, or anything else we might classify as art, is an exercise in translation, and a soulless, loveless meal is not unimaginable (for me it is something akin to economy airplane fare) or even abstract. Passion has become preeminent in the way that we discuss food. A lack of it bubbles beneath the surface in articles that question whether we consider food enough in our self-care, an overabundance exists when we berate an institution for being too “try hard”. At the end of the day, and indeed the film, Like Water for Chocolate asks us to consider passion and consumption. When is it okay to give in and be consumed by our consuming?