The 1993 release of Alfonso Arau’s film adaptation of his wife’s novel, Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) took place amidst an interesting set of circumstances: on the literary front, the early 1990s marked the rise of the female versions of magical realism, the type of narrative style popularized by male writers like Gabriel García Márquez, and which rendered depictions of everyday life suddenly uncanny and fantastical through the intervention of supernatural elements that did not faze the inhabitants of such fictional small towns. Women novelists like Chile’s Isabel Allende finally captured the global limelight, putting their own feminine and feminist spin on these tales of enhanced reality by suggesting that those tasks we traditionally read as part of “women’s work” may not be quite as banal as they may appear at first glance. Among this group of writers, Laura Esquivel, author of Like Water for Chocolate, achieved cross-over success by emphasizing the inherent magic in vernacular knowledge—such as kitchen lore—which had been disdained by women of means as well as the rising number of women now employed outside the home who were turning to prepared or fast food to feed their families rather than spend hours in the kitchen after a busy day at work. By using her fiction to conjure visions of an earlier time—the Mexican Revolution (1910-20)—when the modern nation was taking shape and women still possessed the traditional culinary secrets passed down the generations, Esquivel suggests that even those subject to unfair and sexist rules can exercise some measure of power by wielding the tools available to them, in this case, the kitchen, to achieve their own ends.
Arau’s film is a love story, set against the background of political unrest and unresolved family hostility. That is standard fare. Where it distinguishes itself from the countless other “costume dramas” that grace the screens of many a multiplex is in its unabashedly luscious depiction of cooking as a sensual, transformative process through which a set of humble ingredients become an appetizing meal. The film portrays home cooking as a culturally sanctioned activity that productively channels women’s creativity, comforts the sad and weary, and seduces by fully conveying the depths of one’s love and desire for a beloved in a delicious bite.
The genius of this particular film lies in its ability to celebrate both parts of the culinary equation: not just the cooking, but the consumption of the finished dishes as well. For, the eaters on the screen serve as stand-ins for the audience, and what better way to demonstrate the extent of the protagonist, Tita’s, remarkable culinary talent than by showing how much eating her food affects those who partake of it. Tita’s supernatural skill impacts not just her family, but members of her community as well, especially on those occasions where she prepares the food that accompanies large, public celebrations. Araujo’s film and Esquivel’s novel before it highlight the intimacy inherent in cooking and eating, a lot of which is lost when we consume mass-produced goods made by unseen hands (or machines). Both film and novel suggest that food—its preparation and its consumption—constitutes an embodied language of its own, whose codes can be deciphered in person (by smelling, hearing, tasting) or virtually, through the visual spectacle of the well composed dish and the manifest body language that conveys the eaters’ pleasure. The language of cooking and eating needs no subtitles; it can be read cross-culturally.
The film’s critical and commercial success still inspires other food-novel adaptations, following the formula of portraying women as having an innately mystical relationship to food and/or cooking. Among such works are Lasse Hallstrom’s adaptation of Joanne Harris’ novel Chocolat, released in 2000 and starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche; and Paul Berges’ 2005 adaptation of the novel The Mistress of Spices, written by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, and starring Aishwarya Ray Bachchan and Dylan McDermott, fresh off his stint playing the lead in the TV series The Practice. As of September 2014, a film adaptation of Aimee Bender’s novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, is in production.
I would argue, that regardless of any other flaws they may have, where these films fall short of the original Like Water for Chocolate’s spell-binding effect, is in their effort to translate another country’s foodways for American audiences, all the while trying to dramatize the trials and tribulations of cross-cultural attraction and romance. By drawing global audiences into the world of a very specific and turbulent period in Mexico’s history—its Revolution—and making us work hard to follow the story along by reading the subtitles, Like Water for Chocolate reminds its viewers that they are but guests at this gathering. None of the featured dishes match our expectation for what Mexican cuisine should be, based on our limited exposure to that country’s regional specialties. The promised reward of commensality, though virtual, makes the effort well worth it.