Subversion in the Kitchen: Food Preparation as a Mode of Feminist Expression

Spring 2012

Article 5 of 5

Toyin Ola

Toyin Ola is a senior at John Hopkins University majoring in English and Spanish with a minor in Spanish for the Professions. 19th-century British and Victorian literature are her primary interests. She also enjoys exploring Latin American literature.

Given that the kitchen is the stereotypical ideal place for a “proper” woman, it is curious that Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, which is mainly set in the De la Garza kitchen and primarily models its structure after a cookbook, is sometimes considered a feminist novel. Writing after the boom of Spanish and Latin American literature in the 1960s and 1970s, Esquivel is often classified as a post-boom or boom femenino author. Unlike the boom narratives, which are often characterized by their “complex and inaccessible forms of writing” and “philosophizing,” post-boom authors “[gravitate] towards plot-centredness and chronological structure” in order to “provide greater accessibility than did the typical boom novel” (Finnegan 2). This lighter writing style has caused many “high-brow critics and the general reader alike” to dismiss Esquivel’s novel as cheap and commercialist (Finnegan 4). However, this is not the case. Esquivel has cleverly disguised her subversive message in what is typically thought of as the center of the female “cult of domesticity”: the kitchen. By centering the plot on a recognizably female space, Esquivel “[makes] the feminist discourse sensitive to a demographically diverse feminist readership while continuing to modify patriarchal systems” (Schneider 2).  Therefore, by examining how the De la Garza women use the kitchen, as well as their relationships with food, it becomes clear that Esquivel’s kitchen-centered plot promotes a more accessible type of feminism in which cooking and use of the kitchen is not representative of passive femininity but a way to subvert female social norms.

Contrary to traditional beliefs about a woman’s place in the kitchen, Tita’s presence in the kitchen does not represent passive submission—her culinary creations literally cause action. Although she does not dare to verbalize her disgust as she prepares for her sister, Rosaura, and her lover, Pedro, to wed, for fear of Mama Elena’s wrath, Tita is able to channel her ill will into the wedding cake. The wedding cake, tainted by Tita’s tears, not only causes the guests to feel “a great wave of longing,” but also “an acute attack of pain and frustration” and violent vomiting akin to a volcanic eruption (Esquivel 39-40). Unfortunately, the effects are also powerful enough to cause the death of Tita’s constant companion, Nancha. Tita’s first encounter with her special ability to communicate through food can hardly be described as premeditated. It is purely by accident that Tita ruins her sister’s unjust wedding. Once the reception is over, she is “more worried about saving her skin than anything else” since Mama Elena viciously beats her for having supposedly added an emetic to the cake (41). However, once she discovers her ability to channel her emotions through food, Tita is sure to use it to her advantage. Upon receiving a congratulatory bouquet of roses from Pedro, Tita determines not to throw away the flowers, even though “with just a look” Mama Elena tells her to get rid of the roses (48). Instead, Tita recalls one of Nancha’s “prehispanic recipe[s] involving rose petals” and “decides to reverse it slightly, just so she could use the flowers” (49). That meal of quails with rose sauce creates such a burning passion within Gertrudis, Tita’s eldest sister, that Gertrudis not only sets the shower on fire (as she attempts to cool down) but also spends several years in a brothel before she is finally able to satisfy her desires. In this way, Tita is able to enter “Pedro’s body, hot, voluptuous, perfumed, totally sensuous” using “poor Gertrudis [as] the medium, the conducting body through which the singular sexual message [is] passed” (52). Consequently, cooking becomes a medium through which Tita can transmit her subversive desire to have a sexual relationship with her sister’s husband.

