Romance, Revolution and Border Cuisine BY PAT LITTLEDOG LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE By Laura Esquivel translated by Carol Christensen and Tomas Christensen 245 pp. New York: Doubleday, 1992. $17.50. FIRST TAKE AN OLD COOKBOOK handed down through a family for a couple of generations; gather some old sto ries and gossip surrounding its author; add an ear for words, a few tears, a little blood and your first novel becomes a best-seller, if you’re Laura Esquivel. Maybe the trick is in knowing the conversions, a facility that develops easily in the Piedras Negras/Eagle Pass territory of the novel’s setting, where you don’t have to be a cook to know that a pound equals 460 grams and a pint is the same as a quarter of a liter. Certainly Esquivel was able to convert her story from book to movie script with remarkable ease. It also helps to have the wherewithal the wealthy ranchero background and movie-making husband to serve it up quickly to large audiences. And the timing is important, so that the translation and the movie hit the international markets at about the same time. But there’s something else going on here, too, an invisible force behind this simple love story couched in recipes, household cleaning rituals and remedies, that causes a reader such as myself to cry right along with the heroine Tita, a young cook quite susceptible to onions and repressed emotion. But then I’m a true believer, with romance and chocolate my own most preferred remedies for lonely nights. And this book has plenty of both. While Tita makes mole, she and the love of her life Pedro smoulder and heave at each other under the watchful eye of Mama Elena, who has declared that Tita should never marry, but sacrifice her personal desires to the tradition of service. As the youngest daughter, she is the one to take care of her mother unto death, a tradition which Tita herself questions but to which Pedro responds by marrying her sister Rosaura in order to stay close tothe one he really loves. The resulting living arrangement, even given the largeness of the two Pat LittleDog is a freelance writer in Austin. story ranch house sitting on its three hectares or 7,413 acres is claustrophobic. And revolution is raging in the neighborhood as well as in Tita’s heart. Under the scrutiny of Esquivel’ s point of view, the rigid woman Elena comes out quite the villain, but I think she should be given a break a widowed woman in the midst of ranchhands in a whole lot of border nowhere with three beautiful daughters. The burst of estrogen that results when such as these all come of age at once is considered a negative energy by most cultures and a force to galvanize the iron out from the parental bone. This mother attempts to maintain her rule with Carreno’s book of etiquette in one hand a shotgun in the other. But first, her poultry yard is invaded by Villistas. Then both she and her servant Chencha are attacked by bandidos. And Tita’ s passion becomes so contagious that she breathes it into her Quails in Rose Petal Sauce and causes her sister Gertrudis to run away to work in a border bordello, thereby liberating her sexuality, and then to join one of the northern revolutionary armies where she rises quickly to the rank of general and learns to dance to the polka “Jesusita in Chihuahua.” The success of the quail recipe inspires Tita to write it down and so begin her own cookbook. There is a great deal of border crossing here on several levels. The children swim back and forth across the Rio Grande as a game. The adults roam across the bridge at will. Although the ranch is in Mexico, the family physician, Dr. John Brown, lives in Eagle Pass. And Pedro, because of his education and flawless English as well as his excessive emotion will be banished to a job in San Antonio as an accountant. The laws of social arrangement Mama Elena attempts to maintain might be Hispanic, but the heart of the kitchen is Indian, embodied in the 85-yearold cook Nacha a kind of fairy godmother to Tita raising her when her mother has no breast milk and teaching her to eat such stuff that isn’t fed to rest of the family as jumil bugs, maguey worms and armadillos. Dr. John Brown, who challenges Pedro for Tita’s affections, embodies a mixture of two healing traditions, one learned from a Kikapu grandmother, a captured live-in who studied the curative properties of plants, the other from a line of doctors which included a great grandmother who knew how to use leeches. His recipe for making matches and extracting phosphorus from urine are added to Tita’s growing boa. And the key to Mama Elena’s repressive personality is contained in her own secret history, a time when she crossed the line into indiscretion for a mulatto lover from the colony of Negroes who had fled the Civil War in Texas and settled near the ranch, causing her own parents to sentence her to a loveless and hasty marriage. Certainly it is this mix of cultural elements that makes the de la Garza family history lively and Tita’s cookbook unique with its mix of culinary elements: six kinds of chiles, three kinds of chocolate beans, orpiment, benzoin and calafonia for the gold tint of fancy envelopes, tepezcohuite bark for burns, canned sardines. Are these recipes capable of making great change, as Esquivel tells it? A disclaimer at the beginning of the book says they haven’t been tested out by the publisher. And the exaggerations and distortions which seem to be embedded in this history might be traced to Chencha the maid, who is also a teller of ghost stories, fabulous tales and family gossip. Tita’s crocheted bedspread, for instance, begun with thoughts of her own wedding, stretches over the years to more than a kilometer and by the end of the book covers the whole ranch. But her sister Gertrudis, the product of the mother’s illicit affair, points out that truth depends on who’s telling it, just like a recipe depends on the particular mood of the cook, in what is held back and what is expressed. And Esquivel has me believing by her final chapter that beans prepared during anger will stay hard and won’t cook, but will soften if they are sung to which is also the way that trash romance and dubious history, mixed with common matrilineal wisdom, can become a classic survival book. The Texas Observer is now offering velox reproductions of its covers for just $10. If you are interested in beginning a collection, contact Stephan Wanstrom at 477-0746. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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