Despite her premature birth due to excessive crying and an extreme sensitivity to onions, Tita is not a weak-willed, overly sentimental female.  Sadness and romantic love are not the only emotions she conveys through her cooking. When Rosaura makes one of her rare appearances in the kitchen in order to confront Tita, Tita surprises her sister by welcoming her company and openly accusing Rosaura of stealing her boyfriend, Pedro. As Tita proclaims, “I’m going to break with it several more times if I have to, as long as this cursed tradition doesn’t take me into account. I had the same right to marry as you did, and you had no right to stand between two people who were deeply in love” (213). Rosaura retaliates by taking “one of the things Tita loved most in the world” – her daughter, Esperanza -  with a simple declaration that Tita will never again be allowed to feed her (215). Later, as Tita prepares dinner, the beans she attempts to cook are affected by her anguish over the loss of Esperanza. One might expect these beans to express sadness and longing, as in the case of Rosaura’s wedding cake, but, instead, they are angry and refuse to cook.  As she sings a happy song and recalls the joyous occasion when she and Pedro finally consummated their illicit love in Mama Elena’s “dark room” next to the kitchen, the “bean liquor [boils] madly. The beans [allow] the liquid…to penetrate them; they swell until they [are] about to burst” (219). The tortillas that Tita shreds for the chickens as she argues with Rosaura cause an even stronger effect. Once the chickens eat these enraged tortillas, a frenzied fight erupts that culminates in a chicken tornado that destroys Esperanza’s diapers drying on the clothesline and “[lifts Tita] several feet off the ground and [takes] her on three hellish orbits within the fury of beaks before flinging her onto the opposite end of the patio, where she [lands] like a sack of potatoes” (218). These are not timid, stereotypically female reactions—they are intense sentiments of rage. By acting in this manner, Tita’s beans and tortillas not only express her rage over Rosaura’s injustice but also seem to validate the happiness that she derives from consummating her improper affair with Pedro.

Some male critics have suggested that Esquivel’s use of magical realism in Like Water for Chocolate " never would have been written without the precedent of Cien años de soledad"—as if to say magical realism is specifically male and Esquivel’s use of it confirms male literary prowess (Ibsen 133). However, the specific way in which Esquivel utilizes magical realism negates this sort of accusation. One must note that she almost exclusively confines her usage of magical realism to the kitchen—a gendered space of which Gabriel García Márquez most likely would not readily take possession. By limiting her use of magical realism to her female characters and the female atmosphere of the kitchen, Esquivel demonstrates that women can appropriate the techniques of magical realism and make them uniquely female. Moreover, she makes her use of magical realism as a tool to subvert traditional female roles/attitudes more acceptable to her Mexican readership.

Although Like Water for Chocolate is largely Tita’s story, it is worth examining Gertrudis’ relationship with the kitchen and food. Gertrudis is certainly the most unconventional female in the novel. She runs away from her mother’s ranch with a strange soldier on horseback (while completely naked), works in a brothel until her sexual desires are fulfilled, and becomes a general in the revolutionary army before eventually marrying Juan, the mysterious soldier who first carried her away from home, and having children. Despite her consistently untraditional roles, Gertrudis is featured in the kitchen. Although Gertrudis’ appearance in the kitchen is isolated to the one evening where she must take over the preparation of the cream fritters while Tita confesses her pregnancy to Pedro, it is still significant. It is not important that Gertrudis “read[s] this recipe as if she were reading hieroglyphics”; it just matters that she, a female who contradicts almost every guideline for how a proper woman should behave, appears in the kitchen (192). Her very presence proves that Esquivel does not construct the De la Garza kitchen as a space in which the Victorian “angel in the house” image of the ideal woman is to be perpetuated. While the kitchen is a female space, in that only females are featured in the kitchen (with the exception of Sergeant Treviño who discovers how to determine when the caramel sauce for the fritters is in the “ball stage”), it is not a traditionally feminine space that reinforces what society dictates are the norms for female behavior.

Mama Elena’s relationship with the kitchen - and the food it produces - is probably the most interesting. Although she is preoccupied with maintaining the family tradition and outward appearances of propriety, she certainly could not be classified as an “angel in the home.” For one, Tita eventually learns, after Mama Elena’s death, that her mother had a rather rebellious “black past” that consisted of a long-term, extramarital love affair with a man with “Negro blood” and Gertrudis’ illegitimate birth (180,137). Moreover, as the matriarch of the fatherless family, Mama Elena is anything but submissive. She is fully aware of the authority she possesses and is not afraid to exercise it. In almost every interaction she has, she is seeking domination or mastery over the person (usually Tita) with whom she is interacting. This determination to master continues in the kitchen.

Although Mama Elena is not frequently portrayed as an active participant in food preparation, she does occasionally go into the kitchen. Whenever she is depicted in the kitchen, she is roughly, almost violently, handling the food. As Tita tries to humanely kill the quails for her quails in rose sauce recipe, she recalls her mother’s adeptness at wringing necks: “It occurred to her that she could use her mother’s strength right now. Mama Elena was merciless, killing with a single blow” (49). Mama Elena’s fierceness does not stop with the living animals; she is also hostile with the inanimate ingredients:

The only person [Tita] knew who could do it without any sign of fatigue was Mama Elena. Not only could she crack sack after sack of nuts in a short time, she seemed to take great pleasure in doing it. Applying pressure, smashing to bits, skinning, those were among her favorite activities. The hours just flew by when she sat on the patio with a sack of nuts between her legs, not getting up until she was done with it. (230)

If Esquivel means to portray the De la Garza kitchen as an atypical female space, Mama Elena’s aggressive cooking style is certainly not an ill fit. However, the fact that Mama Elena’s cooking is not simply awkward, as in the case of Gertrudis, but violent requires examination. Mama Elena is never described as enjoying her food. Moreover, her mistrust of food is ultimately the cause of her death as she habitually takes ipecac syrup to avoid being poisoned by Tita’s supposedly bitter food. One could suggest that her perpetual disapproval of her own daughter, Tita, is the main cause for her turbulent relationship with food since Tita is the main cook in the house; however, Mama Elena’s dissatisfaction with food seems to stem from her desire to suppress her unconventional behaviors. If cooking/food represent subversive or deviant female behavior, then Mama Elena’s refusal to enjoy food reflects her refusal to embrace those aspects of her life that challenge traditional social norms. Unlike Tita and Gertrudis, she goes to great lengths to hide her extramarital love—as is demonstrated by her severe punishment of Tita when she unknowingly uncovers the box containing evidence of Mama Elena’s illicit love affair during a game of hide-and-seek. However, this explanation of Mama Elena’s brusque cooking style and troubled relationship with food does not discount her obvious dislike of Tita. Instead, they are interconnected since Tita, and her ongoing affair with Pedro, most likely remind Mama Elena of the frustrated love affair and “black past” that she desperately tries to hide.

Of all the women in the novel, Rosaura is the only one who never attains any sort of culinary success in the kitchen. She does not possess her mother’s neck-breaking prowess or nut-cracking perseverance, and the only meal that she ever attempts to cook is practically inedible. Furthermore, all of Rosaura’s encounters with food are described as negative or illness-inducing and serious digestive problems are cited as the cause of her death. If one reads the kitchen as the center for subversion in the De la Garza family, it is no wonder that Rosaura is completely uncomfortable in that environment. Rosaura’s sole concern is maintaining her appearance as an ideal woman, wife, and mother in the community. This obsession with upholding her appearance in society literally dictates all of her decisions. For example, Rosaura only allows Esperanza to attend school after she determines that it will allow her to associate with society’s upper classes. Furthermore, she declares that “[she] couldn’t care less if [Tita] and Pedro go to hell for sneaking around kissing in every corner…as long as nobody finds out about it” and she is not put into the role of laughingstock. Moreover, she only feels compelled to make this declaration after her closest neighbors witness Tita’s loving reaction when Pedro is burned by Mama Elena’s ghost (214). Given that cooking is neither a public activity nor an activity that is required in order to be viewed favorably in society, it is not surprising that Rosaura stays away from the kitchen. Additionally, cooking is often an expression of passion and strength—qualities that are not necessarily applauded in an “ideal” woman.

Part of Rosaura’s complete ineptitude in the kitchen can be attributed to her perpetual lack of action as well. The kitchen is a place of action, while Rosaura is consistently passive. Throughout the novel, she never maintains an unwavering position, especially when it comes to her only living child. During their heated kitchen fight, Rosaura, determined to cause Tita the most harm, declares that her sister will never feed Esperanza again. However, Rosaura does not remain firm on this issue and agrees “to share Esperanza with [Tita], as follows: Tita [will] be in charge of feeding the child, Rosaura of her education” (237). Rosaura is unable to retain her part of this treaty as well. Tita takes advantage of Esperanza’s preference for the kitchen “to provide the child with a different sort of knowledge than her mother was teaching her.” She also convinces Rosaura to continue Esperanza’s formal schooling under the pretense of learning to make “agreeable and amusing conversation” so that she will “captivate everyone and always be welcome among the upper class” (239). Ultimately, Rosaura relinquishes her last, and probably most prized, bit of control over Esperanza when she dies three days into “the most violent and heartrending battle” concerning whether or not Esperanza should be allowed to break tradition in order to marry Alex Brown (239). When faced with difficult decisions, Rosaura always concedes. When she is finally faced with an issue with which she cannot bear to compromise, she dies rather than taking action.

As Rosaura continuously avoids the activity of the kitchen, her daughter eagerly seeks it. Due to that fact that Rosaura’s command that the newborn Esperanza should be brought to her bed after being fed “[comes] too late,” Esperanza “[is] used to being in the kitchen” from an early age (147).  This immediate love of the kitchen is indicative of a strong personality. Even as a baby, Esperanza has an active presence and does not allow her mother’s wishes to be imposed on her. When Rosaura demands that the child be brought to her room, Esperanza cries “to such a point that Tita [has] to carry the stew she [is] cooking up to the bedroom, so they [can] fool the child, who [is] lulled to sleep by the smell and sensation of warmth from the pan” (148). Although the novel does not devote much time to watching Esperanza’s adult personality develop, it is not unreasonable to assume that she would have broken with tradition by marrying Alex, even if her mother had lived, given that she consents to his courtship while Rosaura is still alive. Hence, just as with her aunt Tita, Esperanza’s love of the kitchen parallels her willingness to pursue her desires despite what others dictate is proper behavior.

While most feminist literature would view the kitchen as a space that oppresses women and limits their opportunities, Esquivel fashions the De la Garza kitchen as a hotbed for subversive action. Only strong, independent women who are willing to break with traditional values are allowed in this space. Although it may seem strange to choose food preparation, a stereotypical female duty, as the main method through which the women in Like Water for Chocolate are able to express their controversial ideas, one must take into account the audience for whom Esquivel originally writes: Mexican women who have almost certainly grown up with a very strong tradition of what is appropriate behavior for a proper woman. Esquivel does not take for granted the power of family values and tradition but rather incorporates them into her novel. By doing so, she creates a familiar atmosphere that most likely resembles the lives of some of her intended audience—making them more receptive to her empowering messages and creating a more culturally-competent feminism. 

Works Cited

Esquivel, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate. Trans. Carol and Thomas Christensen. N.p: Anchor, 1992. Print.

Finnegan, Nuala. Introduction. The Boom Femenino in Mexico: Reading Contemporary Women's Writing. Ed. Nuala Finnegan and Jane E. Lavery. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2010. 2-19. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, n.d. Web. 6 May 2011. <http://www.c-s-p.org/flyers/978-1-4438-2125-4-sample.pdf>.

Ibsen, Kristine. "On Recipes, Reading and Revolution: Postboom Parody in Como Agua Para Chocolate." Hispanic Review 63.2 (1995): 133-46. JSTOR. Web. 6 May 2011.

Schneider, Julia Maria. "Recreating the Image of Women in Mexico: A Genealogy of Resistance in Mexican Narrative Set During the Revolution." MA thesis. Louisiana State University, 2010. LSU Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Library, n.d. Web. 6 May 2011. <http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-04142010-170734/unrestricted/schneiderthesis.pdf>.